ATLANTA (AP) – Urban Meyer has been going on and on about the Bowl Championship Series, calling it an imperfect system that should be replaced with a playoff.

Then, when the Florida coach had one last chance to lobby for his team, he decided it was time to clam up.

The fourth-ranked Gators still have hopes of facing No. 1 Ohio State in the national championship game, but it doesn’t look good.

Southern California would have to lose today to two-touchdown underdog UCLA, while Florida (11-1) would have to have win impressively enough against Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game to leapfrog third-place Michigan in the BCS standings.

So, coach Meyer, any thoughts on your team’s chances?

“No thoughts,” Meyer said Friday with a coy smile.

Well, that’s a change. Just a day earlier, Meyer was fretting that he passed up an invitation to go before Congress with his thoughts on the BCS, while reiterating his belief that a playoff would be a much better format for determining a national champion.

In fact, Meyer has been quite candid about the BCS for several weeks now, insisting that Michigan didn’t deserve another chance at Ohio State after losing the Buckeyes in their regular-season finale.

It may be a moot point, because USC cleared a major hurdle last week with a persuasive win over Notre Dame. All the Trojans have to do is beat their crosstown rival, which they have done seven years in a row, including a 66-19 rout last season.

Meyer hasn’t gone so far as to say that Florida should get the nod over USC for a spot in the title game, but he follows the standard SEC line that anyone who wins this conference – even with a loss – deserves consideration for No. 1.

“I truly have great respect for the SEC,” said Meyer, in his second season with the Gators. “If you play 11 or 12 games in this conference, good things should happen to the team that wins it.”

Florida might have earned a bit more respect with a tougher non-conference schedule. While USC defeated three potential BCS teams – Arkansas, Nebraska and Notre Dame – by an average score of nearly 25 points, the Gators faced Southern Mississippi, Central Florida, Division I-AA Western Carolina and Florida State outside the SEC.

In addition, four of Florida’s last five wins were by seven points or less, the only exception being a 62-0 rout of overmatched Western Carolina. While the Gators deserve credit for being gritty, they didn’t win any style points with their tight wins over Georgia (21-14), Vanderbilt (25-19), South Carolina (17-16) and Florida State (21-14).

Meyer shrugged off any suggestion that his team would be playing No. 8 Arkansas (10-2) with an eye on the scoreboard – the USC-UCLA game kicks off 90 minutes before the SEC championship – but he did address the BCS race with his players early in the week.

“I used to believe that you could ignore it,” Meyer said. “You can’t anymore. It’s the talk of the town. It’s the million-dollar question.”

Not that the Gators are downplaying their return to the SEC championship game. They haven’t made it this far since 2000, Steve Spurrier’s next-to-last season in the Swamp.

“None of us have rings. None of us ever won any BCS bowl or anything like that around here,” receiver Dallas Baker said.

“For us to play for the SEC championship and have a chance to win, it’s something very special and something we don’t want to let slip away. Once you get a piece of it, you always want to get a piece of it.”

During the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” era, the Gators ruled the SEC with an iron grip.

They played in the first five championship games and seven of nine before the dynasty unraveled, stripped of its architect when Spurrier left for an ill-fated tenure in the NFL and was replaced by overmatched Ron Zook.

Then it was Meyer’s turn. The coach who guided Utah to a perfect season and cracked the BCS quickly resurrected a program that once viewed this trip to Atlanta as an annual rite.

“This is it,” quarterback Chris Leak said. “It’s real exciting, especially for these seniors. We’ve been through a lot these four years, and we’re finally able to just have an opportunity to reach that goal. That’s the ultimate goal.”

No one expected the Razorbacks to get this far, not after they opened with a 50-14 home loss to USC. But Arkansas won 10 straight, including an eye-opening upset of then-No. 2 Auburn, before losing to LSU last week.

While that defeat knocked Arkansas out of the race for No. 1, the SEC West had already been clinched. Now, it’s time to play for a pretty good consolation prize – a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

“We had not lost in a long time,” coach Houston Nutt said. “The guys didn’t like it. They didn’t like not singing the fight song after the game. They’ve come back with a real purpose, a real hunger.”

The Razorbacks still have plenty of motivation. They haven’t been to a major bowl since their Southwest Conference days. Heck, they haven’t been to bowl of any kind since 2003.

“It would really take our program to another level to be in a BCS bowl,” Nutt said.

Arkansas, which was late getting into Atlanta on Friday because of snowy weather in Fayetteville, goes for its first SEC championship with perhaps the best 1-2 running punch in the country. Darren McFadden has rushed for 1,485 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Felix Jones has piled up 961 yards on the ground.

Then there’s Florida, which has one of the nation’s best defenses against the run. The Gators led the SEC and ranked fifth overall with an average of 69.7 yards per game.

“This game will be won in the trenches,” Nutt said. “There’s no question about that.”

AP-ES-12-01-06 2054EST


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