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Season of redemption

Steve Spurrier is embarrassed by his team's late-season swoon in 1999, but he feels confident about the ability of his 2000 squad to rebound.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

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GAINESVILLE -- Steve Spurrier winced.

Eight months had passed since Florida closed the 1999 season with three consecutive losses, an unprecedented feat in Spurrier's 10 seasons, but the frustration was fresh.

Three straight losses.

Three stupid losses.

"What eats at me is the way we lost," Spurrier said, his face gnarled with exasperation. "When you play with so many errors, so many penalties, so many crucial bad plays, so many plays where you say, "Why did you do that? What were you thinking?' -- that eats at you."

After a most perplexing finish to its most successful decade, Florida hopes to resume its place atop the Southeastern Conference this season by regaining the mental and physical precision that marked its program in the mid-1990s.

Less wincing, more winning.

"It was embarrassing the way we did things last year," Spurrier said. "We need to teach them to line up correctly and play within the rules, be more demanding. We're going to try to be smarter and tougher. We're ready to redeem ourselves."

Last season, mistakes were plentiful. Florida got away with committing five turnovers and having two touchdowns called back in a critical 23-21 victory against Tennessee. It lost three fumbles in a rain-soaked 31-10 victory at Louisiana State. It gave up 369 yards to the SEC's ninth-ranked offense in a 13-6 victory against Vanderbilt.

"We need to blow some teams out this year and not let them hang around," said junior offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, a preseason All-SEC pick who will miss the first half of the opener for fighting during the Citrus Bowl. "I mean, Vanderbilt could have beat us last year. They wanted it. It was just lucky that we won."

Florida was not always so lucky. It paid a high price -- its 30-game home win streak -- for a muffed punt and missed extra point in a 40-39 overtime loss to Alabama in October. But it saved the worst for last.

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr. / 1999]
Steve Spurrier still winces over last season’s dismal finish, including a loss to Alabama in the SEC title game.
UF fell out of the national championship race after committing 15 penalties, including two in first-and-goal situations, in a 30-23 loss to Florida State. It suffered public humiliation after a total offensive meltdown in the SEC Championship Game, a 34-7 loss to Alabama. And it dropped from the Top -10 of the final rankings for the first time in seven years after a 37-34 loss to Michigan State in the Citrus Bowl.

The Gators were 9-4.

"Looking at tapes after the games last year, we shot ourselves in the foot," sophomore tailback Earnest Graham said. "All those games we lost we were right in there but made dumb mistakes. Hopefully we can correct those things this year so that if we lose it will be a matter of a team beating us instead of us beating ourselves."

The keys to redemption in 2000, Spurrier said, are depth and a time-tested motivational tool: the bench. Last season, the Gators had little to choose from in the way of reserves, especially on defense. Players who made mistakes usually stayed in the game to make more.

This season, there are options. Buoyed by the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, Florida is two-deep at nearly every position, except the injury-riddled offensive line. There is fierce competition for starting jobs and playing time, with no such thing as job security.

"When a player is on the field and he knows you've got nobody else behind him, he's not too concerned about being accountable every play," Spurrier said. "We're going to be a little less tolerant this season. Players who have a difficult time carrying out their assignments or playing within the rules won't play as much. Playing time is the best motivating factor."

While it remains to be seen whether the 2000 Gators will be smarter or tougher than last season's team, Spurrier already sees one difference. And he takes it as a positive sign. This season's players, he said, are more respectful.

"I don't want to talk negative about players from the past, but the players we have right now are very attentive," Spurrier said. "They try to do exactly what the coaches ask them to do. They look you in the eye and say, "Yes, sir,' and "No, sir.' They're fun guys to work with. We have very few guys who think they know more than the coaches right now."

At that notion, Spurrier smiled.

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