Favorable football schedule fuels UF expectations

By Franz Beard After two years of playing Miami in the second game of the season, Ron Zook has to feel at least some sense of relief that the NCAA is back to 11-game schedules this year. That's one less big game that Zook has to prepare a very young team to play, and sans Miami, this is a schedule that while it has its share of tough games, sets up well for Florida to make a return to national prominence.

For any team to make a serious run at winning an SEC championship along with playing in the national spotlight, a schedule needs to be favorable which means adequate balance. It can't be too top heavy with cupcakes, nor can it have too many battle royales. The bulk of the tough games should be played at home or else in venues where there is either a tradition of success or reasonable expectation of winning.

Florida's schedule has the usual two Moses games to start the season, four winnables, four losables and one hold your breath game.

1. MOSES GAMES: These are games in which it would take a miracle of Moses proportions either for the opponent to rise to the heights necessary to win or for the Gators to stoop to the depths necessary to lose.

2. WINNABLES: These are the games that the Gators will be favored to win, but they are games that could be lost with sloppy play, lack of motivation or an inspired effort by the opponent.

3. LOSABLES: These are the games that at least in the preseason, the Gators will be either favored to lose or else no one would be surprised if UF lost. These are winnable games, but they are the kind of games that require excellence on the field and motivation.

4. HOLD YOUR BREATH: These are games that the Gators are favored, but because of extenuating circumstances, could be an upset brewing.

Florida's two Moses games are the season opener against Middle Tennessee State and game two, Eastern Michigan. The four Winnables are Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina. There are four Losables are Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State. There Hold Your Breath game is at Vanderbilt.

The Gators should be able to count on six wins automatically and what makes the schedule so appealing is the spacing of the losable games. timing of the losable games is also quite favorable. The Tennessee game, while a roadie, comes after two Moses games. There are two winnable games home games leading up to the LSU encounter in The Swamp. There's an open date and a roadie to Mississippi State prior to the Georgia game, played as always in Jacksonville where recent history has the Gators owning the Poodles. Of the four losables, only the last game of the season with Florida State in Tallahassee looms as a Mount Everest type of obstacle. It only seems like FDR was the president the last time the Gators won in Tallahassee.

Now a game by game breakdown.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE: This is a Moses game. The Raiders haven't the depth or personnel to hang with the Gators for more than a quarter, returning just seven starters from a team that had a losing record last year and is predicted seventh in what is arguably the nation's weakest conference, The Sun Belt. It's a reunion game for three Gator coaches. Offensive coordinator Larry Fedora and offensive line coach Joe Wickline came to UF from Middle Tennessee when Ron Zook took the UF job, but that, of course, was when MTSU was considered a program on the rise. Quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher is a MTSU alum.

EASTERN MICHIGAN: Just what the doctor ordered as a tuneup for a roadie to Dollywood. The Eagles, who used to be the Hurons before they went politically correct, have a new coach and probably a better attitude, but they were 3-9 last year and there has been no significant talent upgrade. This will be a great game for UF to get the starters out early and let some young players who may have to get some minutes in Dollywood a chance to become more comfortable playing in front of a big crowd.

TENNESSEE: On paper, this game has all the makings of a winnable, but the fact that it is on the road in Dollywood puts it in the losable category. Tennessee has no proven starter at quarterback although it will likely be a Leak (Chris) vs. Leak (CJ) battle that will get a lot of hype in the media. Coming out of high school CJ was considered the best quarterback in the country, but he's done little or nothing since to merit the early hype. Chris was even more hyped out of high school than CJ, but he's lived up to the billing. Tennessee has the most experienced linebacker crew in the SEC, the usual huge mobile defensive tackles, and John Chavis is still the coordinator on that side of the ball. On paper at least, the defense will have to carry the day if Tennessee is to win. On the offensive side, it looks like a return to Tennessee football of old: emphasis on the running game, pounding the ball up the gut. Florida's strategy shouldn't be all that much different in years past. Stuff the run on defense and take care of the ball on offense. If the Gators do those two things, this is a losable game that will have a Gator W beside it.

KENTUCKY: J-Load is gone, leaving the quarterbacking duties to Shane Boyd, who has never shown himself capable of winning at this level. There is a bright spot at tailback in Arliss Beach and another at defensive end in Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns, but after that, the talent is not the kind that is going to win a roadie in the SEC, especially a game in The Swamp. The fact that Kentucky belongs to the SEC is the only thing keeping this from being declared a Moses game.

