GAINESVILLE The build-up has been more than four months. The projections were for an Alabama-Florida showdown Dec. 5 for the SEC title before either team held its first preseason drill.
All the hype and all the expectations are finally done. At 4 p.m. Saturday, No. 1 Florida (12-0) meets No. 2 Alabama (12-0) with the winner advancing to the national championship game. It's a rematch of last year's SEC title contest, a 31-20 Gators win, thanks largely to a dramatic fourth-quarter rally.
In 2006 and 2008 the Gators needed some breaks to advance to the national title game. This year, the spotlight has been on the Gators as the preseason No. 1 in the polls.
"It's completely different," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "In '06 we were just rebounding. I thought we had a good football team but we had a lot of issues on offense. We knew we had a good defense. There certainly weren't expectations like there were this year. Then following the '07 season we played very poorly in a bowl game and our defense was not very good and we had a lot of sophomores turn juniors so the expectation level maybe in some areas was there but not like it was this year.
"It's just a completely different feeling."
Florida's season was filled with drama - including a flu bug that required using three different planes to get to the Kentucky game, a battle of harsh words launched by Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, Tim Tebow's concussion at Kentucky and his comeback to play at LSU, the public attacks on officials' calls in games by Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen (who also happened to be the ex-Gator offensive coordinator) and the suspension of Brandon Spikes for his controversial tackle in the Georgia game followed by Meyer's fine from the SEC for being critical of an official's call. Add in a few Notre Dame rumors, a few more injuries and the constant questions about UF's inconsistent offense, and the soap opera had a new theme every week.
But finally, after the Gators beat rival FSU 37-10 on Saturday, all the roadblocks and subplots may be gone. Now it's just Bama, who struggled past arch-rival Auburn 26-21 on Friday, and Florida, for all the marbles.
"Now that we're here, I can feel that," Meyer said of some of the overwhelming expectations easing just a bit. "People were trying to make it that type of game (Florida-Alabama for a national title berth) back in September. If I remember right both teams were picked to make it to the championship game. Now that we're here, all that, that's just a great story line but we're not concerned about that. It is going to be, I can't think of a bigger football game that we've been a part of."