Buckeyes, Gators try to avoid rare losing season
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- For one year, perhaps the Gator Bowl should be renamed the Urban Meyer Bowl.
The former Florida coach and future Ohio State boss won't even be on the sidelines Monday in Jacksonville, but that doesn't mean he won't be the talk of the town as these marquee-but-struggling programs square off for the first time since the Gators routed the Buckeyes in the BCS championship game five years ago.
Meyer led Florida to two national titles in just six seasons in Gainesville, capturing the first by virtue of a 41-14 win over previously undefeated Ohio State on Jan. 8, 2007.
The coach stepped down after the 2010 campaign, citing health concerns, but after just one season as a TV analyst, he jumped at the opportunity to take over the flagship program in his native state.
"If not for the coaching position at Ohio State, I would not have coached this year," Meyer said.
"This is a monster. Ohio State is a monster. I just came from a monster," he added later. "I get that. What's the expectation level? It's real clear. It was the same at the other place."
Meyer said he may not even watch the Gator Bowl due to his feelings for both programs, but he's already begun recruiting in hopes of helping the Buckeyes bounce back from a series of rules violations that cost Jim Tressel his job.
He'll have to wait at least one year to return to postseason play. The scandal resulted in NCAA penalties - including a bowl ban for next season and a reduction in scholarships - announced Dec. 20.
The turmoil was a major factor in Ohio State (6-6) posting its first losing season in Big Ten play since 1999, and Luke Fickell - the interim coach through the bowl - said he's not worried about his players being distracted by the hoopla surrounding Meyer.
"I don't know that you could get any more distractions than what we've had," said Fickell, who has been offered a spot on Meyer's defensive staff in 2012. "I think our guys are just so excited to have some clarity about what's going to happen in the future so they can put those things behind them. I don't think this will be nearly as hard on them.
"That you're playing Florida, all the other stuff with coach Meyer and that's where he came from, to me, won't have an effect on our guys."
The Gators (6-6) had plenty of problems of their own under first-year coach Will Muschamp, who called his team "soft" after a 21-7 loss to rival Florida State to close the regular season.
Florida dropped six of its final eight games, beating only Vanderbilt and Furman at home, and some have blamed Meyer for the roster he left behind. Under Muschamp, the Gators went 0-5 against ranked opponents, averaging 11.8 points and 223.2 yards in those games.
They'll also have to move on without renowned strength coach Mickey Marotti - a friend of Meyer's who will join the Ohio State staff - and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who accepted the head coaching job at Kansas.
Running backs coach Brian White will call the plays against the Buckeyes.
"I will hire the best offensive coordinator in the country," Muschamp said. "We need to improve offensively. Pretty obvious.
"We got out of kilter. We started searching for answers and things we could do against good people. When you lose that confidence, it's tough to regain."
Florida's quarterback play this season has likely left Gators fans longing for the days of Tim Tebow, especially with the former Heisman Trophy winner getting plenty of attention in a Denver Broncos uniform.
Senior John Brantley is expected to start the Gator Bowl, hoping to end his career on a more positive note after a dismal game against Florida State. Brantley threw three interceptions before leaving with an apparent concussion.
With an eye toward the future, freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel could also see more time. Both have struggled, combining to go 34 for 73 (46.6 percent) for 354 yards, two touchdowns and six INTs.
"I know patience is a bad, bad word. I'm not asking for it," Muschamp said after the loss to Florida State. "I also think you've got to be realistic. When you have an education, you have to be realistic some days."
While Florida ranks 102nd out of 120 FBS schools in total offense, Ohio State is even worse at 107th.
The Buckeyes have been relying on a freshman QB following Terrelle Pryor's departure. Braxton Miller has had his moments through the air - most notably a 40-yard TD pass in the final minute to stun then-No. 12 Wisconsin on Oct. 29 - but he's made a bigger impression with his legs, averaging 90.4 rushing yards in his last five games.
Ohio State still dropped the last three, including its first loss to archrival Michigan since 2003. Wolverines star Denard Robinson put up 167 yards and three touchdowns passing and 170 yards with two more TDs on the ground in the 40-34 victory.
"It's a weird feeling," Ohio State senior wide receiver DeVier Posey said. "We're not really used to it."
The team's current players are used to winning bowl games. The Buckeyes have beaten Arkansas and Oregon the last two years after dropping three straight in the postseason - two in the BCS title game.
Despite their disappointing seasons, these high-profile programs will add to track records of January bowl appearances. Ohio State is playing on Jan. 1 or later for the 16th time since 1993, second only to Florida's 18 over that span.
The Gators, appearing in a bowl for the 21st consecutive season, are 6-2 in the Gator Bowl.
Florida will be without starting right tackle Matt Patchan, who injured his upper back during practice. Xavier Nixon, who has struggled all season and was eventually benched, likely will move back into the starting lineup.
Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner, tied for the team lead with seven touchdowns, has returned to practice following knee surgery and could play. Fickell, though, said Stoneburner would be limited.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.