SEC Media Days Notebook: Day Two

Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida were the featured teams on day two of the 2003 SEC Media Days.

Hoover, Ala.--Day two of the 2003 SEC Media Days was a day when one of the best couldn't make it in town because of projected bad weather and a newcomer struggled with his first time on the podium. Normally South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz is the talk of media days with his wit and straight-forward attitude. With him missing, day two centered on Mike Shula's first time on center stage as Alabama was joined by Ole Miss and Florida at The Wynfrey Hotel.

One of the top attractions on day two was the return of Eli Manning to media days. Perhaps college football's top quarterback heading into the 2003 season, Manning had a lot of interesting things to say about his Ole Miss team and their chances for success this season. As a senior, he knows how tough it's going to be to challenge for the SEC Championship, but he believes the Rebels have a chance if things play out right.

"Since I've been here we've beaten every team we've played in the West," Manning said. "Now we just have to put it all in one season. There's not a team out there we feel like we can't beat. We just have to go out there and play smart football. We have to run the ball better than we did last year. We can't be stuck in third and sevens and third and 10, we have to move the ball better and get first downs and put up some points. We need to try to have an opportunity to be in the game and win it in the fourth quarter."

Just like his older brother Peyton Manning did several years ago, Eli passed up the instant riches of the NFL for another chance to play college football. Saying that he didn't want to miss out on the college experience and the good times at Ole Miss, he also talked about the possibility of winning the ultimate award in college football.

"I'm just going to go out there and play good football and win games for Ole Miss," Manning said. "If we can win games and I can play smart football, then at the end if they want to put me in the Heisman it will be because we won some games."

While Manning has proven himself time and time again on Ole Miss, Ron Zook is still trying to win over the fans at Florida. Following a five-loss season in his first in Gainesville, Zook said he's looking forward to this season. One of the problems he faces, along with a murderous schedule that features games against eastern rivals Georgia and Tennessee along with western foes LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss and out of conference games against Miami and Florida State, is the loss of numerous key players on both sides of the ball.

Ron Zook

"Obviously there are a whole lot of question marks about the University of Florida as there were last year," Zook said. "On Aug. 30, the first game, we're going to have 46 new guys that has never played come out of that tunnel. We're going to have a guy on the 20-yard line pointing to the right side of the bench. We just want to make sure they go to the right side. We just have a lot of guys that haven't played a lot of football, so there are a lot of question marks."

The biggest question mark for the Gators comes at quarterback, where four players are vying to replace departed superstar Rex Grossman. While Ingle Martin has the only experience of the group, Zook made it sound like any of the four could win the job before the season gets underway.

"Ingle has already shown me, both he and Gavin Dickey, that they can run this offense," Zook said. "They both can be very, very effective. Whoever is the starting quarterback, he has to be able to show us that consistently they can do what they have to do for us to score a lot of points. All four of the young quarterbacks are going to have to understand that this system will use their abilities. We're going to have people around them that we feel like can make us a productive offense."

Helping in the transition will be the addition of speedster Keiwan Ratliff on the offensive side of the ball. One of the top defensive backs in the league as well as return men, Ratliff was recruited as a wide receiver out of high school, but moved to defense out of necessity. Now he's needed to put some spark into an offense that is lacking in big play ability heading into the new season.

While they were just a little better than ordinary last season, the Gators will still have a lot of talent on the football field in 2003, albeit most of it young. The one thing they have going against them is a schedule that is a virtual killing field. For a team that struggled to play consistent football last year, that's not good news.

"Everybody is entitled to their own opinion," Ratliff said. "A lot of media and people think we're going to have another down year. That has basically served as a lot of motivation for us during the offseason. That has given us something to shoot for and look forward to instead of coming out and being preseason one, two or three. Seeing that serves as a slap in the face and as a wake-up call."

"I've said this earlier, the University of Florida football program, there is no question in my mind that we're on the right track and we're doing the right things," Zook added. "We're going to get back to where we're supposed to be. Where we're expected to be."

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