Outback Bowl teams hope to validate success

Florida coach Ron Zook answers a question at a press conference in Tampa, Fla. Wednesday Dec. 31, 2003. Florida will face Iowa in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.

AP Photo/David Kadlubowski
Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:59 p.m.

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - It was mid-October, the Florida Gators were a .500 team and coach Ron Zook wanted his players to know things were not nearly as bad as they seemed.

"The Friday night before the LSU game at our team meeting, I said: `Is there anybody here that doesn't think we could be 6-0?' We could just as easily have been 6-0 at that time as 3-3," Zook said.

"We lost to three good football teams, and we could have won all three of those games. And I think from that point on they began to realize we do have a chance to be a good football team. We can be a good team, and we are a good team."

The 17th-ranked Gators (8-4) upset LSU 19-7 on the road the next day to begin a strong stretch run that landed them in the Outback Bowl for the second straight year. But unlike last New Year's Day, Zook isn't feeling as much pressure to finish the season on a high note.

A loss to No. 13 Iowa on Thursday almost certainly will renew sentiment among some fans for bringing back Steve Spurrier, especially now that the former Florida coach has left his job as coach of the Washington Redskins.

But it wouldn't be nearly as devastating as last year's 38-30 Outback loss to Michigan because of the way Zook led his team down the stretch against one of the most demanding schedules in the nation.

"Every game at the University of Florida is important to win, and I'm sure it's the same thing at Iowa. I'm not going to put it on our team that hey, we have to go in there and win this game," Zook said.

"I think they feel good about themselves and good about the direction of the program and what they've accomplished this year."

Still, beating Iowa would validate the Gators' 5-1 record since mid-October and ease some of the sting from the 38-34 regular season-ending loss to Florida State that stopped a five-game winning streak.

"This game is a big game because a lot of people say we're the same team as last year," Florida receiver Kelvin Kight said.

Like Zook, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is focused on now.

Iowa is 20-5 the last two seasons, the best two-year run in school history. But the Hawkeyes haven't won a bowl game in January since 1959 and feel they need to beat Florida to truly re-establish themselves as one of the top programs in the country.

Winning also would atone for an embarrassing 38-17 loss to USC in last season's Orange Bowl.

"It's not so much that we lost, it's the way we lost ... the fact we didn't play our game is disappointing," Ferentz said.

"We don't talk a lot about winning and losing. We talk more about playing the best we can play. You do that, you usually get what you deserve. We got what we deserved last year. We got spanked."

Zook shrugged off questions about Spurrier's abrupt resignation from the Redskins, as well as the impact it might have on him and the team against Iowa.

"It has not been a distraction to me at all. I'll tell you this, coach knows what he's doing. I was with him for five years, and he'll be fine," said Zook, a former Spurrier assistant.

If anyone understands what Zook has gone through following Spurrier, it's Ferentz. The Iowa coach replaced Hall of Famer Hayden Fry five years ago and went 12-30 in his first three seasons.

Zook marvels at what Ferentz has been able to accomplish in turning the Hawkeyes around the past two years.

"There's no question what he has done with the program. They lost an awful lot of players last year, and for them to be able to come back and do the things that they've accomplished this year, it shows you that the program is in the right direction," Zook said.

The Gators are in a January bowl for a Southeastern Conference-record 11th consecutive year. And win or lose Thursday, Zook is convinced this team is better than the one he brought to Tampa with an identical record last year.

"I said from the start that I thought we'd be better. I also said I don't know if the record's going to prove that out," Zook said.

"But there's no doubt in my mind. If you look at the four losses. We were in every game and had an opportunity to win all four games. Not that we didn't last year, but I think if there was a gap, the gap is closed."

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