Football 2004 Off-season preview

After two herky-jerky seasons where unpredictability has been the lone predictable element of Ronnie Zook's Rollercoaster Ride, one can see through the messiness, the tumult, the redemption, the promise, and the bitter final tastes in Tampa at the Outback Bowl to find one very clean, neat and clear reality:

...the Gators have beaten the last two SEC champions, two formidable, talented and prodigiously powerful ballclubs who did great things not seen on the campuses in Athens, Ga., and Baton Rouge, La., in roughly 20 years.

The ability of the 2002 Gators to get off the mat and drop Georgia, followed by the 2003 conquest of LSU by Cool Hand (Chris) Leak and a dominant defense fueled by (Channing) Crowder power, show that Florida football fully has it within itself to re-ascend to the top of the SEC. Despite the soap operas at the quarterback position in each of the past two years—both different, but both uproarious in their own way—and a litany of September stumbles and Florida State frustrations, the Gators were able to knock off the best team in the conference with inspired, intense and focused football. At significant and memorable points along the way in 2002 and 2003, Ron Zook's ballclubs have shut out the distractions, tuned out "the noise within the system," and brought their best stuff to the forefront against an A-list conference opponent.

It might seem to be cold comfort, or worse, unsettling and even irritating for many in the Gator Nation when these victories over the Dawgs and Tigers are then balanced against the Ole Missed opportunities of the same two seasons that have ushered in the Zook Era. But just as losses are supposed to build character and serve as learning experiences, it's also instructive to look at peak performances in the past two uneven Autumns and use them as teaching tools, too. In the unceasing football debates about the relative merits of talent, coaching and player effort—discussions that have raged particularly hot and heavy in Gainesville over the past two years—the wins over Georgia and LSU make it hard to say that the Gators' stock of talent has been so aberrationally poor, and that consequently, the quality of coaching has not been at the root of Florida's struggles. Yet, at the same time, the two signature wins of the Zook era have also shown that the coaching staff can rise to the moment when backed into a corner, and that players do respond to the Zooker.

What should be pulled from these conclusions? Let's keep it simple: the potential is there for Florida to be excellent in every single game. Against Georgia and LSU in the past two seasons, the Gators took a particular package of circumstances and found the right emotional, physical and chalkboard formula. Yet, in many of their other games in 2002 and '03, few of the formulas—in some games, none of them!—were ever found at all.

We're left with a very obvious realization that is rooted in time-tested truth: when you're dealing with 20-year-old male members of the human species playing a testosterone-drenched game at 300 miles per hour, you're going to have enormous emotional volatility and variances in performance that come with that volatility.

Now that Cool Hand Leak and Mr. Crowder, two fabulous freshmen last season, return with more experience; now that Zook and new offensive coordinator Larry Fedora will have a stable (and exciting) quarterback situation on their hands; and now that year three of the Zook era (the breakthrough year for new head coaches at big jobs) is at hand, one can now legitimately expect some stability, solidity and progress to define Florida football. It's not like beating Georgia has ever been a problem, and it's not like LSU can't be taken again, with this year's contest coming at the Swamp.

But buried beneath those two towering tilts is the haunting memory of Septembers gone bad, season-starting stumbles that turned those later wins over the Dawgs into merely nice recoveries instead of the SEC East-clinching celebrations. It's time for September to provide the same mix of emotional urgency, physical force, and tactical mastery that the Gators have managed to display in October. With the discovery—or perhaps more appropriately, the patenting—of the winning formula in every game, the Gators will realize that every game is an LSU or Georgia; every game's a big one.

After a big stack of victories, the 2004 Gators just might then find themselves in Atlanta in December and… if they maintain the winning formula there… in New Orleans for New Year's 2005.

Potential, as we human beings know, is a nagging word that hints at the lack of fulfillment. In 2004, the potential left unfulfilled in the previous two seasons could become unleashed… but only if every single game is viewed as a big one.

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