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College football: Outback Bowl

Despite it all, Gators see gains

Players stand by Ron Zook and insist they'll be a force next season.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published January 3, 2004

TAMPA - If you thought the Florida Gators' season was a period of unrest in Gainesville, just imagine what the next six months will be like.

Florida ended with a 20-point loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl and finished 8-5, identical to last season. Questions continue about coach Ron Zook and his staff's ability to keep the program at an elite level, and former coach Steve Spurrier just quit his NFL job and will return to his Gainesville home.

The fireronzook.com Web site that launched shortly after Zook was hired two years ago has a companion site: www.bringsteveback.com By Friday afternoon, it had more than 1,000 hits.

There's unrest in Gator country, and nobody knows that better than the players.

"This don't do nothing but put us back in a corner, with people doubting us again," freshman receiver Andre Caldwell said. "But we're going to come out fighting. We're going to work harder than all the (other) teams to get ready to compete for a national championship next year."

"Hopefully these young guys will look at what happened, then work hard to never let it happen again," cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "But I believe we are going in the right direction."

A season that began 3-3, then resurrected itself with a five-game winning streak, including three over ranked opponents, ended with a thud. In its final two games, Florida gave up 75 points.

But the players and coaches insist the ending does not indicate what lies ahead.

"We're a much improved football team than last year, even though we didn't show it out there," Zook said after Thursday's game. "There's no question in my mind that we're on the right track and no question in my mind that we're going to get to where we need to be. A few things here, a few things there and everything changes."

"I just think it has taken Coach Zook a few years to get the system implemented, and guys are starting to pick up on it now," senior offensive tackle Shannon Snell said. "He's got a great group of freshman coming in, and knowing him he's going to have a great recruiting class coming in. So things will be good again in Gator Land."

Still, as they sat inside Raymond James Stadium trying to explain the 37-17 loss, the players couldn't dodge the reality that 8-5 wasn't good enough.

"At Florida 8-5 is a failure," said linebacker Channing Crowder, who ranked No.1 nationally for freshman in tackles per game (8.2). "I didn't expect to come here and to lose this many games. And I don't plan on it next year."

Florida loses two three-year starters (offensive linemen Snell and Max Starks) and six players who started two seasons. The Gators return five players who started a combined 28 games this season as true freshmen.

"This (program), the sky is the limit for it," senior receiver Kelvin Kight said. "We have a lot of great receivers coming back, defensive backs, linebackers, all the skill positions you have a lot of great talent coming back. And Coach Zook is a recruiting genius, so he's going to be out there recruiting as hard as he can to get the best people in here that he can."

Zook's biggest ally next season may be Florida's schedule. The Gators open with five of six games at home, and those include Middle Tennessee State, Kentucky and Eastern Michigan.

Regardless of what type of recruiting class he lands, there are eight months before fall practice begins. The speculation about the future has started. The players realize its inevitable.

"When Spurrier wasn't available, they were still saying get rid of Zook," Crowder said. "That Internet site, I've never seen that at any other school. ... (Zook) is just in the limelight, coming in after Spurrier. Whoever it was, if John Madden came in to replace Spurrier, they would have criticized him, because it just wasn't Spurrier. That's all it is."

[Last modified January 3, 2004, 01:33:24]


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