Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Florida Adds Chicago Bears To Schedule

Gainesville is abuzz these days as the 5-0 Florida Gators embark on a huge October. The fifth-ranked Gators will be tested with showdowns throughout the month. Now the slate has gotten even more challenging. Today coach Urban Meyer announced that Florida has added an October 21 matchup with the Chicago Bears to the schedule.

The additional game rounds out a daunting October for the Gators. This Saturday, they host #9 LSU. The following week, they travel to Auburn to take on the second-ranked Tigers. October 28 brings the annual hostilities in Jacksonville with #10 Georgia. With all that excitement, the open date on the 21st stuck out like a sore thumb. Therefore, athletic department officials looked for the best opponent available, and that weekend happened to coincide with the bye on Chicago’s schedule. Coach Lovie Smith agreed to take his Monsters of the Midway to The Swamp. Now the marketing department for UF football is billing October as “Bulldogs and Tigers and Bears – Oh My!”

Many NFL insiders are stunned that Chicago would choose to play the game. With the physical toll on players during the course of the season, the bye week allows a valuable opportunity to rest and recover from injuries. However, the 4-0 Bears are considered major contenders for the Super Bowl, to be played in Miami. The trip to Gainesville will allow them to get acclimated to playing in the Sunshine State. Also, the following two games on Chicago’s schedule are matchups at home versus the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins. So those are basically bye weeks anyway.

The game’s predominant storyline will be the return of Bears quarterback and former Gator Rex Grossman to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Grossman has been excellent so far this season, as Soldier Field’s long-standing ban on quality quarterbacks has apparently been lifted. UF is also well-represented on Chicago’s fearsome defense with end Alex Brown, nose tackle Ian Scott, and safety Todd Johnson. Florida quarterback Chris Leak is hoping that their love for the university will cause them to go easy on him, allowing him to rack up big numbers and enhance his Heisman chances. Unfortunately for Leak, however, Brian Urlacher went to New Mexico.

The showdown will represent the most anticipated Florida-Chicago matchup since the 2003 National League Championship Series. Windy City fans will be eager for payback, having experienced heartbreak as the Marlins overcame a 3-1 deficit to end the Cubs’ World Series dreams. Inspired by that series, Meyer has invited Steve Bartman to suit up as a defensive back for the Gators. The Florida coach feels that Bartman can consistently deflect balls away from Chicago players.

At first glance, it may seem absurd for a college team to take the field against a Super Bowl contender like the Bears. The Gators’ task is even more daunting in light of Chicago’s 37-6 mauling of the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. However, Florida has many reasons for being confident about an upset. The Gators have already won at Tennessee, where a team called the Bears (California) was thrashed. Also, while a bear usually would be expected to win a fight against a gator, the one place a gator has a chance is in The Swamp.

Most importantly, Florida is certain that it can take advantage of Chicago cornerback Ricky Manning, Jr. He played college football at UCLA, a school that in April was blown out by Florida in a notable sporting event. Also, despite a home loss to Ole Miss in 2003, the Gators are always eager to welcome a Manning to The Swamp.

Florida will have its hands full before then with LSU and Auburn. After those SEC showdowns, most prognosticators will expect the Bears to have their way on October 21. If the Gators do lose that day, they can take solace from a November visitor to Gainesville – South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. That Gator couldn’t beat NFL teams, either.