Florida-Cincinnati Preview

Six days before a BCS game that isn't for the national championship but is second-to-none in regard to intrigue and subplots, Florida coach Urban Meyer dropped perhaps the most stunning bombshell.

It will be his last contest.

Meyer's finale comes New Year's Day in the Sugar Bowl when he leads the Gators against an abandoned yet unblemished Cincinnati team that feels cheated in more ways than one.

After five seasons in Gainesville -- highlighted by a pair of national titles that helped re-establish Florida as a football power -- Meyer suddenly resigned Saturday due to health concerns that arose when he was admitted to a hospital for chest pains Dec. 5 following a 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game.

Team officials initially said Meyer was suffering from dehydration, but players and coaches later said the 45-year-old coach was dealing with a more serious health issue. Meyer refused to discuss his hospital stay, but acknowledged he needed to take better care of himself.

Reports quickly surfaced that Meyer was suffering from, among other things, a stroke and a defective heart muscle. A person close to Meyer said those claims were false.

"He just had a wake-up call," the person said. "He got scared and realized he can't do it anymore. His tank is empty."

Meyer leaves No. 5 Florida with a 56-10 record, including a 32-8 mark in league play and a school-record and nation-leading 22-game winning streak that ended with the loss to the Crimson Tide.

"I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program," Meyer said in a statement. "I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family."

His legacy will be one of success, garnered after the school posted three straight five-loss seasons from 2002-04. Two years after arriving from Utah, Meyer delivered the Gators' second national championship with a 41-14 upset of Ohio State. Last January, they defeated Oklahoma 24-14 for another title.

"He leaves a lasting legacy on the field, in the classroom and in the Gainesville community," school president Bernie Machen said.

Meyer's departure further shakes up a coaching staff that was already in flux. Within a week of the loss to Alabama, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong announced he will take the coaching job at Louisville next season and receivers coach Billy Gonzales surprisingly resigned to become passing game coordinator at rival LSU.

Meyer -- coincidentally, a Cincinnati alum -- walks away after Florida (12-1) failed to cap an undefeated season.

Brian Kelly had a chance at one, and threw it away.

Less than a week after leading the Bearcats to a wild 45-44 win over Pittsburgh to complete a 12-0 regular season and give them a Big East title -- and days after a joint teleconference with Meyer hyping the matchup in New Orleans -- Kelly bolted the Queen City for the greener pastures of Notre Dame, a job Meyer emphatically said in November that he wasn't interested it should be eventually become open.

Left in Kelly's wake was confusion and anger. The fourth-ranked team in the country, on the verge of its most important game ever, was forced to hastily elevate coordinator Jeff Quinn to interim coach, and, days later, agreed to a five-year deal with Central Michigan coach Butch Jones.

"We weren't giving him a round of applause or anything," tight end Ben Guidugli said of Kelly, who made the announcement following the team's annual banquet. "It's like somebody turned their back on us. We brought this whole thing this far. We've come this far. To have someone walk out now is disappointing."

Kelly countered by saying, "You would always want it to end with the best story. The best story would be that I get to coach in the Sugar Bowl. But I'm at Notre Dame now, and this is where I want to be."

Ironically enough, Kelly's job going forward will be to get the Irish where the Bearcats are now: ending a season in the national title conversation, going into a new year without a loss and playing in a big-money bowl for high stakes. Yet even a resume like that wasn't enough for an upstart like Cincinnati -- which began the season outside the Top 25, while Florida was a near-unanimous No. 1 -- to get a shot at a national title.

It didn't miss by much, though.

Ultimately finishing third in the BCS standings, the Bearcats were potentially on their way to a championship game for a few fleeting moments. However, No. 2 Texas benefited from a replay review at the end of its Big 12 championship game to put 1 second back on the clock, and the Longhorns connected on a 46-yard field goal as time expired to come away with a 13-12 win and a ticket to Pasadena to take on top-ranked Alabama.

Despite the hiring of Jones, Quinn will still be charged with the responsibility of rallying his players from a whirlwind lead-up to this game. An assistant of Kelly's for the past 22 years, Quinn oversaw the Bearcats signature no-huddle spread offense which was responsible for 7.28 yards per play -- second in the nation to Nevada (7.48), but against a much tougher schedule.

"Our focus is to congratulate them for being 12-0 and getting them ready for the Sugar Bowl," Quinn said. "We've circled the wagons. Sometimes, it feels like you're drinking water through a fire hose. ... The message isn't changing. It's just coming from a different voice."

Before Jones takes over, that voice will be Quinn's for now. He's headed to coach Buffalo after this contest.

Dealing with such distractions before taking on any team would be a challenge. But faced with such obstacles prior to a matchup against college football's marquee player and defending national champion may seem downright unfair.

Tim Tebow will close the curtain on one of the greatest careers college football has ever seen, but he does so coming off a disappointing loss in the SEC title game, squashing any chance of a fairy-tale ending.

Still, the accomplishments of college football's poster boy are overwhelming: one Heisman Trophy, two national titles, 56 rushing touchdowns, 85 passing scores, 2,896 rushing yards and 8,803 passing yards. But there's little doubt he'd sacrifice those gaudy numbers for a rematch against Alabama.

"I don't think you're over a loss. It's going to hurt, probably will hurt for a while," Tebow said. "I think we're over the point where we're feeling sorry for ourselves and we're getting back to working, working hard and just getting better."

Meyer promised Florida will be driven to end the Tebow era in fitting fashion.

"Our legacy is going to be depending on how we finish this season," Meyer said of a senior class that has the most wins (47) in SEC history. "We've watched them play, they're on TV all the time. Then you see some of the scores and the way they throw the ball around. The Gators will be highly motivated to play this game."

The Bearcats can throw the ball with the best of them, and the matchup between their potent offense and Meyer's stalwart defense will go a long way in determining the outcome. Led by quarterback Tony Pike and playmaking receiver Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati ranks first in the country in passing efficiency and sixth in total offense.

Traditionally renowned for its offense, Florida has been equally adept, if not stronger, on the other side of the ball, where it ranks third against the pass and fourth in total defense. But even in the mighty SEC, the Gators may have never seen an offense like this.

Florida will get some help on defense, as end Carlos Dunlap was reinstated Dec. 18 after being suspended for the SEC title game following his arrest for driving under the influence.

Dunlap has 35 tackles and seven sacks, and the junior is expected to enter the NFL draft.

Florida may have to rely even more heavily on Tebow after finding out that running back Brandon James will not play in the Sugar Bowl after having surgery on his right foot. The senior led the Gators with 1,324 yards -- 1,000 of which came on kickoff and punt returns.

Florida receiver David Nelson is up for the challenge, regardless of who the Gators can put on the field.

"We're hungry," said Nelson. "We're hungry to get back out there. I have a sour taste in my mouth and the only way to fix that is to win the next game. So we have to be ready to go and we're excited about it."