ATLANTA (AP) — Tim Tebow took it upon himself to give Florida a shot at another national championship. If the Gators needed a big run, he tucked it under his arm and ran. If they needed to complete a pass, he threw it right where it needed to be.
With one of his best weapons on the sidelines, Tebow threw three touchdown passes to lead the No. 2 Gators to a 31-20 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
Tebow's clinching TD came with less than 3 minutes to play and the win should be enough to give Florida (12-1) a spot in the BCS title game for the second time in three years. His performance will surely bolster his chances of becoming just the second player to win the Heisman Trophy two years in a row.
"We don't want to be denied in anything we do," said Tebow, who carried his team with Percy Harvin watching from the sidelines.
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Showing it could win a close game in a season of routs, Florida (12-1) went into the fourth quarter trailing 20-17. But Jeff Demps, among those filling in for the injured Harvin, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 2-yard run with 9:21 remaining. Tebow finished the scoring with a pass that couldn't have been thrown any better, hitting Riley Cooper for a 5-yard TD with 2:50 left.
"I've had some great players, and I've got some great players on this team," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "But I've never had one like this. Tim's got something special inside him. I'm not talking about throwing. I'm not talking about running. I'm talking about making everyone around him better. That fourth quarter was vintage Tim Tebow."
Alabama (12-1) couldn't have picked a worse time to lose. The Crimson Tide will likely settle for a spot in the Sugar Bowl, ruining any chance of adding another national championship to its glorious history.
Instead, mark down a spot in the title game for Florida, which won it just two years ago with a rout of Ohio State. The Gators came into the game ranked fourth in the BCS standings, but the impressive win over unbeaten and top-ranked Alabama will surely be enough to move them into one of the top spots.
Their opponent? Oklahoma had the inside track heading into Saturday night's Big 12 championship game against Missouri. Texas was waiting in the wings if the Sooners were upset.
Whoever it is will have to stop Tebow, who was 14-of-22 passing 216 yards and led the team in rushing with 57 yards. He tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Carl Moore to finish off Florida's opening possession, went 5 yards to David Nelson to give the Gators a 17-10 halftime lead, and came through one more time to clinch the victory.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who needed only two years to restore the Tide to Bear Bryant-like prominence, knew who was mainly responsible for his team's first loss.
"He's a great competitor. He takes his teammates on his shoulders a lot," Saban said. "They have a lot of confidence he's going to make plays, and they play that way. They scored two touchdowns where we had them covered about as well as we could cover them."
With Florida facing third-and-goal at the 5 after a rare sideline interference penalty, Tebow found Cooper breaking toward the middle in front of Marquis Johnson. The perfectly thrown pass — low enough to give no chance of an interception but high enough to catch — was cradled by a diving Cooper to make it a two-score game.
Joe Haden's interception ended any hope of a comeback. Tebow was named the game's MVP.
"One more year! One more year!" the Florida fans chanted afterward, hoping their junior quarterback will return for his senior season.
Alabama trailed at halftime for first time this year, but just the fact that it was close put the Gators in an unusual position.
Florida came in as the nation's third-highest scoring team (46.3 points a game) and its average margin of victory was a staggering 37 points. Then again, the Gators did lose their only close game, a shocking 31-30 defeat to Mississippi at the Swamp on the final weekend in September.
The Tide was feeling good about itself after Mark Ingram scored on a 2-yard run and Leigh Tiffin booted his second field goal, a 27-yarder that pushed Alabama ahead going to the final period.
But Florida caught a huge break when Demps was dragged down short of the marker on third down, but Dont'a Hightower got a handful of facemask. The 15-yard penalty gave the Gators first down at the Bama 27.
Tebow took it from there. A 13-yard pass to Nelson. Then a 6-yarder to Nelson again to convert another third down by a yard. And finally, a quick pitch to Demps, who streaked around the left side and hurdled over two fallen players at the goal line for a 24-20 lead.
"Going 12-0 is a hard thing to do," Saban said. "Every time they needed to make a play, Tim Tebow made the plays that made the difference in the game."
This was the 41st meeting between the top two teams in The Associated Press poll. No. 1 still holds a 23-16-2 edge.
The Gators had to play without Harvin, who didn't even suit up after spraining his right ankle the previous week in a win over Florida State. He walked on the field stiff-legged — clearly, it wasn't even a close call whether or not he would play — and watched the game from the sideline wearing his No. 1 jersey.
During the regular season, Harvin was the team's top receiver with 35 catches for 595 yards and seven touchdowns. He also was second on the team in rushing with 543 yards, scoring nine TDs on the ground.
But Florida still had Tebow. That was the difference.
Meyer, not surprisingly, gave his endorsement for another Heisman.
"I think he's the best college football player in America," the coach said.
The Alabama-Florida matchup was a mainstay of the SEC championship in its early years. The teams met in the first three title games and four of the first five, beginning with the historic 1992 game in which the Crimson Tide won on a late interception return by Antonio Langham.
Alabama went on to rout Miami in the Sugar Bowl, winning its sixth national title. They'll have to wait another year for a shot at No. 7.
The first 1-2 matchup in the 17-year history of the SEC championship drew a record crowd of 75,892 to the Georgia Dome. The fans were essentially split down the middle — crimson and white on one side, blue and orange on the other.
The Gators marched right down the field on their first possession, looking as unstoppable as they did in most games this season. Tebow handled most of the load, completing three passes for 26 yards and running four times for 19 more.
But Alabama wasn't going to go down as meekly as most of Florida's opponents. Glen Coffee ran for 112 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones hauled in five passes for 124 yards. The Tide defense delivered numerous crushing blows, hoping to rattle the Gators.
Tebow wouldn't let them bite.
"We kind of ran out of gas a little bit in the fourth quarter," Saban said. "We didn't finish, and they did."