An Unpredictable Season

If Saturday's stunning 31-14 loss indicates anything, it's that Robert Stack would have a difficult time finding a greater unsolved mystery than this year's Florida football team.

After a roller coaster season of ups and downs, more downs followed by more ups, followed by just plain confusion, it looked like the Gators were becoming a little easier to get a handle on in the second half of the year. After the LSU debacle, Florida started to win consistently, though ugly at times, and started to develop a somewhat predictable pattern: defense plays well, offense plays it conservatively, both units overcome horrible special teams to eek out a victory.

Though Florida was playing to the level of its competition with unimpressive wins over Vandy and USC, they were still winning. Granted, the formula wasn't very attractive or entertaining, but it was still a formula, something a Gator fan could hang his or her hat on. The Gators would play very well, very average or very poorly, whatever is the least amount it had to do to win.

Well, now you can throw all of that out of the window. Who knows how good or bad this team really is. Just a month removed from beating an undefeated and more talented Georgia team, Florida gets absolutely pounded by a Florida State team that, before Saturday, had been a thoroughly average football team. This wasn't just your run of the mill average football team either. This team was battered and bruised, both physically and mentally, by injuries and turmoil that appeared to be sending the program into a downward spiral. They were without three starting offensive linemen; they were down to their third-string, true freshman running back; on top of all that, Chris Rix, who had looked about as bad as a quarterback can look in his last game against Notre Dame, was the quarterback.

I mean, has there ever been a Florida team more difficult to evaluate than this year's squad? Just when you think there is progress being made, it has one of its worst games of the season, one that I would classify as the low point of the season.

Why is this the worst? Well, the Gators wouldn't have beaten Miami under any circumstances; Ole Miss was at least hard fought with the Gators playing at least one good half; while LSU was a more lopsided loss, it was during the transition period before Florida had apparently righted the ship. Florida State, however, was inexcusable. A blowout loss to an injury-riddled, turmoil-ridden team that wasn't exactly dominating in the first place, not to mention is your biggest rival, is completely inexcusable.

In retrospect, the Florida State game provided a typical outcome for Florida this season. That is, an outcome exactly opposite of what everyone expects. Just think, all of the games you thought Florida was going to win, or at least be competitive in, they got drilled. All of the games you thought Florida was going to get drilled, i.e. Georgia and Tennessee, they win.

Such drastic inconsistency can only be blamed on the coaching staff. There was never any clear indication of what kind of team Ron Zook wanted this to be. After the first game, it appeared it wasn't going to be much different than before, with Grossman and Jacobs teaming for a high-flying, downfield passing attack, balanced by the running of Earnest Graham. Sounded familiar. However, by the second half of the season, the Gator offense was making the Tampa Bay Bucs look like the St. Louis Rams. Well, the old Rams anyway. Florida couldn't play a field position game because of the worst special teams unit in the SEC. They couldn't continue to play wide open because of Rex Grossman's inability to protect the football. Just when you thought they could rely on defense to win games, they, and John Thompson, have their worst game since Miami.

There is still reason to look forward to the bowl game against Michigan, even if it's one of the least relevant for the Gators in recent memory. Despite the disappointments of this season, Zook needs to finish on a high note and beating a fairly good Michigan team would be one. Back to back defeats to close out the year is not what Zook needs going into next season.

Also, Rex Grossman's performance in this game could decide whether or not he decides to go pro or not. Don't laugh, but Grossman's departure may actually turn out to be a good thing for Florida. Why would I say that? Well, it has been clear from the first game of the season that Zook and Zaunbrecher have not been clear on how to use their quarterback. Grossman's reputation and accomplishments caused Zook to give him too much respect and too much leeway. Make no mistake, Grossman is a talented quarterback. He did not go from being the Heisman runner-up to not being able to play in one year's time.

However, he never seemed to fit into what Zook and Zaunbrecher were most comfortable doing. Grossman never seemed to be a good fit for this system and another year in the system probably won't change that. Grossman's lack of mobility has hurt the offense all year in spread formations and I seriously doubt Grossman is going to pick up his 40 times from his current 5.5 time to 4.6 by next year. What's ironic is that Brock Berlin probably would've been a perfect fit for this offense. It's the same offense, shotgun spread, no huddle that he ran in high school without losing a game. He had the necessary mobility to operate out of the spread. Grossman, though, was the perfect fit for Steve Spurrier's system, which is why he became the big-time player he is. Grossman is talented, to be certain, but like most quarterbacks he is a system quarterback, and this ain't his system.

Many people forget that the last time a Florida coach was hired he was in a similar circumstance. Steve Spurrier took over a Gator squad that featured Emmitt Smith, no doubt the greatest running back in Florida history who was just a junior and contemplating his future then much the same way Rex Grossman is now. Spurrier refused to ask Smith to come back for his senior season; something that if you watched the Redskins and Cowboys on Thanksgiving you know he still takes grief over. But it wouldn't have made sense for Spurrier to beg Emmitt to come back much the same way Zook did with Grossman. Emmitt would've demanded the ball 25 to 30 times per game as it had always been. Who would have blamed him? He is Emmitt Smith, for God's sakes. But then Spurrier would not have been doing things his way. He would've been catering to a superstar instead of making it his team and his team alone. By the way, Spurrier won ten games that year, without Emmitt.

Florida would certainly take some lumps next year with either Ingle Martin or Gavin Dickey, who both lack the experience to be consistently productive next year. However, they are both the type of quarterbacks that fit Ed Zaunbrecher's system. They are fast, athletic quarterbacks who can elude blitzers and sustain drives. They wouldn't immediately be able to make the same kind of plays in the passing game that Grossman is capable of, but a more conservative approach with more of an emphasis on the running game would put the defense in better positions than Grossman did often times this year.

It's hard to make a definitive judgment on Ron Zook since he is using another coach's players from other systems, but Zook would be wise to make the proper adjustments next year, whether Grossman comes back or not, to really put his stamp on this team's identity, something it sorely lacked for most of the year.

Otherwise, an equally difficult schedule in 2003 awaits, and so may another turbulent season for the New Ball Coach.

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