GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida cornerback Reggie Lewis had 14 voicemails and 22 text messages waiting for him after the Southeastern Conference championship game.
He expects even more after what happened Sunday night.
The second-ranked Gators were selected to play No. 1 Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8. Players and coaches waited all day for official word, and when it finally came, they had reason to celebrate -- again.
"It doesn't get any better than this, being a senior, going to the SEC championship and winning and making a lot of noise and then getting to the big game," Lewis said. "Now, we've got one more step and that's to bring home that title."
The Gators (12-1) ended a 10-year title game hiatus, earning their first trip to the championship game since beating rival Florida State in a much-debated rematch following the 1996 season.
Since then, Florida endured the loss of coach Steve Spurrier, three underachieving years under Ron Zook and then another coaching change. The players hoped things would change under coach Urban Meyer.
They never thought it would happen this soon.
"We've been through a lot," Lewis said. "Nobody's been through more than what we've been through, as far as the seniors. We've been here for 4 1/4 years and we had a lot more downs than ups. This year, we ended with a bang. We won the SEC championship and we're getting a chance to play for the national title. Our next thing now is to bring that title back to Gainesville. If we do that, it can put all that past history behind."
Meyer spent the last few weeks stating his case for why the Gators deserved to be in the title game over Michigan, which lost to the Buckeyes on Nov. 18.
Players, meanwhile, figured they were at best long shots to get to Arizona.
They needed UCLA to upset USC on Saturday, then had to beat Arkansas somewhat convincingly in the SEC title game to have a shot.
But the Gators still didn't know for sure until the selection show Sunday night.
"The wait wasn't too bad," receiver Dallas Baker said. "We won the SEC championship, so we were still happy about that. We were anxious, but it wasn't too nerve-racking."
Linebacker Brandon Siler jumped out of his chair, exchanged high-fives with teammates and was the first to congratulate Meyer. Siler then led the Gators in a rendition of the fight song and was one of the last ones to leave the stadium.
Siler said it still hadn't sunk in.
"Once I get away from everybody and I'm on the way to my car it will probably hit me and I'll be screaming out loud and somebody will look at me crazy," Siler said.
But he added that whatever looks he's getting nowadays don't compare to those he got when the Gators had three straight five-loss seasons before Meyer took over two years ago.
"It's a big difference and it's a long ways," Siler said. "This program right now is taking strides and putting us back to where we're supposed to be. This is where Florida belongs. Florida belongs in the SEC championship game and winning the SEC championship and going on to play in the national championship."
Meyer arrived home from Atlanta around 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, slept about three hours on the couch and then got up and started working. He spent most of the day checking to see if his team would pass Michigan in the polls -- something he figured would be a good indicator for the latest BCS rankings.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley finally gave him the good news later in the day.
"We knew the guy was a winner," Foley said. "It wasn't a matter of if with Urban, it was when. Obviously, the when with the SEC title was (Saturday night). The national title, time will tell. I see how hard he works. I see the program he's building. I see his staff. I see how the players relate to him. I see the recruiting effort, so I'm not surprised.
"Second year? That's the icing on the cake. That's awesome. That's a reflection on these kids and the coach. Urban Meyer's a winner, plain and simple."