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January 6, 2007
No. 1 Ohio State
No. 2 Florida
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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona ? Some perceptions are slow to change.
The "3 yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" style of football that legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes preferred has evolved into a big-play "30 yards-and-a-plume-of-smoke" offense with Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez leading the Buckeyes.
Yet, there seems to remain a perception that the Buckeyes ? as well all football teams from the Midwest ? are a physical, but plodding team vulnerable against opponents with great speed. That was the case in the '70s and '80s when the Big Ten champions went 4-16 against the faster Pac-10 opponents in the Rose Bowl.
But does that perception still apply? It wasn't an issue in other Big Ten-SEC bowl match-ups this year. Arkansas could not outrun Wisconsin and lost the Capital One Bowl 17-14. Penn State was fast enough to defeat Tennessee 20-10 in the Outback Bowl.
"I think that perception just goes along with wherever you are from you think those players are the best," Ohio State safety Brandon Mitchell said. "Even if you look at this game, most people from the Midwest think Ohio State is the greatest team ever and we are going to kill them.
"Me being from Atlanta ? when I went home all I heard was 'Florida is going to beat you. You probably won't score a point.' I think it is a regional bias. Everybody thinks they have the best players. We know our abilities."
Still, the question of speed will likely determine whether underdog Florida (12-1) can upset Ohio State (12-0) in Monday night's national championship game.
The speed issue surfaced so often in the week leading up to the national championship game that one might think pit crews, or at least baton exchanges, would be involved. The speculation is that Florida, from the drag strip that is the Southeastern Conference, has a definitive advantage in team speed and therefore can keep Ginn and Gonzalez in check with man coverage. Many feel Florida's fast linebackers can run down backs and even faster receivers Percy Harvin, Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell can make big plays against the Buckeyes secondary.
They may even break the sound barrier, too.
Ohio State's Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith, who is remarkably cool on and off the field, acknowledged Florida's speed. However, Smith reminded many that the Buckeyes can run, too - and not the way coach Hayes did.
"I think a lot of times we don't give the linebackers in the Big Ten enough credit because we face guys all the time that are very, very fast, extremely talented and just as strong as that the Gators are going to bring," Smith said. "But I am a firm believer in giving respect when respect is due. And any time you play a defense like this, whose front four is just as fast as their linebackers, their linebackers are just as fast as their safeties, and so on and so forth, you have to give respect.
"It depends on what you define as speed. Don't get me wrong, they definitely have guys that can run, but the way that it has been portrayed is like we have been winning our games by walking and jogging. It's like our guys haven't been running. If you buy into that and feed into that hoopla that's another pitfall, that's another trap."
That's a trap the Buckeyes have avoided despite playing against Texas, which was fast enough to win the national championship last year. Ginn, who reportedly runs a sub-4.3 40-yard dash, beat Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Aaron Ross on a 29-yard touchdown pass just before halftime to swing momentum in the game.
"We did play against some good corners," Ginn said. "Texas was pretty fast. Penn State was actually pretty, fast, too. Michigan was pretty good. But all around for Florida, they've got some great guys that come down and hit you and can run with you."
Gonzalez, who averages 14.8 yards per catch, said he expects a lot of man-to-man coverage from Florida cornerbacks Ryan Smith and Reggie Lewis. The UF duo fared well against stellar receivers like Tennessee's Robert Meachem, LSU's Dwayne Bowe and South Carolina's Sidney Rice. The Gators limited them to a combined 179 receiving yards and no touchdowns.
"I feel like they say to themselves, 'OK, we feel like we have better athletes than you and we are just going to prove it. We are just going to play man coverage and we are just going to be better than you,'" Gonzalez said. "They have had tremendous success doing that against some pretty talented receiving corps. Tennessee's receiving corps is one of the better ones, LSU. They have done a nice job dealing with those receivers. So that's one of our challenges to see if we can do better than those teams."
For their part, the Gators have resisted crowing about their team speed. Coach Urban Meyer even said that Ohio State's speedy receivers might be his primary concern.
"We can't be out there worried about speed," Leak said. "We have to worry about making sure we are communicating the right way and that we put guys in position to be successful."
Besides, unless 40-yard dash times are suddenly posted next to heights and weights on the rosters, no one really knows which team is faster.
"I don't know that you ever know comparisons of teams until you see them play each other," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "I think Florida has extraordinary speed everywhere, whether it is their punt team, their punt block team, their receiving corps, their running backs, their linebackers, their (defensive) front. They have excellent speed.
"We try to recruit speed. We will find out how we compare."