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College football

Gators know improvement is expected

Coach Ron Zook says his first season didn't live up to UF's high standards, but he is excited about the future.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

TAMPA -- Twenty minutes after Florida's 2002 season officially ended with a 38-30 loss to Michigan in the Outback Bowl, players stated the obvious.

The grace period -- if there ever really was one -- is over for first-year coach Ron Zook and his team.

"I think things will get ugly," junior cornerback/receiver Keiwan Ratliffe said when asked what things will be like if the Gators have a similar season this fall. "In the state of Florida at the big three schools, like you see with Bobby Bowden, a lot of people are starting to question whether he should stay or not. After everything he's done at that university and two bad seasons everybody's down on the coach. So if we come out and have five losses again next year, I think everybody will look at that as unacceptable."

From the moment Zook was named successor to Steve Spurrier, questions arose about whether he was the right person for the job. Zook had never been a head coach.

In his first season, Florida (8-5) finished with fewer than nine wins and outside of the Associated Press Top 15 for the first time in 12 years.

What made the season so unsettling for Gator fans was its unpredictability. Florida defeated Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia -- all ranked at the time -- and went undefeated in the SEC East.

"Nobody else can say that," running back Ran Carthon said. "And that in itself should tell you what type of team we had this year."

Except it doesn't.

Because the Gators also lost to LSU and then-unranked Mississippi. They struggled against Vanderbilt and looked shaky against Ohio University. Florida also lost to archrival FSU -- in a week during which the Seminoles' starting quarterback was dismissed from the team.

"Obviously it's not where we have to be," Zook said. "That's not the standard that's been set there, and that's not the standard that we're going to have there. But that's where we are right now. I'm excited about the future, I'm excited about the progression of the program. I'm excited in where we're going."

Zook's excitement should be tempered, depending on what his starting quarterback decides. Rex Grossman is pondering an early jump to the NFL, which would leave Florida inexperienced at that position. Florida also is losing defensive coordinator John Thompson and special-teams coach Jerry Odom. South Carolina defensive coordinator Charlie Strong will replace Thompson.

The Gators will return the bulk of their offensive line, which struggled at times in protecting Grossman, but whose members vow will be much improved with experience in Zook's new system.

Many critics predicted the Gators would fare no better than they did, but it was the way many of those losses came -- including an ill-fated final play that resulted in an interception in Wednesday's Outback Bowl -- that caused so much second-guessing.

And yet, it only strengthened the players' resolve to improve.

"We're far better than an 8-5 team, things just didn't go our way sometimes and sometimes we didn't let it go our way," Carthon said. ... "But the guys coming back, we know (what) we've got to do next year, and I already told them that we're not coming back to this bowl again. We're trying to compete to be the best team in the country."

One of the most positive things the Gators can take from this season is their cohesiveness. Through it all, particularly the midseason losing streak, the players never turned on each other -- or the coaching staff.

Even in the end, the Gators refused to be told they didn't accomplish anything.

"The fact that we had the opportunity to go to the bowl game is a big accomplishment for us," offensive tackle Max Starks said, adding that few expected the Gators to finish better than 7-5. "Our season wasn't as great as we wanted, but we did make a lot of things happen and we did a lot of things great during the course of the season."

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