GAMEDAY: Gators have chance for statement win

Before the season even began, this was one of those games you circle on the schedule. LSU at Florida. October 9. It was big back then when everyone was speculating that this could be a showdown of unbeatens and it's big now, even with Florida a two-point loser in a roadie to Tennessee and LSU oh-fer in its two SEC road tests at Auburn and Georgia.

Just because LSU has two losses doesn't take anything away from Saturday night's Southeastern Conference showdown in The Swamp any more than Florida's loss at Tennessee diminishes expectations for the Gators. LSU still sees itself with a chance to defend its SEC championship by running the table to win the West, then taking the SEC title game in Atlanta. For the Gators, one loss is not quite as critical because last year's national co-champions, LSU and Southern California, both finished the season with one loss. The Gators are still easily in the running for the SEC East championship, a shot at the SEC title game, and if all the stars align properly, a shot at a national title.

So, Saturday night's game is filled with meaning and significance, but for Florida, it is an opportunity for a statement victory. Sure, it would mean more if the Gators were to beat an unbeaten or even once beaten LSU, but simply because the Tigers have taken themselves out of the national championship race doesn't diminish the potential spoils that a Florida win would bring.

A Florida win would make it two in a row over the Tigers and lest we forget, the Gators were the only stumbling block during LSU's run to the national championship last year. It would mean 13 of the last 15 over LSU and 4-1 during the present decade, at least temporarily curbing the premature declaration that LSU is the program of the future in the SEC. A win would also give the Gators an edge in recruiting as many prospects who are paring down their list of potential suitors have both Florida and LSU on their final wish lists.

A Florida victory Saturday night is an IV needle of confidence spiked in each arm of the Gators who will face tuneups with Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State before facing Georgia in Jacksonville in what will be a showdown for all the SEC East marbles. A win and the Gators are back in the top ten, still a dark horse in the national title race.

Coach Ron Zook will tell you he'll take any kind of win he can get Saturday night. He's been around the SEC a long time and he knows how tough it is to get a win against a league opponent. If you could guarantee him that he could win by one right now, he would take that in a heartbeat, and it very well could come down to a single point. LSU is not nearly as bad as a 45-16 drubbing in Athens would indicate last week. The LSU roster is still loaded with talented players who had significant roles in winning a national championship last year, players whose pride and egos have taken some shrapnel at Auburn and Georgia. Florida is probably better than that two point loss at Tennessee or last week's 45-30 win over Arkansas would tell you, so the potential is there for this to be a take an aspirin per quarter to fend off a heart attack and call the paramedics just in case type of game.

Any kind of win would be good for Florida, but there is a greater opportunity here. A win by a significant margin — say two to three touchdowns — and it's a signature win in an SEC game, something that the Zooker has never done but something he really needs in the worst way. A signature win over an SEC opponent, particularly one that is the defending national champion and nationally ranked in the top 25, is a shot across the bow of naysayers who continue to place Zook on their Green Mile list along with other Countdown to Firing Day candidates such as Clemson's Tommy Bowden, North Carolina's Bill Bunting and Syracuse's Paul Pasqualoni. Every time the Gators have a close call, the naysayers boldly claim that the warden is close to throwing the switch on Zook.

For all their screaming for Zook's hide, the doubters need to come to grips with one basic fact: as long as the Zooker goes 6-5 or better, his job is not in danger. There are two chances he loses five games this year — no way and no how. At worst, he's 8-3. At best, he runs the table the rest of the way. The odds at winning all the remaining games are likely tilted away from the Gators since games remain with Georgia in Jacksonville and Florida State in Tallahassee, but would any of you put your money against the Zooker after last year's improbable run through the Bermuda Triangle of roadies against Arkansas and LSU plus the annual neutering of the Poodles in Jacksonville? The odds were far greater that the Gators would emerge from those three games with a 3-0 streak than they are for Florida to win the rest of the games on this year's schedule.

Florida is also a better football team now than it was a year ago, more talented, more mature and far more likely to show up big in showcase games. When you throw in the talent stockpiled from the past two stellar recruiting classes with what is shaping up to be a top three or four recruiting class this year, you can also bet that only an athletic director who had taken temporary leave of his senses would jettison the Zooker now. Jeremy Foley may or may not be a lot of things, but you can bet the ranch that his brain is not jammed in neutral.

So, let's end that speculation now for those who continue to call this the Zook Error and not what it is, the Zook Era. He is going to be here next year, and chances are, a long, long time after that. Any kind of win over LSU will help ensure that, but a dominating performance that results in a win by a wide margin will be a validation of sorts, the kind of validation that tells the college football world that the post-legend transition period is over and that the new era is going to be a lot of fun to watch.

The opportunity is there for the Gators Saturday night. The only question that remains is will they seize the moment?

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