Ohio State and Florida have met on the football field just one time - in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game. The favored Buckeyes fell to the powerful Gators squad 41-14 in a game that wasn't even close. Yet the team from Gainesville elicited a firestorm of controversy when it was tapped for the title game in lieu of an OSU rematch with archrival Michigan.
In August, the probability for such a chaotic conclusion to the 2006 seemed unlikely-to-impossible, as the sport's elite programs seemed firmly ensconced in their positions at the top of college football.
The Buckeyes’ started the season ranked No. 1 and were fully expected to finish in that position as well. In his sixth season in Columbus, head coach Jim Tressel seemed to have Ohio State back on top. In 2005 his team had tied for the Big Ten Conference title for the first time since winning the national title in 2002, his second year at the helm.
The offense returned a whopping 10 starters from a unit that averaged 33 points and 423 yards per game the season prior. That group was led by quarterback– a prohibitive favorite for the Heisman Trophy – and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. The team’s weakness was expected to be the defense that saw only two starters return.
Once the season started, the Buckeyes began proving the pundits right. They blasted through the regular season with the squad’s spread-option offense overwhelming opponents and the defense shutting down their ability to counter-attack. Iowa put up the best fight, falling by three touchdowns in Iowa City on Sept. 30, the smallest margin-of-victory against OSU going into the season finale against Michigan in Columbus.
On September 2, the Buckeyes’ biggest obstacles to the national title were expected to be defending national champion Texas or USC, not their traditional foes from Ann Arbor. The Wolverines’ 2006 odyssey began with a No. 15 ranking and tempered expectations. A 7-5 record the year prior capped with a loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.
The five losses were the worst Michigan had suffered since 1984, which was also the last time the team had concluded the season unranked.
Yet behind quarterback Chad Henne, the Wolverines went on a win streak that saw them steadily climbing the rankings. When they beat No. 2-ranked Notre Dame 47-21 in South Bend on Sept. 16, the excitement over a tilt between undefeateds to finish the season began in earnest.
And so, on Nov. 18 it came to pass. The Buckeyes and the Wolverines met in Colombus undefeated and ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. Those rankings had the two Big Ten squads at the top spot of the Bowl Championship Series rankings as well.
The drama of the contest was deepened further with the death of legendary Wolverine head coach Bo Schembechler the day before the game.
Ohio State was able to pull out the 42-39 victory in front of a then-record crowd of 105,708 in The Horseshoe (the attendance total is now the third largest in the history of Ohio Stadium). The win assured the Buckeyes a spot in the National Championship game, but who they would face in Glendale, AZ was not at all clear at that point.
There were three one-loss teams with reasonable arguments for inclusion. A rematch with Michigan, who had come within a field goal of the Buckeyes in Columbus, seemed possible with the Wolverines still ranked No. 2 in the BCS polls.
The next week, Southern Cal’s victory against Notre Dame allowed the Trojans to leapfrog Michigan in the rankings despite their loss to Oregon State the last weekend of October. Yet USC’s title hopes were shattered with an embarrassing upset to cross-town rivals UCLA in the season closer.
For the Gators, the path to Tempe proved an interesting one in 2006. The centenary year of Florida football began with high hopes the second season under Urban Meyer would see a dramatic step forward.
Florida’s roster boasted 15 senior starters, augmented with a bevy of talented freshmen brought in with a recruiting class ranked second in the nation. Take the offense for example; senior quarterback Chris Leak now had dynamic freshman Percy Harvin to connect with, and fans were already anticipating the performance of another frosh on the roster – Tim Tebow.
The preseason polls put the Gators at No. 8, and they were the popular pick to represent the SEC East in the conference championship. But national title? That seemed a bit too much to ask.
Florida survived September and the first conference challenges the month brought and was ranked the No. 3 team in the land. But October presented a murderer's row of SEC powers – LSU, Auburn and Georgia – and the trip to the Plains proved a game too much for the Gators. The Auburn victory was closer than the 27-17 score suggested, but it dropped Florida to No. 10 and, apparently, out of the championship hunt.
Still, the Gators kept adding wins as the season continued, and a decisive 38-28 defeat of Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game put them in the club of best one-loss teams in the country. While Meyer publicly touted his team's case for inclusion in the title, the Wolverines' Carr kept his usual low profile.
In the end, the computers tapped Michigan for the BCS National Championship game, but voters balked at the possibility of a rematch and put the Gators at No. 2. When all was said and done, Florida began packing for a trip to the desert as the hue and cry among the sports cognoscenti went up in earnest.
The venue for the BCS National Championship Game was the recently completed $455 million University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The 63,400-seat capacity was bolstered by temporary seating to permit a then-record 74,628 attendees to see the game.
Ohio State didn’t waste time getting on the scoreboard with Ginn running the opening kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown. It came with a cost, as the receiver was injured in the celebration and would miss the rest of the game.
Florida then went on an offensive tear, reeling off 21 unanswered points. The stifling Gator defense finally showed a bit of weakness midway through the second quarter, as the Buckeye’s Antonio Pittman dashed 18 yards for OSU’s first offensive score of the day.
On Ohio State’s next possession the typically circumspect Tressel gambled and went for it on fourth-and-one at his own 29-yard-line. The Gator defense blasted Buckeye running back Chris Wells at the line and Florida took over on downs. A fortunate fumble recovery added another Gator touchdown to match a pair of Chris Hetland field goals, and the underdogs went into the intermission with a 34-14 lead.
The game would turn into a defensive slog in the second half with only one final score – a one-yard touchdown run by Florida’s Tebow in the fourth quarter. The high-flying Buckeyes offense, which had averaged 410 yards per game during the regular season, only managed 82 against the Gators. The vaunted mobility of OSU’s Heisman Trophy-winning signal caller was completely diffused, as Smith was sacked three times.
The Gators performance, allied with USC’s 32-18 destruction of Michigan in the Rose Bowl, silenced pretty much all of the pre-game controversy.