No. 1 Florida ready for highly anticipated season

Sep 4, 2009 - 10:31 PM By MARK LONG AP Sports Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla.(AP) -- Florida receiver David Nelson feels like it took forever for the season to get here.

Going through early morning summer workouts, fighting through two-a-day practices in the sweltering Florida sun and sitting through motivational speeches from Tony Dungy, Lou Holtz and several former players, all Nelson could think about was getting to the opener.

He wasn't alone.

The most anticipated season in Florida's 100-plus years of football begins against Charleston Southern on Saturday night. It's the start of what the top-ranked Gators have thought about for eight months - repeating as national champs.

"We're just ready to play, ready to get out there and finally hit somebody other than ourselves, our teammates," Nelson said. "It's time to get this thing going."

Florida has been the overwhelming favorite to win a third national championship in four years since that day in January that quarterback Tim Tebow and linebacker Brandon Spikes decided to return for their senior seasons.

With 18 of 22 starters returning, there have been countless questions about repeating, talk about wanting to go undefeated and sky-high expectations that would rival anything Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and their Southern California teammates dealt with in 2005.

Coach Urban Meyer responded by putting his team through the toughest offseason he could muster - an effort to keep players grounded, hungry and far removed from even the slightest hint of complacency.

Now, after seeing his players answer the challenge, even Meyer acknowledges that he loves this team.

There still are some concerns, though. Who will replace Percy Harvin? How will the revamped offensive line hold up? Can the defense pick up where it left off in the Bowl Championship Series title game against Oklahoma? How is Tebow's sore back?

The answers might not be known for at least a few weeks.

Florida opens against Charleston Southern, a middle-of-the-pack team from the Football Championship Subdivision, and probably the biggest underdog of college football's first weekend. One oddsmaker installed the Gators as 73-point favorites.

"This is an opportunity to have an experience that most likely they never would have gotten had they not competed collegiately," Charleston Southern coach Jay Mills said.

The Buccaneers received $450,000 to travel to Gainesville, play in front of 90,000 fans and possibly get embarrassed like never before. Meyer admitted he has a hard time determining when a game is securely in hand, meaning Tebow, Spikes and Co. could play longer than anyone expects.

"I'm a little more nervous than most coaches," Meyer said.

He might be the only one on Florida's sideline. The Gators have done just about everything short of make room for another national championship banner. Players openly talked about wanting to be the first team in school history to put together a perfect season, and some of the defenders believe they have the talent to be mentioned as one of the best the game has seen in recent years.

Meyer has tried to reel them in, but they sense something special.

"It's exciting that I got one more season and just having more opportunities running out of that tunnel, and I'm going to cherish every opportunity, every minute, every chance I get to be on that field and play with those guys," Tebow said. "I'm going to make it special and definitely leave everything out there."

The Gators have spent much of this week defending their non-conference schedule, which also includes games against Troy (which lost 31-14 to Bowling Green on Thursday night), Florida International and rival Florida State. There were preliminary talks about playing Utah in Gainesville this season, but the deal eventually fell through.

"It would be fun to play a team the caliber of the Oklahoma States, teams from different conferences, teams you don't get to play but get to see on TV," Nelson said. "But we have Charleston Southern on the schedule this week and that's all we're focusing on."That's really all Nelson, as well as many of his teammates, has been able to focus on since January.

"It's the first opportunity," Tebow said. "You want to get that under your belt and see what you got."

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