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Unranked Florida Gators Freefall

October 13, 2002

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida coach Ron Zook keeps talking about how long it takes players to learn a new system.

For the record, it took Steve Spurrier’s Gators about one quarter.

Using a passing game that would eventually redefine the way college football is played, Spurrier’s Gators beat Oklahoma State 50-7 in his first game, Sept. 8, 1990, on the way to a 9-2 record.

That game stands out as historically significant because it was the last time the Gators were unranked in The Associated Press poll _ until Sunday, when a nation-leading streak of 209 weeks in the poll ended after an embarrassing 36-7 loss to No. 14 LSU.

``I told our team last night, there’s no one in that locker room that’s been in this situation,″ Zook said Sunday. ``Now, everybody’s eyes are on us as a football team as how we’re going to handle that situation.″

As of now, however, this is a team that’s painful to watch.

Tired of booing and watching LSU make Zook’s Gators look silly, Florida fans cleared out of The Swamp quickly Saturday night. A number of fans after the game were as confused and frustrated about what’s going on as the coach, the players and athletic director Jeremy Foley seem to be.

``He’s a good man, he just hasn’t got it together yet,″ Florida fan Jeff Mullinax said, when asked for his thoughts on Zook. ``I don’t know how long this thing will take.″

Foley said Zook has his full support.

``We’re all trying to get better,″ Foley said. ``All you can do when you go through a situation like that is go back into the fox hole and go back to work.″

But hard work obviously isn’t the only answer.

Zook says the Gators (4-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) still have plenty to play for _ like the SEC title. It’s a surprisingly optimistic statement about a team that is getting markedly worse each week.

Rex Grossman threw four interceptions for the second straight game. The Gators, running an offense designed by former Marshall coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, again failed to crack the 300-yard threshold. Last season, Grossman had thrown for more than 300 yards by halftime in four games.

``I don’t know who Marshall has, I don’t know their personnel,″ Zook said. ``I know right now we’re not executing the way we need to execute, and we have personnel that can execute this offense a lot better than what we’re doing right now.″

Much has been made about the talent deficiency Zook inherited, and indeed, many of those points are legitimate.

Still, this is a team with no fewer than three big-time playmakers: Grossman, who threw for four touchdowns coming off the bench in the Orange Bowl, Spurrier’s last game at Florida; Taylor Jacobs, the MVP of that game; and Earnest Graham, who ran for 149 yards in that game.

This is a team that was the favorite to win the national title through most of last season, and this is the team that beat LSU 44-15 last season in Baton Rouge.

This year, the Gators have lost two games at home (Miami and LSU) by a total of 51 points. They have lost consecutive conference games for the first time since 1992. They have turned a Heisman-caliber quarterback into a bottom dweller on the SEC stat sheet, with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

And they have made Florida fans deal with this harsh reality: The Gators are not a national dynasty in the same respect that Oklahoma (seven national titles) or Miami (five titles since 1983) are. This was a troubled, mediocre, unlovable loser for decades before Spurrier arrived, and it’s again taking on aspects of that in the 10 months since he left.

``Nobody’s happy with the way they’re playing,″ said Steve Melnyk, a member of the board of directors for Gators Boosters Inc. ``But I’m sure they’ll do something about it. Ron Zook, Jeremy Foley, the whole staff and administration have our full support.″

For how long?

Tune in next Saturday, when the Gators play Auburn in the first meeting of two unranked teams at The Swamp since Spurrier took over in 1990.