The "Gainesville Raiders," the best college football team the bowls may never see, won what was, perhaps, the biggest game in University of Florida history today. It was an incredibly easy 27-0 ending to a streak of six bitter defeats at the hands of the Georgia Bulldogs.
But 10th-ranked teams have beaten eighth-ranked teams before. What makes this so different was what it means to the Gators, now 7-1-1, and 6-0 under interim coach Galen Hall. For starters, the victory gives them a 4-0-1 record in the Southeastern Conference, their best record ever, tying LSU for the league lead. In the SEC's 52 years, Florida has never won a football title. Georgia is 7-2, 4-1 in the SEC.
However, even if the Gators, the team adversity created, beat Kentucky next Saturday, they may not become conference champions or get to go to the Sugar Bowl. Which is where the "Raiders" nickname comes in.
Strong safety Roger Sibbald, who successfully faked a punt in Florida's second touchdown drive and stopped Georgia's Andre Smith on a fourth-down goal-line stand in the third quarter, thought up the name. It gets a lot of laughs around the university, which is considering appealing its two-year, no-bowl, no-TV NCAA probation.
Meanwhile, the SEC notified Florida there will be a hearing Nov. 20 to discuss whether or not the Gators will be attending any bowl this season. A good guess would be that the SEC will prohibit Florida from representing the league in any bowl. Controversy continues to swirl around Gainesville; hence, the comparison to the Los Angeles Raiders.
As Hall was carried off the field to the raucous cheers of the orange-and-blue half of the Gator Bowl record crowd of 82,349, reporters clustered not around him or the players, but around university President Marshall Criser.
"That's the politics of big-time sports," 293-pound offensive tackle Crawford Ker explained later.
Criser was talking about the news of the SEC hearing, but his eyes kept wandering to the field, where Florida fans were dancing with torn-down goal posts.
"In light of what's going on, this is one heck of a win," Criser said. "This might well be the best team in the country. I think it's a new era in University of Florida football."
An incredible calmness has settled over the game's most-investigated football team.
"What we're seeing here is the ultimate," said normally soft-spoken Athletic Director Bill Carr. "We named an interim coach, we win six in a row, and the team is totally cohesive."
Whether they go to the Sugar Bowl or not remains to be seen, but the Gators seem to have found a coach to replace Charley Pell, who was fired in September, and a quarterback.
The coach is Hall, who tells jokes before games and surprises even his players with his avant-garde play-calling, specifically a call that resulted in a 96-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
"He is so honest," said freshman walk-on quarterback Kerwin Bell, who threw that pass to Ricky Nattiel to seal Florida's victory. "I want him to be my head coach.
Hall's wife, Elaine, burst into the coach's interview room wearing a painted alligator on her face and a "Go With Hall Next Fall" button on her chest. Said Carr: "He's the leading candidate for the job." Said Criser: "He's a heck of a coach."
Said Hall, whose Florida team is only the fifth in school history to beat rivals Auburn and Georgia in the same season: "That hasn't hurt."
Florida has suffered heartbreaking losses to Georgia three of the past four seasons, all of which involved last-minute touchdowns to steal away victories.
Bell, whose parents pay for him to go to college, led the Gators to their first touchdown midway through the first quarter. (The time is unknown because the stadium clock was not working.) Bell, on an audible off a running play, threw down the middle 25 yards to tailback Lorenzo Hampton. Bobby Raymond's extra point gave the Gators a 7-0 lead.
It became 14-0 midway through the second quarter when tailback Neal Anderson dived over the line from two yards away. Sibbald, a former quarterback, kept the drive alive when he faked a punt and threw 13 yards to Linzey Smith. "That was my call," he said. "I thought I was going to get bawled out on the sideline."
Florida was forced to punt -- really punt -- moments later on another fourth down, but Georgia's Tony Flack fumbled and the Gators recovered at the eight. Two plays later, Flack was called for pass interference when Bell, in the grasp of a defender, flung the ball toward tight end Walter Odom in the end zone. The penalty gave Florida a first down at the two.
Georgia, usually playing at its peak in this game (called "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party"), appeared shaky, fumbling once and being intercepted twice. Overall, the Bulldogs gained just 186 yards, to Florida's 333.
Raymond added a 34-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead in the third quarter (and finished the scoring later with a 31-yarder) before the Gators' goal-line stand stopped Georgia four times inside the two.
Sibbald stuffed a fourth-down sweep, and, three plays later, with less than a minute gone in the fourth quarter, Bell threw the 96-yard pass from his end zone.
Bell, voted the game's MVP after completing eight of 17 passes for 178 yards, said, "I love to go deep. I love to throw the bomb. But I was surprised Coach sent in the play. I was surprised."
That in itself is a bit surprising. By now, you would figure nothing would surprise this team -- touchdown bombs, probation, anything.