by Nathan Rush
Ohio State (6–6) vs. Florida (6–6)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
Coined the “Urban Meyer Bowl” this year’s Gator Bowl pits the two-time BCS national title-winning coach’s former team, Florida, where he coached from 2005-10, against his new team, Ohio State, where he will coach beginning in 2012.
The Buckeyes had national championship aspirations for 2011. After all, coach Jim Tressel had proven capable of winning it all and quarterback Terrell Pryor was returning for his senior season.
But those expectations vanished faster than TP2’s black-on-black Nissan 350Z, after NCAA investigation led to Tressel being fired, Pryor entering the NFL supplemental draft and OSU’s top playmakers — running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey — being suspended indefinitely. Interim coach Luke Fickell took over a program backpedaling in shambles, but was still able to lead the Buckeyes to a bowl.
Gator Nation was sad to see Meyer “retire” after the 2010 season, but excited about the arrival of Will Muschamp — an energetic then-39-year-old defensive coordinator who had won a BCS title at LSU under Nick Saban and been the head coach in-waiting at Texas under Mack Brown before arriving in Gainesville. Muschamp also brought three-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis with him to the Swamp.
Many expected the Gators to contend for the SEC East title and possibly a BCS berth. But those illusions of grandeur were quickly squashed, as UF lost six of its last eight games. The Gators only notched one win against a team in a bowl this year — a 26–21 nail-biter over Vanderbilt.
Both traditional football powers have fallen on hard times, with identical 6–6 records, and will need to win this rematch of the BCS national title game following the 2006 season — when the Gators upset the Buckeyes, 41–14 — in order to avoid a losing mark. Florida has not finished below .500 since 1979, while Ohio State’s last losing season was in 1988.
WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL:
After being suspended for the first six games of the season, “Boom” Herron exploded onto the scene to rush for 596 yards and three TDs over the last six contests — including a 160-yard workhorse effort against Wisconsin, OSU’s best win of the year. Last season, Herron totaled 1,155 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. This will be the 5’10”, 205-pounder’s final game in scarlet and gray, expect him to see plenty of action running behind a quality O-line led by center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.
Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has been Pryor-lite this year, passing for 997 yards, 11 TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for another 695 yards and seven TDs on the ground. The stage is set for a coming out party of sorts for the 6’3”, 210-pound Huber Heights, Ohio, native. The Buckeyes have no receivers of note, with only three players catching over 10 passes this year.
Florida’s defense ranks ninth in the nation (299.58 ypg) and 25th in scoring (20.58 ppg), but has been susceptible to the run, ranking 40th (132.33 ypg). With so many four- and five-star recruits, more “splash” plays were expected from the Gators stop-unit, which had only eight INTs and four fumble recoveries this season. Linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Matt Elam have been the best of the bunch.
WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL:
Following Weis’ departure for Kansas, interim offensive coordinator Brian White will call the shots in the Gator Bowl, which will be quarterback John Brantley’s last stand. The one-time Texas commit and longtime Tim Tebow backup was never able to put it all together at Florida — passing for 1,912 yards, 10 TDs and six INTs in his final campaign. True freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are waiting in the wings if the oft-fragile Brantley goes down again.
There is plenty of speed in the backfield, with 2010 NCAA Indoor Track 60-meter champ (6.56 seconds) Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combining to rush for 1,329 yards and eight TDs this season. Both runners are a threat to take it the distance at any time. Receiver Andre Debose is also a big-play threat, with 423 yards and four TDs on just 15 catches (28.2 ypc).
Ohio State has struggled against the run, allowing 142.42 yards per game. However, the Buckeyes did limit Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball to just 85 yards. End John Simon has been disruptive, with seven sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. In a down year for the Buckeyes, Simon, safety C.J. Barnett and linebacker Andrew Sweat were the only defenders to be named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten.
Gators kicker Caleb Sturgis was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, after connecting on 21-of-25 field goals — including three from beyond 50 yards — and all 28 extra points this year. Demps (25.0 ypr, 99-yard TD vs. Georgia) is a dangerous kick returner, as are Rainey and Solomon Patton. Rainey has a punt return TD as well.
Ohio State’s Jordan Hall gives the Bucks solid starting field position on kick returns (28.1 ypr), and kicker Drew Basil is adequate (15-of-18 FGs). But there are no Joey Galloways or Mike Nugents on special teams for OSU.
Meyer’s new team will ground-and-pound his old squad, as Muschamp’s first season train wreck ends in a Gator Bowl loss. After a bitter start to the season, Ohio State’s year will end with a sweet win over Florida, its most-hated intersectional rival.
Ohio State 27, Florida 20