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Season ends miles from Florida's control

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002


GAINESVILLE -- Players were chased out of their rooms before the telecast began. They arrived early at the stadium only to find the TV sets near the locker room silent and the remotes confiscated.

Even when they reached the field, Florida players looked up at a scoreboard that was censoring out-of-town results.

If only Auburn were this thorough.

In a day that meant everything, the Gators played a game that turned out to mean very little. In the long history of homecoming games at the University of Florida, this may be the first remembered as a road loss.

For while the Gators were slapping around South Carolina 28-7, their season was being decided a couple of hundred miles away.

That was where Auburn was playing Georgia in a game that would decide who would be the Southeastern Conference East champion. A Georgia win meant Florida was second. A Georgia loss meant the Gators finished first.

It was that simple. And that frustrating.

No matter how hard Florida coaches tried to create a news blackout, there was no way they could keep players from learning their fate.

After Florida scored its first touchdown, guard Shannon Snell came off the field and went looking for someone in the bleachers behind the Florida bench. A fan had brought a portable TV and was intermittently shouting out the results for UF players.

The last Snell heard, Auburn was up 21-17 late in the fourth.

And now?

Georgia had gone ahead.

"Y'all don't want to know what I said," Snell said. "I started cussing and stomping around. Nobody else heard the guy, but they heard me cussing."

At Florida Field, kickoff is more than two hours away. Almost directly across West University Avenue, in a hovel known as the Purple Porpoise, the game already is in the first quarter.

This is the beginning of the longest day of Florida's season. A midafternoon start that stretches into the night. One whistle to begin a game in Auburn and another to end the evening, and the season, in Gainesville.

The crowd in the Porpoise looks typical but sounds alien. The hats, shirts, even the tattoos have Gator designs. The cheers are for Auburn.

Four Florida fans stand underneath a TV and in front of the tub of ice filled with oversized beers.

"Go War Eagle," one shouts.

His companions frown.

No need to go overboard.

Many fans came late and left early. In between, they spent a good deal of time awaiting updates of a game across state lines.

So it went for Florida fans in 2002. The season's promise always seemed annoyingly out of their reach.

Like the coach in Oklahoma who decided he would rather not come, like the third downs in Mississippi that forever came up short.

In many ways the season has been a success. Just not in ways UF fans have grown accustomed.

"I would have loved to have gotten another one of these," senior guard David Jorgensen said, holding up the 2000 SEC championship ring on his right hand. "Tonight was kind of bittersweet. It was the last game at this stadium for a lot of us, so it meant a lot. But it could have been better."

There was no announcement. Really, there was no need.

There were enough TVs in the luxury boxes, enough radios in the bleachers for word to spread of the Auburn-Georgia game.

If they were paying attention, Florida players could have figured it out by the reaction, or lack thereof, in the stadium.

The chant seemed to begin somewhere in the north end zone. Faint at first, but quickly growing in intensity.

Let's go Auburn, let's go Auburn ...

The Tigers are clinging to a 21-17 lead and Georgia appears down to its final plays. A third-down pass from the 19 is knocked away in the end zone by a leaping Auburn defensive back.

LET'S GO AUBURN, LET'S GO AUBURN ...

On fourth and 15, Georgia quarterback David Greene throws a floater to the back of the end zone for a winning touchdown.

At Florida Field, the crowd goes silent. So quiet, you could hear a grin drop.

This is not the first Florida season to end prematurely.

The Gators actually failed to reach the SEC Championship Game in three of Steve Spurrier's final five seasons.

But if you lean toward skepticism, there is a difference. When Spurrier was around, you knew a three-loss season was one of the down years. With Ron Zook, you're still not certain whether this is a down year or a prelude to something worse.

Among the players, at least, there is a sense of hope. They point not to the mid-season stumble, but the late-season rally.

Since dropping out of the Top 25 in mid October, Florida has won four in a row. A 10-victory season is possible, a New Year's game better than probable.

So the news is not all grim.

Sometimes, you just have to know where to look.

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