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Year of the Gator?...By Jay Graziani

It sure is tough being a Big 10 fan.

Going into the final March Madness game, I couldn't help but feel a sense of déjà vu. Ohio State was the number one team in the country, and had won 22 straight. Florida takes the early lead in what is expected to be a close game, and then just turns it on and never looks back. The Gators are up by 11 points at the half and fans are starting to think the game might be out of reach for the Buckeyes. Florida never lets up, and actually would have outscored the Buckeyes in the second half as well, if you ignore the last meaningless three-pointer (meaningless except for the lazy second-half bettors like myself who settled for less than plus-two on Florida).

The resemblance to a story 3 months ago is uncanny.

Ohio State was the number one team in the country, and had won 19 straight. Florida, entering the game as a touchdown underdog, just turns it on and never looks back. Florida is up by 20 going into halftime and people are starting to think the game might be out of reach for the favored Buckeyes. Florida never lets up, and shuts out the Buckeyes in the second half, 7-0.

Now we are hearing about a dynasty in Florida, and whether this team ranks among the best hoops squads of all time. Despite all the hoopla, the more important question is: does this make Ohio State the Buffalo Bills of college sports? How many thousand pieces of Ohio State apparel do you think hit the nation's collective trash bin last night?

The Big 10 was once a proud conference. Now, we have not only dropped the ACC-Big 10 Challenge in basketball for the 8th consecutive year (losing 8-3, most lopsided Challenge yet), but we also have the distinction of being "first loser" in both the basketball and football championships. Both times we laid claim to two of the top teams in the country - Ohio State and Wisconsin in basketball, Ohio State and Michigan in football. Wisconsin and Michigan joined Ohio State in getting trounced in the post season.

The Florida offense has been Ohio State's undoing, in both sports. Last night, they ran up 84 points against a team that allowed only 62 per game all season. That is the third most any team has scored on Ohio State all year, behind North Carolina (98) and, not surprisingly, Florida in their first meeting (86). Florida dismantled Ohio State with offense in football too. Ohio State allowed an average of less than 11 points per game during the regular season, and rode into the game with arguably the best defense in the country. The Gators scored 41 points, most by any team against the Buckeyes all season, including 34 by halftime. A once-proud Ohio State defense was left without much of a legacy.

Florida basketball has certainly rewarded those who backed them with cold, hard cash. Not only did they end the year by blowing out their opposition, they have also even been covering the spread game after game. Florida beat the spread in 8 of their 10 post-season contests. On average, they were nearly 6 points ahead of the spread in each game. Worse yet for the bookies, the public was eating up Gatormania and was laying the points on them without hesitation. No matter how good we thought they were, they always outperformed our expectations, right through the championship game.

Back in November there was a lot of talk about which conference was the best. Now in April, I think we have our definitive answer. Not only is Florida the first basketball team to duplicate a successful tourney run in 15 years, they are still the only team ever to hold the football and basketball championships simultaneously. And they will be holding it for another 9 months, at least.

Lately, the general trend seems to be that if you put a gator on the national stage, he will win. The run of good luck is not even limited to current Gators - Florida alum David Eckstein was the 2006 World Series MVP. Even former running back Emmit Smith won the last season of "Dancing With the Stars". Unfortunately Rex Grossman seems to be the only Gator not invited to the championship party.

The Chinese might want to amend their calendar. Forget the "Year of the Dog" - 2006 was the "Year of the Gator". And if the first quarter of the year is any indication, 2007 is on track to be the "Year of the Gator" too.

Is it fair for one school to have such a monopoly on our collegiate sports? It is the NCAA's duty to ensure a level playing field in collegiate athletics. So, if Florida is closing in on another football title run in November, the NCAA might consider immediate action. Perhaps Myles Brand can mandate the replacement of Urban Meyer with Marty Schottenheimer to repress any championship momentum.

Unfortunately, such drastic measures might not be needed, as both teams will be gutted by the pros or, more surprisingly, graduation. The latest NCAA report indicates that Florida football graduates 80% of their players, solidly above the 65% national average. Gator basketball graduates 100%, sinking the 59% national average like a Lee Humphrey 3-pointer (Humphrey was the quintessential sharpshooter in this tourney, canning an impressive 47% of his 3 point attempts to make him the all-time leader in 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament- what more can you ask for in March?). Division I in all sports only averages 76% graduation - and that includes the 93% of fencers who graduate. It is tough to fault a program that is simultaneously atop both major sports and still ranks among the best of Division I in terms of graduation rates.

Even so, is it that unreasonable to think this run will end sometime soon? Maybe it's time to take Florida to win the BCS. It could be a nice investment at 8-1, given the luck and tenacity Gator Nation has demonstrated so far.

And while the pain of being a Big 10 fan will not go away anytime soon, things could be worse. As a Penn State fan, I can't help but feel that a letdown of such magnitude couldn't have happened to a better team than the Buckeyes.

Jay Graziani

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