It's as if the Gators are a live enactment of Roseanne Rosanadana's prophetic words of twenty years ago: "It just goes to show you, it's always something. If it isn't one thing, it's always something else."
When the Gators played Middle Tennessee Saturday, it was another one of those always something else games, played before a very subdued crowd that included about 15,000 fans cleverly dressed as empty seats. If you needed an indicator that this was an always something else game, all you had to do was join the thousands who groaned instead of cheered when the video of the real alligators in the real swamp was played. For the second straight week, someone forgot to inform whoever is in charge in the booth that the video doesn't begin until AFTER the captains march out on the field. Just like last week, the video cranked up the moment the captains emerged from the tunnel. At least this week instead of a minute delay before the team ran out on the field, it was something like a 30-second delay Saturday.
But still, the timing was off, and if there is a recurring theme this season, it is bad timing.
This game should have been played five weeks ago in the season opener. This should have been a well deserved off week for the Gators, but the complication of a rescheduled game may have at least cooled some of the firestorm that once again surrounds Coach Ron Zook. As if two SEC losses in the final two minutes aren't bad enough, Zook got caught up this week in controversy when word of an incident at a campus fraternity house leaked, putting Zook and the team in further bad light.
The latest controversy combined with the overwhelming feeling of disappointment in the Gator fan base over the two losses put Zook in a can't win situation Saturday. If he won big, fans would simply point to the fact that Middle Tennessee State does its damage in the Sun Belt Conference, which isn't at the end of the Division I college football earth, but it's close enough that there are mile markers indicating how close it is. If Zook's Gators struggled, the heat would have been turned up to unbearable levels.
Zook got the big win, 52-16, but unlike most wins in which the Gators scored 50-plus points in the past, this one was done in almost methodical robo-team fashion. There were some big plays for sure, but Chris Leak, the robo-quarterback, was so methodical in what he was doing that even the big plays didn't really seem all that spectacular. Leak was 17-22 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Leak was so ho-hum efficient that of the five incompletions, one was caught by the bad guys and the other four passes hit receivers in the hands.
Fans cheered but didn't exactly tear the house down when they got a spectacular one-handed cactch from Chad Jackson or a 62-yard bomb from Leak to Andre Caldwell. They saw Jackson spin and twirl to a determined touchdown ending of a 33-yard pass from Leak. They saw DeShawn Wynn run for three touchdowns and Ciatrick Fason squirm and worm his way for a 20-yarder.
They even saw two interceptions and six sacks by the defense.
Yet, all those big plays could not inject life into the crowd. For the first time in years, The Swamp presented a feeling of indifference rather than an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. There was no excitement on the street prior to the game, no feeling of electricity in the air of the stadium during the game, and the feeling of exodus immediately after the band played "We Are the Boys" at the end of the third quarter.
It was a win, for sure, but not a win that excited Gator fans nor a win likely to lighten the pressure that's being placed on Zook to win big. The Gators are 4-2, just a couple of plays against LSU and a proper call by officials at Tennessee from being 6-0 and ranked among the nation's top five teams. The burden of expectation is so high, though. After 16-10 in the first two seasons of the Zook era, 4-2 has polarized the Gator nation, half of which thinks 4-2 is a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when close losses were the norm and half which thinks the best days for Zook and team are yet ahead.
While fans bicker among themselves about the direction the program is going, some calling for patience, others calling for Zook's head on a platter, it is a united team that stands in firm belief that this is the coach who can get the job done.
"We always want to make a statement for Coach Zook and all these coaches," said linebacker Travis Harris, who got his first interception of the season. "They stand by us and we stand by them."
The poor attendance was predicted earlier in the week, and though expected by so many, it came as both shock and disappointment to the players according to Chad Jackson, whose six catches and 103 yards were career highs.
"Yeah, I read in the paper that said something about not that many fans being in The Swamp this weekend," said Jackson. "When I got out there and I looked, it was right. I'm not used to seeing not so many people in the stands. That was disappointing."
It is Fason who made the strongest statement in favor of Zook. He spoke freely about how the team rallied around Zook after the loss to LSU, then again during the week when the story about the altercation at the Pi Kappa Phi house broke.
"Coach Zook will stand up for the players," said Fason. "He will always stand up for his players and that's the best thing about Coach Zook. Every player likes that about his coach. He's a player's coach, but sometimes that makes it hard because he's taking all the blame. The outside world is throwing all the blame on him.
"I always take it personal. I put my foot down this week. It's not on Coach Zook. It's on us. I went up to him this week and I told him ‘Hey, we're behind you and we're going to win out.' He came up to me and gave me a hug and I told him ‘It's time to put all that behind you. It's time to play football.'
"We've got nothing to lose. We're just going to go out there and play our game. We're going to go out there and win out the rest of our games and take all the pressure off Coach Zook and then the fans will get back on the bandwagon like they always do."
Fason said the team has taken on the same attitude as last year when the Gators were 3-3 at midseason, facing three straight games against nationally ranked teams. Fans and media alike expected Florida to finish that stretch with a 3-6 record, but the team united, played hard and won all three games.
"We are playing for him (Coach Zook), for ourselves and for our families," said Fason. "We know that there are a lot of people out there doubting us. We've been doubted before. Everyone thought we were gonna lose three straight last year and we went out there and won three straight. There are a lot of doubters out there, but once you go on a winning streak, the doubters jump back on the bandwagon.
"Coach Zook, he's a great coach. Everyone puts it on the coaching when we lose but it really isn't the coaching."
The players have heard the rumors and calls that Zook should be fired, but Fason's take on the situation is "Basically if they're going to fire the coach, they should fire the players too. Sometimes it's on the players who are out there who aren't making the plays."
While the big win may be either unappreciated or under-appreciated by the fans, Travis Harris noted the win is just a first step.
"All we can do is take it one game at a time from here out," he said. "We won today. Next week we got Mississippi State. That's the next game that we have to win."