Gators down and almost out

UF faces early elimination


If adversity gives a team an identity, then lineman Mo Mitchell and the Gators will know themselves well soon enough, because they're facing more adversity than any UF team has in many years.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, October 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 11, 2003 at 1:21 a.m.

BATON ROUGE, La.- He's described it as young, inexperienced, improving, energetic, competitive, determined, together, focused.

Now, today, Ron Zook will discover exactly what this Florida football team is all about.

"When times get tough, you really find out what kind of football team you really have," said the beleaguered Florida coach. "We talk about that stuff in the summer and spring."

Now, it's here. Tough times, hard times. If adversity gives a team an identity, then the Gators will know themselves well soon enough, because they're facing more adversity than any UF team has in many years.

Heading into only the seventh week of the season, the Gators are facing early elimination in the SEC's Eastern Division race. UF has been clinging to the idea that it still has a shot at Atlanta. One more loss and that little bit of hope will be gone, along perhaps with any chance of turning this season into anything positive.

"We have backed ourselves into a hole," Zook said. "We let one slip away (last week in a home loss to Ole Miss) and now we have to go get one.

"LSU is a very talented team and in a lot of areas the best team we've played. It will be a great challenge for us and our guys are excited about going out there."

This is going to be a tough hole to get out of - and today's game is just the start. If the Gators do somehow pull the upset, another top-10 team (Arkansas) will await the Gators next week in Fayetteville. The game after that, it's Georgia in Jacksonville.

"It is do-or-die," senior cornerback Johnny Lamar said. "But we are not going to focus on that. We are just trying to focus on the things we need to do to go into LSU and win a game. We can't control anything else but that."

LSU is ranked sixth in the nation and nice and refreshed coming off an open date. And the Gators can forget any possibility of the Tigers overlooking them. Florida has beaten LSU in nine of the last 11 games at Tiger Stadium, and LSU coach Nick Saban has been pointing out to his players all week that Florida is still Florida. The Gators may be in disarray, but they can still bite.

"I'm sure we'll need intensity and momentum in this game, because Florida is still an elite team and we have proper respect for them," Saban said. "We could win or lose every game from here on out. What you have to focus on with the players is the present moment. You can't get these games back. You have to play with readiness, play smart and play with the intensity of good football. You can't be looking past anybody at this point."

Florida certainly will be playing with a sense of urgency today. Another loss and the motivation (playing for the division title) will be gone, and this team might be in danger of fragmenting. And the pressure on Zook might blow right off the scale. He's been under growing criticism since the Gators opened the SEC season with a loss to Tennessee in The Swamp.

If the Gators don't right themselves immediately, they'll be right on course to have the school's first losing season since 1979, the 0-10-1 year. They are trying to avoid losing three SEC games for first time since 1989.

Considering their recent blunders, the Gators remain somewhat optimistic.

"I haven't been around a group of guys that have more heart than this team," senior linebacker Reid Fleming said. "Everybody is saying we're down and out and don't have a chance. But we have a lot more games in the season.

"This is the same team that was up on Miami by 20 points. This team hasn't changed. We just need to go out and execute, have a couple of balls bounce our way and see what happens."

The Gators have been struggling in all phases of their game, especially on offense, where true freshman quarterback Chris Leak is battling inconsistency and a conservative game plan by Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher. Leak and the offense likely will have a difficult time today against one of the nation's strongest defenses.

'"We are not as productive as we need to be right now on offense," Zook said. "I think it's as simple as that."

As simple and as complicated.

You can reach Robbie Andreu by e-mail at andreur@gvillesun.com or by calling (352) 374-5022.

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