ARKANSAS: By game five, this could be categorized as a Hold Your Breath game. Houston Nutt is one of the best coaches in the SEC, but he's replacing 20 starters so who knows how the Piggies are going to come out of the pen? Matt Jones is still the quarterback and he is one of the most dangerous in the nation if he's forced to run. Last year he had nearly 800 yards and averaged nearly 8 yards per carry, and that includes sack losses. He also threw 17 touchdown passes while only six interceptions. The Piggies could be a very tough opponent if the Gators catch themselves looking a week ahead to LSU.

LSU: The only loss for last year's national champions was at home to the Gators, so there are high expectations that UF could come up with the kind of win that could really vault the Gators into the heat of a national championship race if they are able to come into this game unbeaten. Florida has all the tools it takes to win this game, to go with the added advantage of being a 3:30 game on national television at home. What could also play into the Gators hands is that LSU has to play the Poodles on the road the week before. LSU could come into this game on the heels of a tough loss or having spent all its emotion the week before. As anyone who has followed the SEC over the years can tell you, winning two big emotion games back to back is a formidable task in the SEC. Still, LSU's coach is Nick Saban and he's one of the best. It's a game that the Gators could lose, but there is every good chance the Gators come out of this with a win.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Traditionally, the Gators play poorly in Starkville, having lost the last two visits (1992, 2000), but this MSU team is not nearly as talented and will be playing its first season under new coach, Sylvester Croom. Sly is going to revitalize the program in Starkville and he is going to make MSU a very dangerous opponent. It just won't be this year. The Gators shouldn't have any kind of letdown here with a week off after the LSU game and the Poodles on the horizon the following week.

GEORGIA: Poodle fans are coming into this game more confident than at any time in years. They haven't beaten the Gators since 1997 and have lost 13 of the last 14 to UF, so they believe the odds are with them to turn the tables. The Poodles are looking to run the table and win a national championship, but they had those same expectations two years ago when Florida handed them their only loss in a 13-1 season. There is a possibility that this could be a battle of unbeatens if the Gators can win their two losables against Tennessee and LSU and the Poodles can score wins against the same two opponents (back to back, at home the first two weeks of October). The team that wins this game could be in the hunt for the national championship. The Poodles will be VERY good. Both the Gators and the Poodles have a shot at coming into this game 7-0. Recent history says the Gators will find a way to win. The Poodle fans are singing the tune all good things must come to an end. If not this year, it could be years before the Poodles will be favored to beat UF again.

VANDERBILT: Under normal circumstances, this is a Moses game, but not this year. Vandy returns 20 starters, one of the three best quarterbacks in the SEC in Jay Cutler, and they have a coach who is systematically bringing respectability to the program. What makes this a Hold Your Breath game is that it's going to be played in Nashville, where the Gators traditionally play below expectations, and that it's the week after the game with the Poodles. If the Gators expend too much emotional energy the week before and come into Nashville flat and lethargic, they could get some serious comeuppance. Because it's Vandy, everyone expects a UF win. However, this is not the Vandy of yesteryear. This is a team that under the right circumstances, can beat anyone in the SEC. At least at in the preseason, circle this as a Hold Your Breath game.

SOUTH CAROLINA: There is some speculation that this will be the last roundup for Lou Holtz, who has brought respectability back to South Carolina. The Gamecocks don't look nearly as formidable as they did three seasons ago, but Lou Holtz has traditionally coached his teams to play over their heads when there were lesser expectations. If it is indeed Lou's last year in Columbia, the Chickens will be dangerous. This will not be an easy game, but Florida should win. Playing in The Swamp gives the Gators the ultimate edge here.

FLORIDA STATE: Where do we begin here? It's in Tallahassee. It's a year after the ACC zebras flat out stole a win for the Gators. It's a place where UF hasn't won a game since 1986. Rumor has it that a statue of Bobby Bowden will be unveiled before the game. In preseason, everyone has FSU in the hunt for the national championship even though nine starters were lost on last year's defensive unit and the quarterback is still Trixie. There are a lot of factors that point to the Gators breaking the streak of losses in Tallahassee, but this is still a heated rivalry and much could be at stake for both teams. There are pitfalls on both schedules, but there is always that possibility that by game 11, both Florida and FSU could come in at 10-0. This is a winnable game for UF, but it is also one that is very losable simply because it is FSU. If both teams come in unbeaten, a possibility although not a great one, the winner could be playing for the national championship. The Zebras will be from the SEC so the playing field should at least be a bit more level.

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