Worth Repeating: Gators hope to reprise title run
UF linebacker Brandon Spikes and linebacker Dustin Doe kiss the crystal football from the AFCA Coaches’ Trophy during celebrations after the BCS National Championship game in Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009. UF won 24-14. (Andrew Stanfill / Alligator Staff)

At Florida, national titles have been reduced to a yearlong drill.

There are months of conditioning, followed by fall camp and a grueling season.

Then, a whistle blows in Miami, and it's time to rinse and repeat.

Basking in the glory of last season's BCS championship is not part of the process, but there are plenty of accolades floating around.

The defending champs return most of their key players, including a quarterback already hailed as one of the game's greats and a coach recognized as the best in the business.

The Gators were picked as the preseason No. 1 by every major college football magazine and received 58 of 60 first-place votes in the Associated Press poll - the highest total ever - but they still feel like there are doubters.

There's something left to prove: that they belong among the best teams ever.

These Gators are hungry for more than another trophy. They want perfection.

"We want to be great," receiver David Nelson said. "We want to be known as one of the best, so we want to be known as the team that did it again. That's what we're trying to prove. We want to prove to the country that we can do it again. A lot of people are ranking us No. 1, but they also have their doubts that no team can do it again. Right now, we are hungry to prove people wrong."

After a summer of trying to avoid their own press clippings, taking advice from a slew of big-time guest speakers and fuming over past losses, the day has arrived.

The quest for the best season in school history starts now.

Friends in High Places

Despite the high expectations inside and out of the locker room, the company line throughout the offseason was, "We just want to win the Southeastern Conference." But back then, Game 1 against Charleston Southern was still a far-off date.

Now that kickoff has ceased to be Sept. 5 and become Saturday, it's more clear what this team is about.

As quarterback Tim Tebow demonstrated in his speech following the loss to Ole Miss last year, an undefeated season is a priority. So is repeating.

To that end, coach Urban Meyer brought in experts on the subject during the offseason. Lou Holtz, Tony Dungy and Mike Shanahan were among the guest speakers invited into the Florida locker room - three coaches with experience when it comes to defending championships.

Holtz won a national title with Notre Dame in 1988, but saw his bid for a repeat stymied by Miami after an 11-0 start. Dungy's Indianapolis Colts also failed in an attempt to repeat their 2006 Super Bowl win, but Shanahan successfully coached the Denver Broncos to back-to-back titles in 1997-98.

And if that's not enough help, there's a pretty good example just down the street in UF basketball coach Billy Donovan, who won consecutive championships in 2006-07 and will serve as Meyer's blueprint for success.

"The way he managed it, especially when they hit a little skid in the middle of the season, the way he pulled that (2007) team back together [was impressive]," Meyer said. "I learned a lot. That was one of the best basketball teams of all time."

Meyer picked Donovan's brain during the offseason for tips to keep his team focused, even showing the same Tiger Woods interview that Donovan showed his squad. In it, Woods defines greatness as having the ability to win again and again, something Holtz was convinced Florida could do after watching just one practice on his visit.

"It's very difficult (to repeat), but I think Florida is in a class by themselves," said Holtz, currently an analyst for ESPN. "Here's what impressed me the most. I didn't expect to see this, but I saw a group of coaches so enthusiastic, players so focused and working hard, it looked like a team that was out to prove something. It's not just their talent and leadership. You don't usually see a veteran football team working that hard."

Lessons Learned

The work ethic Holtz saw stems partly from a chip on the players' shoulders.

But unlike most teams, the Gators aren't trying to overcome it. They've seen what happens when it's gone.

After winning the 2006 national title, Florida went 9-4 and lost to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.

"A lot of times, when you're as successful as we've been throughout our career, you get complacent," Nelson said. "That's what happened two years ago. We thought we had all the answers, and they showed us. There are a lot of guys on this team who were on that 2007 team, went to the Capital One Bowl and felt that loss, so we don't want that again. We still carry that loss, that pain we had against Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. We still have that grudge, that sick feeling in our stomach."

That's the other thing about this team: losses die hard.

All the highs of a national title haven't wiped that loss to Michigan away, and despite the turnaround that ensued, stumbling against Ole Miss is still a touchy subject.

"That loss is still frustrating to everybody, although a lot of good came from it," Tebow said. "That's one of the good things about our team, though, is how upset and mad we get about something like that. We get pretty self-motivated from things like that, and irritated, and we still use that today in practice."

Reminding themselves of losses and keeping a narrow watch on the conference schedule are just tricks to stay focused and avoid complacency, the two biggest roadblocks that Dungy, Shanahan and Holtz pointed out to the team this summer.

The only on-field question about the Gators is whether they can replace receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. With a thin group of wideouts, none of whom are as proven as their predecessors, it's a legitimate concern.

But Florida has a trump card. For the first time in 20 games, Tebow is healthy.

For the final six contests in 2007, Tebow took painkilling injections to deal with his injured right shoulder, and he did the same thing all last season after re-injuring it in the season opener against Hawaii.

"He's 100 percent for the first time in his career, which is scary," Nelson said. "You can see that extra get-up that he has, and I can't wait to see him on Saturday."

Similar Starts

If UF does manage an undefeated season, it wouldn't be the first in school history.

In 1911, the Gators' first year playing against big-name opponents, they went 5-0-1, tying South Carolina.

This year will start just as that one did, with Florida hosting a team from Charleston. Then, it was The Citadel, which UF topped before defeating three other teams from the state and crowning themselves "The Champions of South Carolina."

Now, it's Charleston Southern, and the Gators have their eyes on much more. It's the start of a march they hope ends with another crystal ball.

The drill won't be over until the whistle blows in Pasadena.