Worse than a 1988 loss to Memphis State when the Gators were 5-and-0.
Worse than a miserable 1989 season-opener to Ole Miss in Gainesville.
Worse even than the homecoming setback to Tulsa in 1979, because that Florida team was not good and was well on its way to a winless season.
No, it wasn't as painful as watching Lindsay Scott, it was not as stunning as the tie to FSU in '94, nor was it as humbling as the Fiesta Bowl "seal clubbing" at the hands of Nebraska.
But it was, plain and simple, as bad as it gets.
That loss alone did not lead President Bernie Machen and Jeremy Foley to inform the Zooker of his fate Monday morning. It was a combination of a number of things, including repeated late game failures, inability to maintain one of America's dominant home field advantages, a widening chasm among the faithful, increasing no-shows in the stadium and yes, "Frat Gate".
Those issues overshadowed Zook's legendary work ethic and indisputable success on the recruiting trail.
I am not a believer in schools buying out contracts, I just have a problem with this philosophically. But when you have the issues the Gators have and a new President who had no input in hiring the current coach, a change is certainly understandable.
Getting Back To Starkville
Florida's history in Starkville is no comparison here. The 1992 Gators lost to the Bulldogs, but State was ranked most of that season and at one point was 7-and-2 while Florida was rebuilding after losing eight of nine lineman from their '91 SEC Champs. Florida was ground into the turf in Starkville in 2000, but again, it was an MSU squad that would win eight games and was ranked for much of the season.
This is soooo different. A 1-and-5 team that totaled 33 points in the previous FOUR games scored 38. A punt return man averaging less than eight years a return brings one back 73. A quarterback with four interceptions in just 50 throws does not surrender a pick in 24 attempts.
Run Defense is Number One Culprit
Florida's defense had another miserable afternoon trying to stop an opposing running attack. That was more acceptable against powers like Tennessee and LSU, but Mississippi State was averaging 134 yards a game on the ground and fewer than four yards per carry. Jerious Norwood is a nice running back, but nobody will be calling his name early in the NFL draft. He gained 17 yards against LSU… he gained 174 Saturday.
In Florida's three losses, the Gator defense has allowed an average of 211 yards on the ground… plus 215 through the air. Those are stunning numbers. And Saturday marked the 11th time in 33 games the Gators have allowed 30 or more points. That's the most in any three-year stretch in school history.
Not-So-Special Teams Return
The Gators have been outstanding in kick coverage this year and had held opponents to less than two yards per punt return. Yet in a tie game in the second half, Florida allows Jonathan Lowe to take a punt back 73 yards for a go ahead score. Chad Jackson struggled to field punts and darn near turned one of them into a safety.
Offense Came Up Short When It Mattered Most
31 points and 441 yards should be enough to win any ballgame, but the Florida offense does not get a hall pass for this loss. Chris Leak never seemed to get a handle on the wind in Starkville and under threw several receivers including at least a pair of open touchdowns. The Gator sophomore also committed the crucial turnover with about two minutes to play and the Gators just ten yards from a potential game-winning field goal.
The offensive line gave Leak plenty of time most of the day and gave Ciatrick Fason running room, but two false start penalties put the team in tough down-and-distance situations on two of their final three possessions. Both times the score was tied and both times the Gators failed to grab the lead. In fact, they never led the entire day.
Zook Couldn't Accomplish Mission Impossible
Coming into the season, Ron Zook faced the challenge of returning the Gators to the nation's elite, or at least showing that they were on the verge of getting there after consecutive 8-and-5 seasons. I said before the season, what Florida needed was at least two of the following five things:
- An improved record---- meaning 9 wins or more
- A special accomplishment---- meaning an SEC East title or win in Tallahassee.. or both
- Re-establish The Swamp---- had to make BHG Stadium a tough place
- Dominate Special Teams--- re-affirm Zook's coaching credentials
- Blow People Out--- create fear, get playing time for young bench
To me, Florida is oh-for five. The only way to re-establish the Swamp was to sweep the home schedule. Had a chance, but didn't do it. Special teams have been like an old car… runs good some days, but stalls out at the least opportune times. Failure to blowout Kentucky and Arkansas meant little playing time for reserves and too many snaps for front-liners. Those leads to late game problems such as surrendering a game-winning score in the final minute for the third time this season.
Where Do They Go From Here
If replacing Steve Spurrier was Foley's most difficult hire, this one becomes the most important of all. Florida simply MUST get this right. My belief is the first two calls will go to Steve Spurrier and Bobby Stoops but I do not expect either to be coaching the Gators in 2005.
I believe the three ideal candidates are Bobby Petrino at Louisville, California's Jeff Tedford and Utah Coach Urban Meyer. More on each of them next column, but they all have three important things in common.
- The are successful head coaches who are in their early 40's meaning they could realistically lead this program for a decade or more.
- They are media savvy individuals who make a very good initial impression, will convey confidence and a bit of swagger in those settings.
- They are offensive wizards. I have always preferred offensive oriented coaches because I believe they are more risk-takers rather than being risk-averse. Also, the most crucial decisions a head coach makes on game day are on offense.
There are many clamoring for Butch Davis of the Cleveland Browns, which surprises me considering what he did to Jonathan Colon, his use of illegal letters-of-intent acquired by "Coach Squeak" the night before signing day and his strong anti-UF comments while at Miami. One other thing, Davis' first three years at Miami his record was 22-and-12.
Butch did establish some discipline and reform the embarrassing off-field and on-field behavior by the 'Canes, and he left behind one of the most stocked football teams ever. I just don't see a 53-year-old with an anti-UF past as the ideal guy to unify the fan base and get this team to Atlanta and beyond in a hurry.
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