Saturday, September 5th, 7:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: In what appears to be a monumental mismatch to begin the season, the defending national champion Florida Gators carry the nation's top ranking into Saturday's clash with FCS foe Charleston Southern. This game marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs on the gridiron.
The Buccaneers finished 7-5 last season thanks to wins in the final four games, and they represent the Big South Conference. Still, the disparity in talent between the Bucs and Saturday's powerhouse opponent seems to be vast.
"Not very many people have the opportunity to play for a program like Florida, so it is really special for us to give our players the chance to play against them," said head coach Jay Mills recently.
Defending its third national title in school history, Florida hopes to extend its SEC-best opening-day winning streak to 20 games.
The Gators were completely dominant last season, with the exception of the lone loss to Ole Miss. Even the national title game against Oklahoma was no contest, as the Florida defense held a record-setting offense to 14 points. That Gator defense, which ranked fourth in points allowed last season, welcomes back all 11 starters, and there are plenty of returnees for the nation's fourth-ranked scoring offense as well.
It is extremely difficult to go undefeated in a college football season, especially for a team that plays in the brutal SEC. But the Gators are the clear choice to win the national title once again in 2009. "Absolutely, the expectations worry me, but people's expectations are not the pride of the program," says head coach Urban Meyer. "The pride of the program is our players."
Mills recently named redshirt junior A.J. Toscano the starting quarterback of the Buccaneers, at least for this opener against Florida. Toscano is a transfer student who played just one game against Savannah State last season before taking a medical redshirt. He completed seven of his 11 passes for 74 yards with one touchdown and one interception during that lone showing.
"He has a really good knowledge of our offense," said coach Mills. "If that knowledge translates onto the field during game day, which I trust that it will, A.J. will perform very well. He has a mastery of not only his position, but everyone else on the field."
"I feel very confident about what we are doing offensively," said Toscano after learning of the starting nod. "I think we all have really high expectations this year."
Toscano has reason to be confident, as seven of the team's top eight pass catchers from 2008 are back. Gerald Stevenson is the best of the bunch, as he logged 45 catches for 551 yards and nine touchdowns last season. No Buc rushed for more than 380 yards last season, so it remains to be seen if a backfield- by-committee approach will prevail again in 2009.
The strength of the Charleston Southern defense may very well be the linebackers, as the unit returns a wealth of talent. The focus, of course, is All-Big South performer Andrew McKain, who led the club last year with 74 tackles. Add Fred Godfrey and David Jackson to the mix and the Bucs are stacked at that defensive tier.
"We are really excited about the guys we have at linebacker," said coach Mills recently. "Going into the season this is the position we feel most comfortable with, which allows us to build our defense around them."
Opponents scored 22.3 ppg against Charleston Southern in 2008, and while that figure is acceptable, the Bucs believe that they can do better. Up front, the middle of the defensive line is young and unproven, so don't be surprised if Florida runs the ball straight ahead against the Bucs. Ryan Ard, a converted tight end, is back to play defensive end after missing most of last season due to injury.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is a legend, and the legend figures to grow in this, his senior season. As a freshman, Tebow helped the Gators win the national title. As a sophomore, he won the Heisman Trophy, the first sophomore ever to do so. Last season, he was outstanding under center once again, leading the team to the championship with both his skill and his desire. Tebow finished with 30 touchdown passes, 12 touchdown runs and only four interceptions.
"Our focus is to get better every day," said Tebow recently. "How can we be the best team, best player, best unit we can be? Not how we can get by. I think that's our mind set. If we do that, I think we'll be successful."
Among the many other returning weapons for the Florida offense are Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Riley Cooper. Rainey and Demps made major contributions last season as freshmen, and the speedsters will once again share the load in the backfield along with Emmanuel Moody. Cooper had only 18 catches and scored three touchdowns last season, but those numbers figure to rise considerably in 2009 with the loss of some big-time receivers.
"We gave up a lot of yards last year," said Meyer of the 2008 Florida defense. "Relatively, I guess it's not that much, but I just think we all know we could do much better. Our goal is to give a little bit more and not be so much of a bend-but-don't-break defense."
The star of the UF defense is linebacker Brandon Spikes, who surprised many be passing on the NFL to return for one more season in Gainesville. Spikes led the club with 93 tackles a year ago, including eight TFLs, and he intercepted four passes as well. The defensive backfield is loaded with both talent and depth.
The fact that there are five stellar safeties on the roster is downright scary. Ahmad Black picked off seven passes last season, and he will line up next to Major Wright. Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins are both tremendous corners. Carlos Dunlap is a standout defensive end and one of many reasons that the Gators have a chance to be dominant. Not only is Florida big and strong up front, but the linemen are all incredibly quick.
Florida could score 100 points in this game if Meyer doesn't call off the dogs, which he will likely do fairly early in the second half. Charleston Southern will come away from this game with three things: money, national exposure and a severe beating.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 77, Charleston Southern 0
09/02 10:30:38 ET