Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore his church clothes on the day he first met Steve Spurrier.
Tebow was 5 years old, maybe 6. He can't remember. He does, however, remember the excitement he felt when approaching the Gators' coach at the time. Church bulletin in one hand and sweat in the other, Tebow stood in line inside the Jacksonville First Baptist Church for an autograph from the man who resurrected Florida football. The memory remains and so, too, does the piece of sports memorabilia.
Tebow grew up imagining what it would be like to play quarterback for Spurrier, who coached at Florida from 1990 to 2001. It didn't work out that way, however, and at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Tebow's team will face off against Spurrier and South Carolina for the third time. Tebow didn't get a chance to play for a Florida team coached by Spurrier, but he still enjoys playing against one of his childhood football heroes.
"I think it's cool. I think it's fun," Tebow said.
"I haven't really worried about all the hype with him coming back and everything, but I think any time you're matched up against Spurrier it's going to be an interesting game."
Although Spurrier vs. the Gators is getting to be old news, Saturday's matchup does offer a new twist to the rivalry. According to the Heisman Trophy Trust, the game between No. 3 Florida (8-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) and No. 24 South Carolina (7-3, 4-3) will be the first in college football history in which a Heisman Trophy winner plays against a team coached by a recipient of the award. Tebow won his Heisman last season and Spurrier won it in 1966.
Tebow is the only sophomore in college football history to win the Heisman, and he did it by accounting for 55 touchdowns (32 passing, 23 rushing). Being an underclassman candidate for an award dominated by upperclassmen winners, Tebow was considered a Heisman long shot for much of last season. That changed after Week 11. Tebow turned in a seven-touchdown performance against South Carolina, forcing Heisman voters to take notice. He rushed for five of those scores, and the individual effort impressed Spurrier enough to cast his Heisman vote for Tebow.
When asked this week if Spurrier voted for him, Tebow said,
"I believe he did."
READY FOR A REPEAT?
This year, it is Week 12 of the season, and again, Tebow is a long shot to win the Heisman. And again, that could change with another career-defining game against Spurrier. It won't be as easy as last season, when South Carolina's defense was riddled with injuries by the time Florida visited Columbia, S.C.
Spurrier's defense, coached by first-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, is ranked No. 3 nationally and No. 1 in the SEC in total defense, giving up 256.5 yards a game. The Gamecocks, however, haven't faced an offense like Florida's.
After losing to Ole Miss, Florida has won five in a row, outscoring opponents by an average of 37.2 points. Tebow has completed 70 percent of his passes in that stretch and thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception. In his past two games, Tebow has accounted for 10 scores (five rushing, five passing).
"He's playing like the Heisman Tebow now," UF guard Mike Pouncey said.
"He's back in his groove, and it's going to be hard to take him out of it."