When Steve Spurrier left Florida to test his skill in the National Football League, many thought it would spell doom for the program. And when Ron Zook — once a Florida assistant and most recently the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints — was hired to fill Spurrier's shoes, many more thought that the explosive, pass-based "Fun n Gun" offense that had come to characterize Gator football was equally as dead.
Apparently Zook had other ideas. While Florida did suffer a 41-16 home loss at the hands of the then-No. 1 Miami Hurricanes Zook cleared a major hurdle with diehard Gator fans by soundly defeating conference rival Tennessee on the road two weeks later. And though poor play and costly turnovers led to an upset loss on the road at Mississippi, don't look for the high-octane offense to show many more signs of fizzling. The Gators are 4-2 (2-1 SEC), are averaging 284.5 passing yards per game and have outscored their opponents 186 to 114.
Pre-season doubts about the Florida passing game proved to be short-lived. Zook's debut against Alabama-Birmingham saw a 33-year-old Florida record fall in the Gators' 51-3 victory over the Blazers when senior wide receiver Taylor Jacobs' record-breaking 246 receiving yards highlighted an offensive outpouring that netted 643 yards of offense. Offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher's (who also held the same position at LSU from 1984-90) balanced attack featured not only the dynamic combination of quarterback Rex Grossman and Jacobs, but also the pounding running ability of tailback Earnest Graham. Graham rushed for a career-best 182 yards, the sixth 100-yard effort of his career.
Florida miscues aided the Miami in the Hurricanes' dismantling of the No. 6 Gators a week later. The defending national champions and top-ranked Hurricanes scored 21 points by capitalizing on two interceptions and one botched punt, while Florida was able to put up only nine points on three interceptions and a blocked a punt of their own.
Down by 17, Florida looked to get back in the game on a 26-yard interception return by Bam Hardmon that cut the lead to 27-16. Riding a surging momentum, Florida looked to cut the lead even further and had the ball at the ‘Canes 5 yard-line when Maurice Sikes intercepted a short Grossman pass and returned it 97 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
Grossman's effectiveness was hampered by the Miami defense, whose constant pressure led to his 19-of-45 performance for 191 yards and two interceptions. It was also the first time since the Florida State game in 2000 that Grossman did make a completion for a touchdown.
"I was very, very happy with the offensive line's performance," Zook said. "I thought not only did they protect Rex well, (but) our run-blocking was very crisp. There were few mental errors, and I think when you get to a point to keep your mental errors down then you have a chance to be pretty good. I think our offensive line is looking forward to this challenge. Arguably, Miami has one of the best defensive lines in the country. It gives our guys an opportunity to see exactly where we are, and I think guys come to the University of Florida for the opportunity to play in a game like this. You know, it's a challenge. This is what competitors compete for."
After dropping six spots in the national rankings, Florida cruised to a 34-6 victory over Ohio in messy field conditions that would prove to be a precursor to its showdown with Tennessee the following week.
In a rain-drenched game in Knoxville, Zook became the first first-year Gator head coach to beat a top-five team on the road when Forida dropped then-No. 4 Tennessee, 30-13. Sloppy play by the Volunteers gave Florida ample opportunities to score, which the Gators readily did. Grossman found Jacobs for two TD strikes and Carlos Perez for another, passing for 324 of a total 418 yards of offense.
"Rex is a competitor and a winner," Zook said following the game. "He's getting better every day. He knows the system and he feels it. I knew he was getting more and more confident. We've played two really good football teams. … This one was big, but they're all big. I'll enjoy it tonight. We're taking one game at a time and we'll have to be ready next week."
Formerly considered the SEC's whipping boy in football, Kentucky brought a 4-0 record to Gainseville and proceeded to shoot it out with seventh-ranked Florida, matching the potent Gator passing attack with a dynamic aerial assault of its own. The Wildcats finally fell, 41-34, in a game that saw 555 yards of combined offense in the air.
Kentucky mounted a furious assault in the third quarter, scoring four TDs in an eight-minute span to take the lead, 28-25. Florida responded with the familiar Grossman-to-Jacobs touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining in the quarter to put the Gators in the lead for good.
"I told the team (that) if we were not a football team that has a chance to be a good team, then we would have lost that game out there," Zook said of Florida's comeback in the third quarter. "They didn't quit. I saw it in their eyes. No one acted like we weren't going to win the game. I think we can build on that and we can go from there."
Grossman passed for 375 of Florida's 509 total yards, with Jacobs on nearly half of the receiving end.
"That's a lot of yards," Zook said of his team's offensive outpouring. "It is hard to get 509 yards on air. …You go back to the third quarter in the Tennessee game when they scored and our offense went right down the field and scored again. The same thing happened here — our offense went right down and scored again. That tells you that the offense is feeling good and they are feeling comfortable with what is going on."
No better illustration that Grossman's performance closely dictates the Gators' ability to win could be found in Florida's 17-14 loss to Ole Miss last Saturday. The quarterback was held to under 300 yards for only the second time this season — the first being the loss to the Hurricanes. Grossman completed 19 of 41 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns, but was continually under a heavy pass rush and looked uncharacteristically rattled, particularly in the second half.
In what was perhaps the worst performance of his career, he also served up four interceptions that were not so much Rebel defensive prowess but rather costly mental errors.
"Offensively, I have no concerns," Zook said. "Did we play well? No. Is it correctable? Yes. Sometimes with new systems you have to get knocked down to get the light turned on. We are a good enough offense to make the plays you need to win a close ball game. We do have some work to do. … Who is to say we weren't ready and Ole Miss just had a great game?"
There is no doubt that Zook will work with his players on the problems that they had with the Rebels. And Rex Grossman is too great of a competitor with too much talent to turn in two consecutive sub-par performances. Add those factors to the great advantage provided by The Swamp and the sum is a pretty significant hill for LSU to climb this coming week.
Despite many pre-season wishes, the reports of Florida's death were greatly exaggerated.