Life after Tebow a big unknown for Gators

He’s been the face of college football for most of the past three seasons.

He owns two national championships, two SEC championships, a Heisman Trophy and a glossy 34-6 record as a starter.

He also has one more game remaining at Florida, and then he'll be gone.

That relieved applause you hear in the distance is from everybody that’s had to face Tim Tebow since he first arrived on the scene as a third-down/short-yardage specialist in 2006 and quickly blossomed into one of the greatest college football players of this era.

The thought of facing Florida without Tebow is like running a mile … on roller skates.

It’s like participating in a spelling bee … with a dictionary.

It’s like throwing down a few dunks … on an 8-foot goal.

At least, that’s the perception around the SEC. The reality is that Florida isn’t going to go quietly into the night.

Still, I’ve heard more than a few folks in and around the conference utter something along the lines of “The playing field’s going to level for everybody else when Tebow is gone.”

After Friday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl and stretching into the 2010 season, we’re going to find out just exactly how much it will level.

Given the events of the past week and the uncertainty surrounding Urban Meyer and when he might return as coach, the picture of what the Gators might look like without Tebow is even more hazy.

We know John Brantley can throw the football. We know he can throw it well enough that Meyer said before the season that he was going to try to get Brantley into games in the first half this season -- even though that never materialized.

We also know that Florida has recruited extremely well and isn’t lacking when it comes to athletes.

It’s what we don’t know that’s probably most unnerving for the Gator Nation.

Tebow was the Florida running game for much of his career. Take away his 859 yards and 13 touchdowns this season and see how ordinary the Gators’ running game looks.

Brantley’s not exactly a statue, but he’s not a guy you’re going to run the option with, either.

He's also not a guy who’s going to be taking on linebackers and safeties at the goal line.

Obviously, the Gators will adjust what they do offensively to cater to Brantley’s strengths, which makes spring practice vital.

Will Meyer be back in time for the spring? That’s yet another unknown when it comes to dealing with life after Tebow.

And what about all of the intangibles Tebow brought to the table -- his leadership, his ability to will the team to close victories, his presence in the locker room?

His cape was a large one; one that several different players may have to take turns wearing the next couple of years.

Ultimately, what Florida looks like without Tebow probably has as much to do with what goes on around Brantley as it does Brantley himself.

Does touted freshman receiver Andre Debose come back 100 percent from the hamstring surgery that caused him to miss this season?

Do the Pouncey twins return on the offensive line, or do they opt for the NFL draft?

With tight end Aaron Hernandez strongly considering a jump to the NFL and Riley Cooper leaving to pursue baseball full time, who emerges as Brantley’s go-to guys?

Can offensive coordinator Steve Addazio find a way to help the Gators generate more explosive plays down the field in 2010?

And lastly (and perhaps most importantly), can the Gators find a way to run the ball successfully without their 240-pound quarterback as the centerpiece of that running game?

Answers to all these questions will start filtering in next fall.

Already, you’re hearing rumblings that the Eastern Division might be as wide open as it’s been since pre-Tebow. The Gators played in the SEC championship game three of his four seasons in Gainesville.

Without question, he is a one-of-a-kind player.

The question that looms: How much does the field start to tilt away from the Florida sideline now that No. 15 is gone?

In the meantime, Florida fans will bid him a sad adieu on Friday night in the Superdome. All of those other fans who watched him beat up on their teams for the past four seasons will bid him a merry farewell.

It’s the ultimate compliment to the ultimate college football player.