RALPH D. RUSSO Associated Press SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -
A new era of college football begins Monday night with No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Florida playing a game that's grown too big to be called a bowl.
A week after New Year's Day, after all the bowls have been played, the Buckeyes and Gators meet in the first BCS national championship game.
"It's the Super Bowl of college football and I think college football needed that," Gators coach Urban Meyer said Sunday.
What the bigger - if not better - Bowl Championship Series got for its new showcase event is a 1 vs. 2 matchup that had many skeptical at first about its legitimacy.
Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and the Buckeyes (12-0) were a no-brainer. The Big Ten champions have been No. 1 since the preseason, and already have a pair of victories against teams ranked No. 2.
"You know the only time we thought for sure that we were going to be in the national championship is when that game (against Michigan) ended Nov. 18 because we knew going in you have to win them all," said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, seeking his second national title in his sixth season with the Buckeyes.
But Florida? The Gators (12-1) lived on the edge, navigating a brutal Southeastern Conference schedule by orchestrating several great escapes. Blocked kicks, late rallies and a healthy dose of trickery - Florida used it all. It's enough to make some say good fortune has been the Gators' best friend.
They see it another way.
"We don't really believe in destiny," defensive tackle Ray McDonald. "We believe when your number's called you make that play."
Still, Florida needed help to get here.
Southern California's loss to UCLA on the last day of the regular season opened the door for Florida, and a sea change among poll voters allowed the Gators to jump over Michigan in the final BCS standings - and into a matchup with the Buckeyes.
Then USC helped out Florida again, pounding the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl last week and removing any questions about whether the winner of Monday's night game at shiny new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale should be national champion.
Ohio State's won four national titles, the last in 2002 when Maurice Clarett and the Buckeyes shocked a powerful Miami team in a double-overtime classic in Arizona. A fifth title would match USC and Miami for the fourth-most in major college football.
But this one would be unique for Ohio State. Only Florida State in 1999 and USC in 2004 have gone from preseason to post-bowls as No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25.
Athletic director Gene Smith challenged the Buckeyes before the season to set themselves apart by going wire-to-wire as No. 1.
"I've always felt that in great programs you need to find ways to differentiate yourself from history," he said. "What is your mark as a senior class? I just felt that that's just something they should focus on, trying to leave their legacy.
"I got lucky with that."
With Troy Smith on their side, the Buckeyes didn't need much luck.
Smith was brilliant in his senior season, throwing for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns as the Buckeyes outscored the opposition by 26 per game. He turned the Heisman voting into another rout, winning in a record-breaking landslide.
Of course, Heisman winners have found themselves on the losing end more often than not when playing for a BCS national title. Five have done so since 2000, and only one - USC's Matt Leinart in '04 - has won.
Smith said the Heisman isn't a burden.
"I am not going into this game thinking I am the Heisman Trophy winner so I have to do this," he said. "For everybody out there, I want them to know that I think the Heisman Trophy is a team award. If my team is not undefeated, I am probably not in this kind of situation."
Make no mistake, Ohio State wouldn't be here without Smith, who's 25-2 as a starter and been at his best against the best.
In Ohio State's first two 1-2 games against Texas and Michigan, Smith threw for 585 yards and six touchdowns. And if he needs to run, he can do that, too.
The Gators are underdogs but undaunted.
"We're not afraid of Troy Smith at all," said linebacker Brandon Siler, who leads a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards and points allowed. "He is a great player. He has a great arm and he can run the ball. Don't get it confused, we are not afraid at all."
Smith has already secured a place among the greatest and most beloved Buckeyes.
For his counterpart, Chris Leak, the game could define a career that has looked great on paper but has left many fans unsatisfied. The four-year starter has thrown for 11,000 yards and 87 TDs, but he's not even the most popular quarterback on campus. That title goes to fiery freshman Tim Tebow, whose tough running has complemented Leak's passing.
Meyer makes it clear that it's Leak's team.
"If he's getting killed (by fans), I will tell you what, if he wins this game he will be one of the two top quarterbacks to play at Florida," Meyer said. "You are measured by wins and championships."
The Gators won their only national title in 1996, when Danny Wuerffel directed Steve Spurrier's Fun-and-Gun offense.
No one is more adored in Gainesville than Spurrier, who turned the Gators into a powerhouse in the '90s. Now Meyer, in his second season with Florida, can match the Ball Coach's greatest achievement.
It's been 51 days since the Buckeyes played, and 37 for the Gators. By Sunday, they'd had enough hype.
"I just visited with Coach Tressel," Meyer said. "We are both ready to go play a football game. I know our players are ready to play. It has been a long time."