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How do you spell downfall? Z-O-O-K

By GARY SHELTON
Published October 5, 2003

GAINESVILLE - You feared they were average. They are not. They are awful.

You called them mediocre. That was wishful thinking. They are miserable.

You thought they were just another team. That's silly. They're the team that gets invited to play against just another team in its homecoming.

Yep, that is the Florida Gators.

And this is where they have landed.

It is worse than you suspected, more wretched than you imagined. The Gators' descent into darkness continued Saturday with the alarming, appalling realization they have turned, egad, into Ole Miss' bobo.

Not long ago, it seems, the Gators were among the royalty of college football. Now, they find themselves on the streets. And guess what? The commoners aren't bowing any longer.

The Gators lost to Ole Miss 20-17 Saturday in a result you could feel coming from the conclusion of halftime. It didn't feel like a fluke, and it didn't feel like an upset. What it felt like was the latest in a series.

For the first time since World War II, the Gators have lost in back-to-back seasons to Ole Miss. Sadly, this says more about them than the Rebels. Ole Miss is still Ole Miss; on the other hand, the Gators have become something less.

Remember all those things the Gators used to feel above? They are uphill from here.

Welcome to Baylor. Welcome to Missouri. Welcome to darned-near-Duke.

Not only that, but welcome to 2005.

As of right here, as of right now, I declare it the year-after-next. That's because, in a recent column, in a rare attempt at being rational, I suggested Zook should get this season and all of next one. Silly me.

Today's opinion? Why wait? Call it 2005, and release the hounds. More and more, it seems evident the Gators have hired their version of Ray Goff, the old Georgia coach picked on so gleefully by Gator fans. You know: Good guy, good recruiter and good-Lord-why-did-he-call-that-play?

Consider Saturday's debacle. Entering the game, Ole Miss ranked 117th in pass defense, and if three more teams had taken up the sport, it would have ranked 120th.

Zook? Out of 30 first-down plays, he ran 23 times. Why? Because, Zook said, he felt he had to establish the run.

Uh-huh.

Look, your aunt Martha could throw for 300 yards against Ole Miss. They generally had no clue where the Florida receivers came from, let alone where they were going. I'm not sure all the Ole Miss corners were certain which Gators were eligible receivers.

And Zook ran.

Of course he did.

Now the loyalists who want to defend Zook, and there are fewer this week, will point out that he is playing with a freshman quarterback in Chris Leak, and he was trying to keep the pressure off. What pressure? If a quarterback needs to be protected from the last-ranked pass defense in the nation, then maybe he shouldn't be playing.

This is no longer a surprise. With Zook, it always is something. And it brings us back to the most basic question about any leader of any program: Is his team well-coached, or isn't it?

No, it isn't.

The Gators never look smooth or smart or slick. The only flaws they expose are their own. They are a lousy team that has played two straight weeks against lousy teams, and they're darned lucky to be 1-1.

Remember, this is a program that has been ranked in one poll or the other since 1990, a total of 226 weeks (that's the longest streak in the NCAA; Georgia is second with 35). Now, the Gators are about to fall out, and all you can say is that it's about time. If there is any justice, Florida won't be in the top 50, which should add volume to the criticism.

"We've got to circle the wagons," Zook said. "There is going to be a lot of noise in the system."

Yes, and most of it sounds like gears grinding and pistons misfiring and fans booing and alumni grumbling and players talking about bearing down and tightening up and all the other things 4-7 teams talk about.

Just for the record, exactly how does one register at FireRonZook.com? Also, at Don'tFeedRonZookinPublicRestaurants.com, and in MakeRonZookWearFunnyClothes.com?

For Florida, this was the third loss in its past five home SEC games. Remember when the Swamp used to be a tough place to play? It still is ... if you're coached by Zook.

"Not to be insulting," said Ole Miss running back Vashon Pearson, "but when I think of Florida, it's just another name."

Alas, it has come to this. Trashed and trash-talked, both by Ole Miss.

Here the Gators are, staring a losing record in the eye. They're 3-3 and looking at the meat of their schedule, with games against LSU and Arkansas, Georgia and FSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Is there any hope? Sure there is.

Vandy could be overconfident.

[Last modified October 5, 2003, 01:49:47]


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