Gators stop Razorbacks to wear SEC crown
By Bradley Handwerger
ATLANTA — Darius Vinnett sat alone in a red chair near the 35-yard line, confetti fluttering above him before burying him in a shiny silvery sea on the Georgia Dome floor.
His solitary moment, however, wasn’t a cheerful one.
No, Vinnett, a senior cornerback for Arkansas, sat watching as Florida celebrated its sixth Southeastern Conference championship since the league went to divisional play in 1992.
Fourth-ranked Florida downed No. 8 Arkansas 38-28 in front of 73,374 fans in Atlanta and possibly secured more than just the conference title.
For Florida — and the SEC — the win could mean the coveted second spot in the BCS National Championship Game thanks go UCLA’s 13-9 win over No. 2 Southern California.
Should enough voters in the human polls give Florida (12-1) their vote for No. 2, the Gators could slip past current BCS No. 3 Michigan and into Glendale, Ariz., opposite No. 1 Ohio State on Jan. 8, 2007.
Florida head coach Urban Meyer certainly feels his team deserves the chance.
“I certainly do,” Meyer said. “Florida belongs. We deserve a shot. Another team had a shot. I think the country wants to see the SEC champion against the Big Ten champion.”
Arkansas fell to 10-3 and will likely head to either the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., or the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
The loss was hard to swallow for the Razorbacks, who just two weeks ago sat in a spot where they could have marched to the West Coast title bout with the Buckeyes after having won 10 straight following a 50-14 opening-weekend loss to USC.
But a 31-26 loss to LSU in Little Rock, Ark., on the Friday after Thanksgiving knocked those hopes away, and Saturday night’s 10-point defeat knocks Arkansas out of the Sugar Bowl.
“It was hard in Little Rock,” Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt said. “We hadn’t lost in three months. Same with tonight.”
Florida took advantage of several bungled Arkansas special teams plays, including a blocked punt and a fumbled punt return, and used the final one to take a lead it wouldn’t ever relinquish.
Arkansas’ Reggie Fish tried to catch a Florida punt near his 5-yard line, but muffed it, fumbling it into the end zone where the Gators’ Wondy Pierre-Louis recovered it to give them a 24-21 lead.
“We had the lead, momentum, everything in our favor,” Nutt said. “You just can’t make mistakes like that in a championship game.”
Special teams wasn’t the only thing going badly for the Razorbacks. All-star running back Darren McFadden became nearly one-dimensional following an early second-quarter tackle that injured his ankle.
He wasn’t the same from that point on, finishing with 75 yards on 21 carries. He also threw for a touchdown.
While Florida’s defense played a big part in the win, receiver Percy Harvin might have done more, scoring a back-breaking 63-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach at 31-21.
“Once I made one man miss, there was no one left in the secondary,” Harvin said.
Harvin, who became the first freshman since LSU’s Justin Vincent to win Most Valuable Player honors, finished with 105 yards and a touchdown rushing and 62 yards and a touchdown receiving.
Then there’s Leak, the much-maligned quarterback who carried the burden of bringing an SEC championship back to Gainesville as soon as he signed with the Gators in 2002.
He finished 16 of 30 for 189 yards and a touchdown. But his two interceptions led to 14 Arkansas points and a 21-17 Razorbacks’ lead.
The second one came on a wacky play where Razorbacks’ defensive lineman Antwain Robinson caught a Leak shovel pass and returned it 40 yards for a score.
Still, the monkey is off his back now that the Gators again sit atop the SEC.
And now he possibly has a shot at a national title.
“We know if we get the opportunity to play for the title, it would be well deserved,” Leak said. “We fought through a lot of adversity this season and hung tough.”
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