GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) â€” Florida opened fall practice Thursday thinking more about losing to Alabama than losing Tim Tebow.
The former Heisman Trophy winner has been gone five months, leaving players and coaches plenty of time to move on. Shouldn't those lingering feelings about falling to the Crimson Tide in the Southeastern Conference championship game be a distant memory, too?
Not even close. The Gators are still reeling from the 32-13 loss in December that humbled egos, ended hopes of repeating as national champs and sent coach Urban Meyer to the hospital.
"I can't stop thinking about it," receiver Chris Rainey said. "I think about it every day. ... We got embarrassed. We looked like a high school team out there. And every time they show the video, it's like, 'Dang, was that us for real?'"
Florida rebounded by beating Cincinnati 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl, but the team's lone loss last year still resonated when players began a new season Thursday morning.
"We just didn't come out and play like we normally do," defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. "Alabama had an answer for everything we threw at them, and I would say we allowed a lot of complacency to set in on the team. It's true. We got comfortable. We felt unbeatable, and as a whole, we probably didn't prepare as well as we could have."
The Gators are looking for redemption, already pointing to an Oct. 2 rematch in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and talking about another potential showdown in Atlanta.
Yes, expectations remain high in Gainesville despite losing 11 starters. The Gators have five holes to fill on offense and six more on defense. The losses include Tebow, center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker Brandon Spikes, cornerback Joe Haden, receiver Riley Cooper, tight end Aaron Hernandez, safety Major Wright and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham.
But the Gators don't expect much of a drop-off. They spent the last three years grooming quarterback John Brantley to take over, return four offensive linemen to protect him and several running backs to carry the load. They also have gotten accustomed to winning, going 26-2 the last two years and bringing home two of the last four national titles.
Meyer also landed the nation's top recruiting class in February, signing highly touted defensive linemen Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, as well as running back Mack Brown and safety Matt Elam. Throw in much-hyped receiver Andre Debose, who missed all of last season because of a hamstring injury, and the Gators are feeling as confident as ever.
"It's a young team now," running back Emmanuel Moody said. "We've got how many new freshmen? Forty? I'm looking around and I don't know anybody's name anymore. ... The team is looking good, though. Our goal is to make it to Atlanta, and we'll get there."
Even without Tebow?
Even with four new coaches?
Even with a schedule that includes road games at Tennessee, Alabama and Florida State?
"We don't ever fall off," guard Carl Johnson said. "We just reload. Tebow was a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. You can never replace a player like that, but we have a phenomenal quarterback in John Brantley."
Rainey believes Florida might be better off without some of the guys who turned pro. He called this "the closest team I've ever been around."
"I guess we got rid of the prima donnas and the (selfish) cats. There are no rock stars this year, definitely not," Rainey said. "You can say cliques or (selfish) cats, stuff like that, worried about themselves, worried about trying to get to the NFL."
It seems odd that anyone would question Florida's chemistry given the team won 22 consecutive games and advanced to the conference title game in three of the last years. Rainey did, though. He was the only one, though. Everyone else was more concerned with getting another shot at Alabama.
"Everybody that was on the team last year felt the heartbreak that we experienced, and none of us wants to do it again," Sanders said. "Anytime you lose a game, especially one that big, you always focus on the points that cause you to lose the game. That's definitely been a factor to how hard we've been training and why we have been working so hard."