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Tebow's three TDs lifts Florida past Alabama for SEC title

Dec 7, 2008 - 3:38 AM ATLANTA (Ticker) -- Tim Tebow spent his freshman season as a gadget player on Florida's national championship squad.

Two years later, Tebow should have a chance to bring another title to Gainesville - as the Gators' do-it-all quarterback.

Tebow threw three touchdown passes Saturday as fourth-ranked Florida secured a likely berth in the BCS championship game by defeating No. 1 Alabama, 31-20, in the SEC title game.

"I think (Tebow) is the best in college football," Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. "I think he's the best football player in America."

The victory all but sent the Gators (12-1), who entered with the No. 4 ranking in the BCS standings, to the national title game for the second time in the last three years.

Conversely, the Crimson Tide (12-1) lost for the first time this season and failed to complete their improbable run to the BCS championship under second-year coach Nick Saban.

"This team should be remembered and have a legacy as a team," said Saban, who guided Alabama on a stunning turnaround following a dismal 7-6 record in 2007. "They were the team that brought back a lot of pride back to the state of Alabama. That should be their legacy."

"That's a good team we just played," Meyer added. "We've come a long way as a team. We had a lot of injuries during the season, but we had a lot of guys step up."

Tebow was used primarily as a rushing specialist during the 2006 campaign, when Chris Leak was Florida's primary quarterback. In the national championship game that season, Tebow ran and threw for touchdowns in the Gators' 41-14 romp of Ohio State.

However, Tebow emerged as one of the top players in college football last season, becoming the first player to win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.

"I have had some great players and I have some great players on this team," Meyer said. "But I've never had one like (Tebow). There's a special something inside of him - the ability to make the level of play of his teammates better."

After a performance that earned him game MVP honors, Tebow undoubtedly will garner a large sum of votes in this year's Heisman balloting.

"If I had a vote, I'd vote Tim Tebow for the Heisman," said Meyer, who guided the Gators to the eighth SEC title in school history. "For what he means to this team, he's the best player in college football."

"(Tebow) is a great competitor," Saban added. "He takes his teammates on his shoulders a lot."

Tebow completed 14-of-22 attempts for 216 yards and also ran for a team-leading 57 yards on 17 carries. The southpaw deflected attention away from his Heisman candidacy after the contest.

"It's unbelievable," Tebow said. "Right now, (the Heisman) really doesn't matter."

Tebow's future certainly matters to Gators fans, who serenaded the junior with postgame chants of "One more year!"

"These fans have supported us through everything, and they're great fans," said Tebow, who celebrated the win by high-fiving various Florida fans around the Georgia Dome. "I'm with them because I'm a Florida fan. I just wanted to give back as much as I could."

Despite the absence of injured speedster Percy Harvin, Tebow and the Gators racked up 358 yards of total offense against an Alabama squad that entered with the third-ranked defense in the country.

After routing their last eight opponents, the Gators faced a 20-17 deficit entering the fourth quarter.

But Tebow orchestrated an 11-play, 62-yard drive capped by Jeffrey Demps' 1-yard TD run off an option pitch that gave Florida a 24-20 lead with 9:30 remaining.

The drive was extended by a critical personal foul on a third-down play. On 3rd-and-4 from Alabama's 46-yard line, Demps was tackled short of the first down by Dont'a Hightower.

However, Hightower was whistled for a questionable facemask, pushing the ball to the Alabama 27.

Florida converted another crucial first down later in the drive, when Tebow hooked up with tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 6-yard shovel pass on 3rd-and-5. Two plays later, Demps took the pitch from Tebow and raced around the left end to give Florida the lead for good.

After forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing series, the Gators essentially sealed the win when Tebow punctuated an eight-play drive with his third TD pass of the game - a 5-yard strike to Riley Cooper with 2:55 remaining.

"That fourth quarter was vintage Tim Tebow," Meyer said. "That fourth quarter will go down as one of the greatest ever in the history of the University of Florida. We put it in our quarterback's hands. We said, 'Tebow, go win us the game.' And we did."

Alabama's last-ditch comeback effort ended when John Parker Wilson was intercepted by Joe Haden along the left sideline with 1:39 left.

Haden's pick brought a disappointing conclusion to what had been a brilliant regular season for the Crimson Tide, who were bidding for their first national championship since 1992.

Florida scored on its first possession when Tebow found Carl Moore for a 3-yard TD pass.

But Alabama needed just two plays to tie the game; freshman Julio Jones hauled in a 64-yard pass from Wilson, and Glen Coffee scored from 18 yards out on the following play.

After the teams exchanged field goals, Florida took a 17-10 lead when Tebow capped a nine-play, 57-yard drive with a 5-yard scoring strike to David Nelson.

That scoring drive was set up courtesy of another mistake by the Crimson Tide, who started the previous possession from their own 4-yard line when return specialist Javier Arenas stepped out of bounds on a kickoff return.

However, Alabama came out energized in the second half, scoring on its first two possessions after the break.

The Crimson Tide forged a 17-17 tie by grinding out a 15-play, 91-yard drive that ended when Mark Ingram scored on a 2-yard run. Alabama ran nine times on the march for 45 yards.

Florida's Jonathan Phillips missed a 42-yard field goal on the next possession, and Alabama responded with a 10-play drive capped by Leigh Tiffin's 27-yard field goal that made it 20-17.

Wilson struggled throughout the contest, completing 12-of-25 passes for 187 yards. Coffee finished with 112 yards on 21 carries while Jones also starred for the Crimson Tide, hauling in five receptions for 124 yards.