Florida begins quest to be the best - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Florida begins quest to be the best

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Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2009 4:31 pm | Updated: 12:28 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes remembers dancing on the Orange Bowl logo, passing around the national championship trophy for teammates and coaches to hoist high into the Miami sky and then partying long into the night.

Seven months later, those memories are still fresh in his mind. They carry him through grueling, early morning workouts, motivate him during intense weightlifting sessions and push him through gut-wrenching stamina drills.

They drive Spikes to want to do it again.

Repeat? Definitely, but Spikes and the Gators are thinking even bigger after winning two titles in the last three years.

"Three national championships and a chance to rewrite history," Spikes said. "I don't think there's too many guys who can say they've won one. To win three would be a great thing, a chance to rewrite history, be remembered forever, go down in the books as one of the greatest teams ever."

The Gators sure aren't shy these days.

They began fall practice talking about wanting to become the first team in school history to put together a perfect season, something quarterback Tim Tebow first brought up last year during his well-publicized speech following a one-point loss to Mississippi.

Coach Urban Meyer tried to squash all the talk about going undefeated and repeating, but his players haven't been able to quiet down.

"With the team we have right now, there's no reason why we shouldn't do it," cornerback Joe Haden said. "If we just play the best we can play, it's going to be a reality. ... We can win three national championships in four years. Our team will go down in history. You can't forget a team like that."

Only one program since 1950 can claim three national championships in four years. Nebraska won it all it 1994 and 1995, then earned a split title in 1997. Southern California recently had a shot at three in a row, but lost to Vince Young and Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

The Gators are getting as much, maybe even more, hype than those Trojans, who returned Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush and were a consensus preseason pick to win a third consecutive title.

Florida has 18 of 22 starters returning, including the entire defense that stymied Oklahoma and Heisman winner Sam Bradford 24-14 in Miami for the title.

Tebow lost his top two receivers, Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, and two offensive linemen. But he has plenty of help around him, including tight end Aaron Hernandez, receiver Riley Cooper, highly touted freshman Andre Debose and running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey.

Can anyone stop them? The schedule is relatively soft when compared to other years, with the toughest task expected to come at LSU in October. The Gators stiffest competition in the SEC East figures to come from Georgia and as usual they finish the season against rival Florida State, this year at home in The Swamp.

The SEC championship game poses another challenge, if Florida gets there.

"The sky's the limit for us," defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. "We have so much athletic ability and so many leaders that only Florida can stop Florida. We can do anything we want to do. Anything's possible."

Maybe even stake claim to being college football's next dynasty.

Meyer has talked for years about getting to the point where he loses guys to the NFL and merely replaces them with younger, equally talented backups. He puts USC, Ohio State and Oklahoma in that category, and points out that Miami and Florida State were there not too long ago.

But he refuses to toss his team in the conversation, quite possibly because he's trying to be diplomatic. He tipped his hand a little, though, when asked whether anything short of a national title would be considered a failure for this team.

"That's a hard question to answer," Meyer said. "I'll try to answer it the best way I can. Would I consider the season a failure? At this point I can't tell you. I don't know the injuries. I don't know the makeup of this team. I have an idea. I think I'm going to answer it politically correct. I have extremely high expectations for this team."

He's not alone.

Already, there's talk around Gainesville about the possibility of this team being the best in school history and one of the best in Southeastern Conference lore. And the defense led by Spikes wants to go from good to great, maybe the greatest ever.

And just when you thought there couldn't possibly be any more love for Tebow, Meyer had his speech from after the Ole Miss loss engraved on a plaque and mounted outside the front entrance to the new football facility at Florida Field, and a local restaurant owner also hired a sculptor to carve out a tree in Tebow's likeness. Fittingly, it's called "Treebow."

"I think the expectations are always high here, just like the pressure and everything," said Tebow, who could become just the second two-time Heisman winner. "It's the University of Florida. There's going to be a lot of that every year. I think we have higher expectations on ourselves than anybody else could possibly have, and so we want to go out there and be the best we can be."

If the Gators accomplish that, then they could secure a spot in history — and get Spikes another lasting memory.

"We've got to keep striving and push that rock back to the top of the hill," Spikes said.

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