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The Battle for Number One

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/06/2007

Florida versus Ohio State: The preseason No. 1 against a team living on the edge much of the season! Underdog Florida is certainly an interesting story, with the basketball team capturing the national championship back in April and now the football team getting a shot at winning the whole thing.

It has been a magic carpet ride, of sorts, for the Gators. This team lost to Auburn, rallied late to win at Tennessee (21-20), held off Georgia (21-14), Florida State (21-14) and South Carolina (17-16) in thrillers, and needed USC to lose to UCLA in December to get a chance to play here.

But standing in their way are the mighty Buckeyes, No. 1 since August and looking for its second national title under Jim Tressel since 2002. Ohio State is 19-0 SU, 16-3 ATS their last 19 games. Only Michigan and Illinois have stayed within 17 points of Ohio State this season.

While the Ohio State offense got all the publicity from Day 1, it was the Buckeye defense that was the real story in their success. The Buckeyes had only two returning defensive starters from last year's 10-2 team, which surrendered just over 15 points a game. Many went to the NFL. Yet, 2006 Ohio State surrendered just over 10 points a game against a schedule that included two No. 2-ranked teams and two other top-25 teams.

The 2005 losses were staggering: Linebacker A.J. Hawk, safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Bobby Carpenter were all taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Cornerback Ashton Youboty and linebacker Anthony Schlegel went in the third round, and safety Nate Salley in the fourth. Sophomore linebacker James Laurinaitis stepped up, leading the team in tackles with an even 100 while intercepting five passes, posting four sacks and forcing three fumbles. Vernon Gholston, down the preseason depth chart at defensive end, had 7½ sacks.

Malcolm Jenkins (4 picks) and Antonio Smith stepped in at cornerback. Unproven sophomores Marcus Freeman and Jamario O'Neal came up big, the former stacking up 56 tackles and the latter taking over free safety in midseason and playing well. Ohio State is 9-3 under the total.

Now they get to face Florida and its option offense behind QB Chris Leak (22 TDs, 13 picks), senior RB DeShawn Wynn, RB/QB freshman Tim Tebow, and wideouts Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell. The Gator offense averages 28.8 points, 160 yards rushing, and 237 passing. And don't forget the Florida defense that ranks 10th nationally in yards allowed and sixth in scoring. Florida is 8-4 under the total.

One handicapping angle to consider is the wait for this game. Ohio State has been waiting 51 days since beating then No. 2 Michigan, 42-39. Will that offense still be sharp? We do know one thing: There will be a repeat national champion from the last 10 college football titles: Florida (1996), Michigan (1997), Tennessee (1998), Florida State (1999), Oklahoma (2000), Miami (2001), Ohio State (2002), LSU (2003), USC (2004), and Texas (2005).

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