A victory today would help ease the Gators' pain


Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 1:11 a.m.

Tampa

It is the same amount of time it takes to listen to a good tune. Plug in a Jimi Hendrix CD and listen to "Are You Experienced?" When you're finished think about how quickly it went by.

That's how close Florida is to possibly playing for a national championship this season.

Three minutes, 49 seconds.

That's it.

Florida held the lead in games it lost against Miami, Ole Miss and Florida State until the cumulative 3:49 of those games.

"You try not to think about that," said defensive back Keiwan Ratliff, who was on the field for all three of those heart-wrenching touchdowns. "It'll get you down."

But it also provides incentive for today's game against Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

They want it for a lot of reasons. It has nothing to do with who they are playing or where they are playing.

They want it for their coach and the seniors and the kids who have been encouraged all week to get Florida back to where it once belonged.

But mostly, they want it because they don't want 8-5.

Not again.

Not losses in their last two games.

Not again.

They're too good to finish 8-5, they insist.

Not again.

"People outside this team, they see 8-4 and they don't understand," said safety Darryl Dixon. "If they see 8-5, they'll think we were just like last season. We're not like last season.

"We know we're a better team than last year. It just didn't work out. But we're not an 8-4 team. I just wish people could understand that."

Ron Zook said it early, said it often as the season went along. This would be a better football team than last season's.

We chuckled.

You lost Rex Grossman, Taylor Jacobs, Clint Mitchell, Ian Scott, Mike Nattiel, Todd Johnson, etc. You had 10 guys at the NFL Combine last year and very few players we could see heading there this year.

Last year's team, that was a good team that just didn't show up at times. This year? Hah, you've got way too many young guys to be better.

And yet, they are.

This Florida team, which looked as if it was heading down a disastrous road after six games, showed why it is better as much in its losses as in its wins. A year ago, after the Miami game, everyone wondered about the talent gap. Ditto FSU. LSU had overtaken Florida. Could the Gators ever recover?

Zook had the answer. His team would be young, but talented. His seniors would hold the team together while the kids figured it out. In the end, they would be better.

In the end, they were a team nobody wanted to play.

"I said all along we'd be a better football team," Zook said. "I didn't know if it would show in the record."

So far, it hasn't.

They are 8-4 again. It's a different 8-4. Nobody beat them badly. Nobody embarrassed them. They lost three tough games. They could have won any of the four they lost. That wasn't the case a year ago.

Three minutes, 49 seconds.

They could be in New Orleans. If they held on and had lost only to Tennessee and they found a way to win the SEC Championship Game, they'd be in New Orleans playing for a national championship. That's how good they were this year.

How close they were.

That's why they need this one so badly.

"We said all along we'd be a better team," Ratliff said, "and 8-5 doesn't cut it."

Iowa is in the way, a roadblock on their path to respectability, to self-pride.

To 9-4. It used to be 9-4 wasn't a big deal, but for this team it is because 9-4 didn't seem possible in the days after the Ole Miss loss.

Then came the meeting, the hearts-to-hearts talk among the players. Then came the night before the LSU game, when Zook stood before his team and said, "Is there anybody in here who doesn't think we could be 6-0?"

Despite all the noise in the system, they realized they could be. Should be.

"I think from that point on they began to realize we do have a chance to be a good football team," Zook said. "And we are a good team."

They know it.

They want you to know it.

They want everyone to know it.

That's why today means so much.

"People understand records," Ratliff said. "They don't understand performances."

They understand 9-4. And 8-5.

They understand how close this team was to something special. But they also understand close doesn't cut it.

Neither does 8-5.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat weekdays from 4-5 p.m. on WGGG 1230-AM in Gainesville and WMOP 900-AM in Ocala.

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