Free Falling

Lets examine some of the problems with the 2002 Florida Gators. It has not been a pretty sight.

If you listened very closely late last Saturday night at Florida Field, and considering the number of unoccupied seats it shouldn't have been that difficult, you could hear a sound. What was that sound, you ask? It was the sound of a dynasty crumbling. That's right, the college football juggernaut that WAS Florida football simply evaporated into the night air, as a team that the once Mighty Gators beat 44-15 last season made Florida look like what it has become painfully obvious that they are right now, a very mediocre college football team.

How could this possibly have happened so quickly? Just a few weeks ago, Gator Nation was breathing a huge sigh of relief after the 30-13 beating the Gators had just handed out to the Vols. It was supposed to be the signature win for the Ron Zook-Era Gators, the win that would give Zook and his coaching staff the credibility it so desperately needed. But after two consecutive losses to teams that UF had no business losing to, let alone being embarrassed by, Zook's Gators stand at a crossroads. Where they go from here will go a long way in determining just how long the Zook Era lasts.

Some say that it is still too early to make a definitive judgment on Zook as a head coach, but why should it be? The complete second-half meltdown against Ole Miss and the failure to even compete in the other two losses to Miami and LSU are not signs of a well-coached team. This is not a team that is playing tough, disciplined football and simply losing to superior teams (Miami excluded). This is a team that has gotten progressively worse as the season has passed.

When Zook was hired, no one was under the impression that the Gators were going to be getting a great football mind who would lead his teams to championships with his knowledge of X's and O's and his great coaching instincts. What fans were being sold on was that Zook was a master motivator whose energy and enthusiasm would spark this team and push it to play with greater intensity and passion than ever before. However, after seven games, we have yet to see any evidence of this. A coach's ability to motivate is measured in two sets of circumstances: the game following a big win, and the game following a big loss. Can the coach get the team to maintain its focus after an emotional win and can he pick them up and recharge their battery after a tough loss.

In both of these situations this year, Zook has failed miserably. Florida has looked terrible in both of the games that followed losses this year. Besides getting drilled by LSU after the Ole Miss debacle, the Gators looked completely out of it with no intensity in the game following the Miami loss, a game Florida was fortunate to be playing Ohio University in. After the Gators' biggest win this season (their only big win this season) against Tennessee, the team suffered several mental breakdowns in route to almost blowing a 19-point lead to Kentucky at home.

Zook's Gators have found creative ways to lose games they absolutely had to win. One week, the defense plays terrible. The next week, it's the offense that stinks up the field. Then, special teams takes a turn. Last Saturday, the entire team came together for the first time: they collectively stunk all at once for 60 full minutes.

What has been worse than Zook's inability to motivate this team is his inability to face facts about this team. This whole team has been in denial from day one, continually saying that they are getting better even as it's obvious to anyone with two eyes that the team is getting worse. And let's not even get started on that "C" word that has become the Zook mantra this season. Hey, all he said what that he was going to get all the problems corrected. He never specified on when exactly he was going to get around to correcting them.

Perhaps what has been most insufferable about the Zook Era to date is the way fans have been inundated with something they never heard under Spurrier: excuses. My God, the excuses. While Steve Spurrier would say something along the lines of "we stink" even after toughest loss to a quality opponent, Zook somehow finds a way to sound upbeat and optimistic after being humiliated by a less-talented team on your home field. As for all of the excuses, few of them hold any water, and even those don't hold much. Let's examine some of these excuses, shall we…

1. It's going to take time for a team to learn new offensive and defensive systems so you shouldn't be alarmed by inconsistent play.
I'm no football expert so correct me if I'm wrong, but the learning curve is supposed to curve upward and not downward, right? The offense, and Grossman in particular, has looked more and more lost with each game as they have gone from mistake-prone to inconsistent to just completely inept. As for the defense, they had been progressing nicely until last week when that porous run defense resurfaced by giving up 249 yards on the ground to an LSU team that was without its best back in LaBrandon Toefield.

2. The talent level on this team was overrated and Zook needs time to bring in high-caliber athletes.
This one is just plain stupid. I'm willing to bet that there isn't a coach in the SEC who wouldn't be willing to switch rosters with Zook any day of the week and take his chances with the likes of Grossman, Jacobs and Graham. Let's not forget that Florida was arguably the second-best team in the country last year and were demolishing teams for most of the season. Even with early departures to the NFL, this team is far too talented to be playing at this level.

3. The players on this team simply aren't right for the system they're playing in.
This problem can be traced to the coaches' inability to adjust to its players, especially Grossman. In case no one else has noticed, Grossman isn't exactly Seneca Wallace back there that you can just put in the shotgun, spread the field with and let make plays. Grossman is a rhythm passer who needs to be under center. The current staff need only look back at last year's games to see how Spurrier adjusted to Grossman's immobility by using more max protection and sending fewer receivers out on routes.

What would be most encouraging to hear from Zook these days would be what everyone else watching this team already knows, which is that this team simply isn't very good right now. Instead, Zook continues to talk of his team still being in the hunt for Atlanta, still having a chance to win the division if they can just win a few and just catch a few breaks. What the coach fails to realize is that bad football teams don't win championships, no matter what happens to teams in front of them. Instead of hanging on the tiniest thread of hope for a championship that won't happen, maybe he should just try to focus on having his team play hard and play well.

It's already too late for this team. And the clock is already beginning to tick on Zook.

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