ESPN's Gottfried likes what he sees of Gators

<img src= align=right>When Mike Gottfried stood before a Jacksonville group to talk football in the preseason a year ago, he stunned them with a prediction of five losses for the Florida Gators. "They booed me in Jacksonville," Gottfried recalls. "I thought Florida was a five loss team. I thought they had some holes that they couldn't cover and that's pretty much how it turned out. They went 8-5."

The former Pitt head coach, who is now a commentator for ESPN's Saturday night prime time football broadcast, doesn't see the holes when he sees the Florida Gators this year.

"Depending on how they start, they could be really good this year," said Gottfried Thursday night when he stopped in at Florida's practice. "They're the only team I've seen in the SEC that can contend with Georgia. I think you can say 8-3 and be safe, but they have a chance depending on how they start to be better than that. Could they do 10-1? They'd have to have some breaks, but anyone these days who goes 10-1 has to have some breaks."

Gottfried watches Florida practices with a certain amount of pride. He gave Coach Ron Zook his first break into college coaching when he hired Zook to join his staff at Murray State back in 1978. Zook was young and not married at the time, so Gottfried invited him to move into the spare room at his home. Gottfried's daughters thought they were gaining a "big brother" but they rarely saw Zook, who became a tireless worker who loved every aspect of recruiting.

Zook also worked with Gottfried at Cincinnati and Kansas and the two remain close friends. It is almost a big brother-little brother relationship. The mentor is obviously proud of what he sees in his pupil.

"I'm not going to be surprised when Ron has great success here," he said. "No one's going to outwork him. No one I've ever seen is more loyal and more disciplined to get a job done right. That's been the way he's been wherever he's been. Go back to when he handled special teams here at Florida when he was an assistant. He made them the best because he has that fire in him to be the best.

"Another thing he's got going for him is that he's so focused and so positive about what he has to do to get the job done. He might get down for a few moments. Everyone does that, but he rebounds fast and he gets stronger because of what he's been through. I think he has this thing going in the right direction and I think people are going to be very pleased he's their head coach here for a long time to come."

Gottfried believes that Florida will be good this year, but is probably one year away from really taking off.

"What happens when you take over a program is that the die is already cast for the juniors and seniors," he said. "They're used to doing things a certain way and they're in a tough position. They can get on board or fight it. The first and second years are a tough transition for anyone because of that. It's the third year that it starts turning your way and the fourth year, that's when it really is your own team. That's when almost everyone on your roster is someone you recruited.

"Florida's going to be good this year, but he (Zook) is probably one recruiting class away from this being a really special situation. Next year, there might not be anyone that can stay with Florida. You look at (quarterback Chris) Leak now and you start to wonder how he can only be a sophomore. He can make some big league throws. He's really impressive the way he sees the field, gets rid of it and it's accurate with some zip. He'll have even better players playing with him next year. I think Florida could be so hard for anyone to beat next year. They'll be really good this season and with a break or two, they could be great, but I think next year is the one to really look forward to."

He's been traveling the country to get ready for the ESPN broadcasts. Among the teams he's seen already are Southern Cal, Georgia and Florida State.

"I was out at SC two days last weekend and they looked very, very good," he said. "Their defensive front is outstanding. Their linebackers are very solid. They have very good corners. Their punter is probably the best in the country. They have the best placekicker and the best quarterback in the country in (Matt) Leinhart. They have some holes to fill and they have a young group of offensive linemen and receivers, but Pete Carroll's really got it going there. The talent is really impressive.

"Georgia is very impressive. They have some concerns, but every team has some concerns. I really like how Mark Richt has put this team together. They've got (David) Greene at quarterback and he's so good at getting the ball where it has to be. He knows the offense and he doesn't do the kind of things that get them beat. On defense, they've got (David) Pollack and (Thomas) Davis. They're both outstanding players. And they've got really good talent that's well coached everywhere else. They've got a schedule that helps them, too, with LSU and Tennessee at home."

He believes that Florida State's possibilities will rise or fall with quarterback Chris Rix.

"They have everything it takes to win it all if Rix has a great year," he said, "but he's the factor you just don't know. He sometimes does things that are out of control so you never know with him and he's their key. They have everything else you need to win a national championship, but it will all come down to quarterback play for them. I think if Rix plays well, they go down there and beat Miami that first game."

In the SEC West, he sees LSU and Auburn battling it out, giving Auburn a slight advantage.

"LSU is really talented and they have a team that can win all their games, but I have to go with Auburn this year," he said. "They get LSU at home and I think this is going to be their year. Auburn's like Florida State, though. It all comes down to how their quarterback plays, but if (Jason) Campbell plays well, they could win the west."

Gottfried sees the Atlantic Coast Conference much improved with the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech, but he believes the Southeastern Conference is still the best top to bottom.

"The ACC has to be improved with Miami and Virginia Tech coming in," he said, "but they're still not there where the SEC is. They've closed the gap some but the SEC is still ahead of them. Top to bottom, I think it's still the best league in the country."

He had a chance to get back into coaching back in January, but he decided against returning to the game.

"I had a job that called me and I really thought about it hard for a week, but I decided against it," he said. "Right now I'm just doing too many things that I like and I would have to give them up. I'm working with boys without fathers in camps and if was coaching, I would have to give that up and I don't want to give it up.

"Coaching would mean more time away from my family, and my family's the single most important thing to me. I had my thirty seventh anniversary just the other day. My wife (Micki) has put up with me a long, long time!"

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