GAME: Florida Gators (12-1) vs Oklahoma Sooners (12-1)
DATE/TIME: Thursday, January 08 - 8:00 PM EST
SPREAD: Oklahoma 5.5 TOTAL: 69.5
The BCS championship game participants are the subject of some controversy for the third straight season. Unlike the past two years, that's taken a back seat to the matchup of Florida and Oklahoma - one that appears to be one of the contest's most compelling showdowns in some time.
In producing a battle between Tim Tebow-led Florida and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford's Oklahoma squad, the BCS has a dream meeting of superstar quarterbacks and high-powered offenses set for Jan. 8 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
The teams earned their spots in the title game by dominating college football over the final two months. Second-ranked Oklahoma (12-1) scored at least 58 points in each of its last six games, winning by an average of 33.3 points. The Sooners, winners of seven in a row overall, pounded then-unbeaten and No. 2 Texas Tech 65-21 on Nov. 22, and followed that with blowouts of then-No. 11 Oklahoma State and then-No. 19 Missouri in the Big 12 title game.
Oklahoma's current stretch of four straight 60-point games is the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision since Tulsa had five in a row in 1919.
Top-ranked Florida (12-1), meanwhile, won its final nine games and knocked off then-No. 1 Alabama in the SEC championship game as it earned a chance to play for its second BCS title in three seasons.
"I'm just really honored and excited to be here," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "Everybody involved with this bowl game is just first-class and coming to the city of Miami is always a fantastic experience. We're excited about it ... it's exciting for the competition and challenge of it."
Stoops will be seeking his second national title, the first coming when Oklahoma defeated Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl, but his last two trips to the championship game didn't go nearly as well. The Sooners were pounded 55-19 by Southern California in the Orange Bowl in 2005 and fell 21-14 to LSU in the '04 Sugar Bowl.
While there again were some questions raised about whether the right teams will play for the title this season, this matchup is much less controversial than the last two championship contests, which saw lopsided wins over Ohio State by Florida in 2006 and LSU last year. Both finalists were hotly debated each time, arguments that weren't necessarily settled by the games' results.
Texas, edged out by the Gators for the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings this year, felt it deserved the spot in Miami because it dealt Oklahoma its only loss - coming when the Sooners were ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. And USC, fifth behind Alabama in the BCS, can make the case that it's been overlooked despite possessing the nation's best defense that allowed 7.8 points per game.
The overpowering performances of Florida and Oklahoma down the stretch, however, proved to be the decisive factors.
"We beat five ranked teams and three ranked teams as the last three games of the year," Stoops said. "That decided it."
Stoops' squad has looked unstoppable since the loss to the Longhorns. The Sooners made it look easy at times despite playing in the Big 12 South, the toughest division in the country this season, as they rode an overwhelming offense into the championship game.
Bradford led the nation with 48 touchdown passes while throwing just six interceptions. He topped the country with a 186.3 efficiency rating and was second with 4,464 passing yards.
Six Oklahoma receivers had at least 395 yards, and four totaled more than 600. Bradford's favorite targets were Juaquin Iglesias (1,092 yards, 10 touchdowns), Jermaine Gresham (888, 12), Manuel Johnson (685, 9, 18.0-yard per-catch average) and Ryan Broyles (661, 6 TDs).
The Sooners are anything but one-dimensional offensively, as they also featured a versatile and prolific running attack this season, although that running game suffered a major loss in mid-December.
Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray each rushed for more than 1,000 yards, but the sophomore Murray won't play Jan. 8 because of a ruptured hamstring. Murray ran for 1,002 yards and 14 touchdowns, and had 395 receiving yards and four TDs.
Oklahoma still has leading rusher Brown, a junior who rolled up 1,110 yards and 20 TDs on the ground, and Murray will be replaced by junior Mossis Madu, who ran for 483 yards and six scores.
Murray's injury makes the presence of Bradford all the more important. Bradford beat out Tebow, last year's Heisman winner, and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy for college football's most prestigious individual award. The accolade came on the strength of leading a team that's set NCAA records with 97 touchdowns and 702 points.
"We're ready to get back to work to get ready for (Jan.) 8th," Bradford, who underwent surgery on his non-throwing hand in early December, said at the Heisman ceremony. "When we started this season, winning the national championship was the first goal we put down as a team."
Florida, though, may boast the best leader in the nation in the multi-threat Tebow, who this year became just the second player to repeat as Maxwell Award winner given to the most outstanding collegiate player. He put together another excellent season after struggling somewhat early on, throwing for 2,515 yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions to go with a 176.7 rating - second in the country behind Bradford. He also rushed for 682 yards and 12 TDs.
While his numbers were down somewhat from his brilliant 2007, his role as the team's emotional center was apparent during Florida's 31-20 victory over the Crimson Tide on Dec. 6. Tebow threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns, ran for a team-high 57 yards and fired up his teammates with some emotional, fist-pumping cheerleading throughout the contest.
"I've had some great players, and I've got some great players on this team," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "But I've never had one like this. Tim's got something special inside him. I'm not talking about throwing. I'm not talking about running. I'm talking about making everyone around him better."
Tebow needed to be at his best in the SEC title game with Percy Harvin unable to go. The Florida running back, who rushed for 543 yards to go with 595 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns this season, couldn't play because of a sprained ankle.
The Gators' depth was apparent in the game as freshman Jeff Demps ran 13 times for 53 yards and a touchdown, but Harvin is expected to be ready for Oklahoma.
Along with Tebow and Harvin, Meyer found out Dec. 16 that he'll have his offensive coordinator to call plays for them. Dan Mullen, named coach at Mississippi State on Dec. 10, plans to stay with the Gators through the championship game.
"The goal is to win the game, and I think right now, unless something changes, it looks like that's going to happen," Meyer said of Mullen being with the team Jan. 8. "Is that the best chance of us winning that game, with the mechanics of the game the way we do them? Probably yes. So right now I'd say the plan is he'll be up in the press box."
Meyer hopes his team will gain an edge from what could resemble a home crowd for Florida at Dolphin Stadium. The Gators have 13 players from the greater Miami area alone.
"I hope it's a home-field advantage," Meyer said. "I'd be disappointed if it wasn't a tremendous showing (by Gators fans), but I know Oklahoma has a great tradition of traveling fans as well. In the back of our minds, even in the front of some of our minds, this was our target to get to Miami - because it's our home state, because of recruiting, because of all of the above."
As high-powered as the two offenses in this game are, the decisive factor could end up being Florida's defense. The speedy, opportunistic unit was fifth in the country with 12.8 points allowed per game, second with 24 interceptions and tied for eighth with 279.3 yards a contest.
Oklahoma, by contrast, gave up 24.5 points and 359.1 yards per game.
Florida's defense is led by safety Ahmad Black, who returned six interceptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns, linebacker Brandon Spikes (team-high 87 tackles, four INTs, two TDs) and defensive back Joe Haden, who returned three picks for 136 yards and made 77 tackles. Carlos Dunlap topped the Gators with nine sacks, while Jermain Cunningham added six.
"I know they're talented, I know they're fast, I see enough highlights to see all the skill and the speed," Stoops said. "But that isn't surprising."
Neither team seems likely to give the ball away much. Oklahoma committed nine turnovers all season, fewest in FBS, while Florida had 11 to tie for the second-fewest.
These teams will be meeting for the first time.
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