- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Beware of ‘Dog.

When undefeated Ohio State meets Florida in tonight’s BCS Championship game, the only reason to fancy Florida is the title game’s recent love affair with underdogs.

Dating to Ohio State’s thrilling victory over Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the underdog has prevailed in three of the last four BCS championship games. And in some ways, these Gators (12-1) resemble the Ohio State team that shocked the heavily favored Hurricanes the last time college football’s king was crowned in the desert.

That Ohio State team sneaked through the regular season undefeated thanks to a 6-0 mark in games decided by single digits, a mystifying run of good fortune prompting the media to dub them “The Luckeyes.” The current crop of Gators has enjoyed a similarly charmed season, escaping games decided by 10 points or less with a 6-1 record and catching the break of the decade when No. 2 Southern Cal failed in its regular-season finale against unranked UCLA.

“I love a 65-0 game. That’s a lot of fun,” said Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose Gators are seven-point underdogs to Ohio State (12-0). “Those 17-16 games [vs. South Carolina] cause gray hairs and ulcers. But they also strengthen and toughen your outfit.”

Meyer, who is fond of referring to his team as if it were preparing for insertion into Afghanistan, had better hope his team feels they are destiny’s Delta Force. On paper, tonight’s matchup looks like a total mismatch.

Offensively, Ohio State personifies balance. Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, operating behind a line that features three All-Big Ten performers, can beat teams with his arm or his legs. Smith has the most accomplished playmaker in the nation (Ted Ginn Jr.) in the slot, one of the college game’s fastest wideouts (Anthony Gonzalez) split out on the opposite flank, a 1,200-yard gamebreaker at tailback (Antonio Pittman) and a short-yardage bull (Chris Wells) as a fullback-style option.

Wells is the only player in that equation who is not an upperclassman, giving the Buckeyes an embarrassment of experience. Most frighteningly for Florida, virtually all that experience has been of success.

Smith is 11-1 in his career as a starter against ranked teams, throwing 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He’s both the consummate winner and the consummate leader.

“Troy is an outstanding leader,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “I was listening to [former Buckeyes] Donnie Nickey and Rob Reynolds talk about [teammate] Vince Young at Tennessee when they were home for an open date. And they talked about how there was something special about the guy. They said, ‘We don’t know what it is. We haven’t been completing passes at that high a percentage and so forth and so on, but you just have a way of believing in him.’ Troy has some of those same qualities.”

Florida senior quarterback Chris Leak does not. Leak is as quiet and introverted as he is inconsistent. Unlike his counterpart, Leak’s career record against ranked opponents is a pedestrian 11-11. He has 27 touchdowns to 16 interceptions in those games, including 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions since Meyer arrived in Gainesville.

And unfortunately for Leak, the Gators have no real running game on which he can lean. Starting tailback DeShawn Wynn is fragile, slow and not among the Southeastern Conference’s top-12 rushers with his 48.5 yards a game. Florida’s second-leading rusher is Tim Tebow, the freshman quarterback who has swiped some of Leak’s snaps and all of his thunder. And given he has had nearly two months to study Florida film, it’s likely Tressel will have figured out Tebow almost always runs left.

As for the defenses, Florida’s features more raw talent and speed, but Ohio State’s unit was the one that led the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 10.4 points a game.

Interestingly, the only defense that has stifled Smith over the last two seasons was Penn State’s. The Nittany Lions gave Smith fits not with speed and raw athleticism but with their solid, assignment-conscious football. Florida’s defense is built around playmakers, not discipline. In fact, Florida was one of the least disciplined teams in the nation this season, ranking 111th out of 119 teams in penalty yardage a game.

“Undisciplined teams make penalties,” Meyer said. “That’s not something we’re proud of.”

Surely, Florida must have an edge somewhere, right?

Special teams? Nope. Florida kicker Chris Hetland made just four of 13 field goal attempts this season and is a debacle waiting to happen.

Ball security? Nope, if Florida wins the turnover battle tonight, it will be an anomaly. Both teams forced 27 turnovers this season. But Florida gave it up almost as often (24 times), while Ohio State ranked ninth in the nation in turnover margin.

Coaching? Well, Meyer has never been anywhere near a title game. Tressel, on the other hand, won four Division I-AA championships at Youngstown State, was the architect of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl stunner, is 19-5 in single-digit games since 2002 and is 3-0 in BCS bowls.

If recent history likes the Gators, logic is betting on the Buckeyes … big.

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