NEW ORLEANS -- Is Friday the last night of the Florida dynasty?
Apologies to colleague Buster Olney for massaging the title of his book about the New York Yankees, and apologies to Gators fans who are sure to be apoplectic at the very suggestion. But it's fair to wonder.
Florida football is at a crossroads.
Head coach Urban Meyer is stepping away after this Allstate Sugar Bowl game against Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is on his way to Louisville, one year after the Gators lost offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to Mississippi State. Quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler is a candidate for the vacant head-coaching job at Central Michigan, and recruiting coordinator/receivers coach Billy Gonzales recently left for an assistant job at LSU.
Superstar quarterback Tim Tebow is moving on, along with several other mainstay seniors. As many as seven Florida juniors could join them by declaring for the NFL draft: defensive backs Joe Haden, Ahmad Black and Major Wright; defensive end Carlos Dunlap; tight end Aaron Hernandez; and offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey.
Those are potentially massive losses. If you combine the coaching drain with the talent drain, there is a chance we're looking at a USC 2009 sort of program dip for Florida in 2010.
The question is whether they'll bounce back -- both the Trojans and, if this does come to pass, the Gators.
In recent years, Meyer and his staff have recruited like sultans procuring an all-world harem, so there is talent available to replace those losses. But it will be young talent, and the current recruiting efforts are suddenly complicated.
While Meyer is on leave, interim coach Steve Addazio will be hit with the same questions over and over: When is he coming back, and will he be the same guy when he returns? There are reports that Meyer has told at least one recruit he will return to coaching come August, but you can be sure that any element of doubt will be attacked and exploited by Southeastern Conference rival recruiters. And there is no guarantee that Meyer will be able to deal with his health/stress issues any better than he has to date.
If Meyer does come back to coach in 2010, he will be confronted with one other dynasty-altering reality: Alabama is loaded.
The Gators were shockingly dominated by the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game, and by all appearances, Tide coach Nick Saban is just getting warmed up in Tuscaloosa. He will have Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram back, along with quarterback Greg McElroy, receiver Julio Jones and many others. There will be significant defensive losses to address -- especially if linebacker Rolando McClain goes pro as expected -- but Alabama probably will start the fall ranked No. 1.
And because this is the SEC we're talking about, don't expect the rest of the league to stand still and wait for Florida to regroup. Tennessee is putting its Orange Pride hostesses to work procuring a blockbuster recruiting class. LSU is a permanent threat. And it is reasonable to expect Georgia to rebound to contender status after an uncharacteristic 8-5 flop this season.
Florida will play all four of those SEC rivals in its first eight games next season.
The Gators also should face enhanced competition from Florida State and Miami. The Seminoles should improve (although, it must be said, how many times have we heard that before?) now that they have a coach who is fully engaged. The Hurricanes had a young team in '09 and should continue to challenge Florida for the best in-state talent.
Combine all the factors, and you have to wonder: Is Friday night the end of an incredible Florida run?
The Gators have won at least nine games every year under Meyer and three times have won at least 12 (maybe 13 if they take care of the Bearcats). He has utterly toyed with rivals Tennessee, Florida State and Georgia. He has avoided Zookian pratfalls against the Mississippi States of the league.
Basically, Meyer took the torch from Pete Carroll and ascended to the top of the sport. He returned Florida to the status it enjoyed under Steve Spurrier -- and has kept Florida at its peak for longer than the beloved Head Ball Coach did.
But nothing lasts forever -- not talented coaching staffs, not superstar recruiting classes, not even a coach's health. So this Sugar Bowl looms like a sort of Beatles farewell concert.
But if this is the end of an era, Gators fans seem content to let it slip by without their attending. Shockingly, a school that regularly puts 90,000 fans in The Swamp returned 3,000 tickets of its allotted 17,500, while Cincinnati sold out its allotment in three days.
That's a sign of a spoiled fan base, which probably decided last year that any bowl in which they don't award a crystal football to the winner isn't worth attending.
Next year, the expectations will have to be readjusted. How far down, we'll wait and see. But the future is uncertain, to say the least, and potentially unkind.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.