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Irrelevance shows up early at UF again

Published October 10, 2004

GAINESVILLE - It wasn't the coolness of the breeze, although that helped. It wasn't the rambunctious nature of the crowd, although that was nice.

No, there was something else. Something familiar, yet hard to define. Something that made this Saturday night at Florida Field seem more alive.

Eventually, it hit you. Finally, it all became clear.

You came to realize what has been missing.

The thrill of hope.

It was there when the Gators ran onto the field, and it was gone by the time they left. Florida gave away another lead and, with it, another season.

If there is one characteristic that has distinguished Ron Zook's first three teams in Gainesville, it is the speed with which they play a season.

They open camp in August, have their first kickoff in September and bury expectations in the early days of October.

Oh, they'll keep playing. They might even run off a late winning streak, as they've done the previous two seasons.

But, understand, it is all bells and whistles. There is no substance to a charge that comes when all hope is lost. There is no gallantry in inconsequential success.

Essentially, the Gators gave up hope of winning the Eastern Division on Saturday night. Even if they do not lose another game, they would have to depend on Tennessee suffering two upsets in its final four SEC games.

"We've put ourselves back in a deep hole," Zook said. "It's one we can come out of. We've been there before."

It's a simple premise, but a football season should not end before the World Series begins. And that has forever been the case in the Zook era.

Oh, you might have more specific gripes. In the past, you might have complained about the plodding nature of the offense. Or the lack of desperation on defense. But those are details.

What really galls is the absence of significance.

Too many Saturdays with too little at stake can make even a respectable season appear less than it should.

A September loss to Miami can be excused. A late loss to Florida State can be swallowed. But early losses in the Southeastern Conference rip the heart out of a season. And no matter how well UF might rally, the lasting impression is the helplessness created by early stumbles.

This is not an exaggeration. It is not a petty issue. After three successive seasons, it is now a trend. And it's incredibly disturbing.

The Gators have two SEC losses within the first two weeks of October for the third consecutive season. In the previous 13 seasons, it happened once.

That means Florida is doomed to play a high number of meaningless games, which means the focus once again will turn to Zook's leadership.

And that can't be a good thing.

The worst part of Saturday's 24-21 loss to LSU was not the defensive breakdowns. It wasn't the penalties or the lack of offense.

It was the inevitability of it all.

After choking at Tennessee and gasping against Arkansas, it was perfectly natural to see the Gators wheezing vs. LSU.

They led for 55 of the 60 minutes yet never seemed in control. It was not a question of whether the Tigers would come back, but rather, how long it would take them.

You knew it was coming. Everyone knew it was coming. Even when LSU began the fourth quarter by throwing an interception. Even when the Tigers had a field goal blocked. Even when they punted inside the four-minute mark.

You have seen too many leads evaporate in too many critical moments to reasonably believe otherwise.

Look, this isn't a case of unwarranted expectations. It isn't a matter of outlandish demands. All you can ask of a team is to make a season worth caring about. To provide a reasonable level of suspense.

To make the next month more important than the one that came before it.

Instead, the Gators have made October meaningless and November insignificant. The next time you check the Florida schedule with any sense of anticipation, it will read 2005 above it.

The fascination is that, under Zook, the Gators have been the best finishers in the league. Four consecutive SEC victories to close out '02. Five in a row to finish last season.

In a way, it could be a compliment to their resilience. Or a knock on their courage. It depends, really, on your perspective.

You could argue the Gators have been at their best when things have looked the worst. Or you might say they have played well only when it didn't matter.

It's a shame, really. The night was set up for so much more. The crowd was electric and the television broadcast was national.

Tennessee's victory against Georgia earlier in the day had dimmed Florida's title hopes, but there was still hope available.

And that, in the end, is all you can ask.

[Last modified October 10, 2004, 00:55:15]

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