Perhaps no team of the BCS era, even 2005 USC, faced more pressure to repeat than Florida did last season. The entire two-deep on defense plus a good chunk of the offense returned, and the ESPN hype machine had made Tim Tebow out to the best college football player ever. The pressure was immense.
The cupcake games went fine enough, but then the team didn't beat Lane Kiffin by enough points. The pressure grew. Then the flu tore through the team and Tebow got a concussion. The pressure grew. There were refereeing scandals, the eye gouging incident, more wins that were too close, and Carlos Dunlap's DUI. The pressure only kept growing. By the time the team hit the field against a focused and loose Alabama team, Florida had reached its breaking point. The team crumbled under the dome in Atlanta, and Urban Meyer was hospitalized a few hours after that when his body couldn't take the stress anymore.
It is strange that a coach who has played the "no one believed in us" card as much or more than anyone over the past few years (to the point of inventing bulletin board quotes in 2006) couldn't get the job done when everyone did, in fact, believe in his team. In any event with the pressure off in the Sugar Bowl, little was left of Cincinnati within the blast radius. The Florida team everyone was expecting to see finally showed up.
Now, Florida has been a high pressure place for a while. Steve Spurrier said one reason he resigned in January 2002 was that he thought that 10-2 just wasn't good enough for the fans anymore. A quick check of the preseason consensus shows as of this writing that Florida is the unanimous pick to win the SEC East, is put at No. 3 in the nation, and is expected by everyone to be a top ten team. There are still expectations, and they are quite high as always.
What that consensus also shows is that only the Rogers Poll (something I hadn't heard of until seeing it on the '10 consensus) expects Florida to win the SEC. Everyone else has Alabama winning the league title and, more often than not, the national title too. That crushing level of pressure that cracked the Gators last year is on someone else this year.
One reason why UF is still thought highly of is that there are plenty of folks back. Four of the five on the offensive line have returned, along with every running back on the roster. Brantley may not have played much, but he's still in his fourth year in the program. Only three spots on defense—one defensive end, middle linebacker, and one cornerback—will be staffed by someone who hasn't started at least several games before. UF still filled up the preseason All-SEC teams like the Crimson Tide did.
Even so, there is an air of freshness surrounding the team this year, particularly on offense. The Tebow offense had clearly gone stale without Percy Harvin. Brantley brings a passing dynamic back to the offense that I think a lot of Gator fans missed last year. The Tebow package will still be there of course, but now it will either be Jordan Reed or Trey Burton running it. Guys like Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody should be able to flourish in ways they haven't been able to in past years.
That's not to say that Florida is without plenty of questions. How well will John Brantley do in non-garbage time situations? How good of a defensive coordinator is Teryl Austin? And for that matter, how will the coaching staff gel with all of the turnover? Just four of the 10 coaches that were around for the 2008 national title are still in Gainesville. Will Steve Addazio's offensive coordinating get better than it was last year? The likely top two receivers for 2010, Deonte Thompson and Carl Moore, have been at best third and fourth options, respectively. Who will replace Dunlap's sacks, Joe Haden's coverage, and Brandon Spikes' leadership?
It just goes to show what confidence people have in Meyer and his recruiting of the past few years that so much is expected of a team that has lost so much. Still, Meyer's teams have generally performed better when the pressure is off. When nearly every pundit picked Ohio State to win, his team unloaded on the Buckeyes. The 2008 team played tight and conservative before and during the loss to Ole Miss, only to loosen up and blast teams after it. The 2009 team once again played tight and conservative the whole year only to, once again, look far better after a loss relieved the pressure a bit.
If Florida looks good early, especially in Neyland Stadium against a depleted Tennessee squad, I imagine that the pressure will mount very quickly. It did so in 2007, the last time Florida didn't look like a sure-fire national title contender, after UF's 59-20 win over the Vols propelled it to No. 3 in the polls. That game's outcome turned out to be deceptive as after a close win over Ole Miss, the Gators went on to lose three of four.
Even if Alabama has the conference's biggest target, Florida's got a big one too. Nearly everyone on the schedule has experienced a blowout at the hands of Florida at some point, and teams will especially be gunning for the Gators now that the magical Tebow talisman is gone.
But without many expectations of winning a national title and most of the stars of the past two years gone, the Gators won't be feeling nearly as much pressure as they did last year. It's all part of a new era in Gainesville.