ATLANTA (AP) -Halfway through the Southeastern Conference title game, Florida knew it had a shot at playing for an even bigger championship.
The Gators may just get it, thanks to freshman Percy Harvin and an opportunistic special teams.
Harvin scored two touchdowns and No. 4 Florida put up two more scores off a blocked punt and a botched return, leading the Gators to a wild 38-28 victory over eighth-ranked Arkansas for their first SEC crown since 2000 on Saturday night.
Now, Florida has its eye on another prize. No. 2 Southern California, which had the inside track to face top-ranked Ohio State in the BCS championship game, blew its chance with a 13-9 loss to UCLA.
The Gators (12-1) are hoping their win over Arkansas was impressive enough to vault them past third-ranked Michigan in the BCS standings. The media, coaches and computers will answer that question Sunday.
When everything is settled – and no matter what happens, there will be plenty of griping – Florida either heads to the desert to face Ohio State in the Jan. 8 BCS championship game or settles for a spot in the Sugar Bowl as the SEC champion.
For those who complained that Florida didn’t play an exciting brand of football, relying a little too heavily on its defense, there was a little something for everyone in this one – starting with big plays galore and plenty of razzle-dazzle.
Harvin, who was chosen MVP, caught a 37-yard touchdown pass and broke off a 67-yard run to the end zone. Florida scored its first touchdown after Jarred Fayson broke up the middle to block a punt, then went ahead for good when Wondy Pierre-Louis fell on a fumbled punt in the end zone late in the third quarter.
Three touchdown passes were thrown by someone other than a quarterback.
Florida receiver Andre Caldwell hooked up with Tate Casey on a 5-yard score. Arkansas’ star running back, Darren McFadden, threw a 2-yard TD to fellow runner Felix Jones, who also hauled in a 29-yard scoring pass from receiver Cedric Washington.
Arkansas (10-3) certainly didn’t make it easy on the Gators, rallying from a 17-0 deficit after being held without a touchdown in their first two appearances in the SEC title game.
The Razorbacks got on the board just before halftime when Casey Dick threw a 48-yard TD pass to Marcus Monk. In the third period, they came up with two interceptions against Florida’s senior quarterback, Chris Leak – the first setting up a TD, the second returned 40 yards for a score by 255-pound defensive end Antwain Robinson.
But in the end, Florida made a few more plays than the Razorbacks, who will have to settle for a spot in either the Capital One, Outback or Cotton Bowl.
“BCS, give us a shot!” one Florida fan pleaded toward the press box, aware that some voters who will have a hand in that decision were covering the game.
USC held a 9-7 halftime lead over its crosstown rival when the Gators kicked off to Arkansas.
Early in the second quarter, there was a smattering of applause among the Florida contingent when they got word that UCLA had gone ahead. At halftime, the Georgia Dome erupted – at least the sections where fans were wearing blue and orange – when the Bruins preserved their stunning upset with a late interception.
After Arkansas stormed ahead 21-17, Florida reclaimed the momentum when Reggie Fish made a ghastly error on a punt return.
Filling in for the Razorbacks’ regular returner, who didn’t make the trip because of an injury, Fish inexplicably tried to field a punt near his own goal line with an over-the-shoulder catch. He couldn’t hang on, the ball squirted into the end zone and Pierre-Louis fell on it to put the Gators back ahead.
Harvin extended the lead with his second TD. The receiver took a handoff from Leak on what appeared to be an end around, only to stop suddenly and head back in the other direction. He found a huge hole and didn’t stop running until 67 yards later.
Harvin finished with six carries for 105 yards and had five catches for another 62 yards.
Florida shut down Arkansas’ powerful run game, limiting Heisman Trophy-contender McFadden to 73 yards on 21 carries – 50 yards below his season average.
The Gators, playing in their first SEC title game since they won the last of six conference titles under Steve Spurrier in 2000, got off to a start that was reminiscent of their “Fun ‘n’ Gun” days.
Embattled kicker Chris Hetland punched through a 33-yard field goal – his longest of the season – and Leak scored on a 9-yard run after Fayson’s block. The Gators were really cruising when Harvin, working from the slot, beat Darius Bennett off the line to made his touchdown catch.
Leak also went by 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel as the leading passer in Florida history with the 37-yard throw.
Instead of folding, Arkansas made a rousing comeback. Monk scored on the long pass from Dick, even though cornerback Reggie Lewis was called for interference as he was falling down.
The Arkansas defense stepped up in the second half, taking advantage of two big mistakes by Leak.
First, the quarterback never took his eyes on the intended receiver and was picked off by linebacker Weston Dacus lurking in the middle of the field. Arkansas quickly drove for a TD, scoring off its “Wildcat” package that had McFadden taking a direct snap at the Florida 2.
Instead of running as everyone expected, McFadden flipped a quick pass to Jones for a TD that pulled the Razorbacks to 17-14. It shouldn’t have been surprising – McFadden is now 6-for-6 passing with three touchdowns this season.
Leak messed up again two possessions later, attempting a lateral-type pass out of the shotgun but not anticipating that Robinson would step in front of Harvin to grab the ball. The defensive end rumbled 40 yards the other way for a touchdown that gave Arkansas its first lead.
But Florida wasn’t going to let this chance get away.
When Ryan Smith made an interception in the end zone with about 3 minutes left, the Gators began celebrating. Coach Urban Meyer, who rebuilt a program that struggled under Spurrier successor Ron Zook, was doused with Gatorade – that’s appropriate – while the fans chanted “BCS! BCS! BCS!”
They’ll get an answer Sunday.