Go figure: Zook suddenly the toast of Gainesville

A mere four weeks ago, you couldn't have gotten chump change for Ron Zook's chances of remaining Florida's head coach at the end of this season. That was then, this is now. As Vanderbilt (1-8, 0-5 SEC) travels to Gainesville for a noon Saturday contest vs. No. 17 Florida (no TV, 650 WSM-AM), suddenly Zook is the toast of Gainesville. Who woulda thunk it?

A mere four weeks ago, you couldn't have gotten chump change for Ron Zook's chances of remaining Florida's head coach at the end of this season. The Gators had just dropped a home game to Eli Manning and Ole Miss, and the home crowd at once-hostile Ben Hill Griffin Stadium turned uncharacteristically hostile toward the head coach.

After the ignominy of Oct. 4, pundits were quick to shovel dirt on the Gators. Many predicted once-mighty Florida would finish 5-7 at best, and miss out on a bowl.

That was then, this is now. As Vanderbilt (1-8, 0-5 SEC) travels to Gainesville for a Saturday SEC contest vs. No. 17 Florida (noon Central, 1 p.m. Eastern), suddenly Zook is the toast of Gainesville. Who woulda thunk it?

What did Zook (left) do to attain such exalted status in such a brief time? Well, he took his maligned Gators on the road and beat three ranked SEC teams, that's what. He won in Baton Rouge and Fayetteville-- tough places to win by any measure-- and topped it off with a stirring, 16-13 upset of No. 4 Georgia, the Gators' biggest SEC rival.

Who knows what these fickle Gator fans might do if Zook were to run the table? For the moment, the No. 17 Gators are 6-3, and Zook may be in line for SEC Coach of the Year. More importantly, Florida sits tied for the SEC East lead at 4-2, and will be heavily favored to win its last two SEC contests vs. Vandy and South Carolina.

As Ole Miss has remained undefeated in the SEC, the loss to the Rebels (7-2, 5-0) is looking more understandable by the week-- as is a close early-season loss to the Miami Hurricanes. One gets the idea that with a strong finish, all will be forgiven.

The sun is shining over the Swamp once more. The Gators are sitting in the catbird seat, and they seem to know it.

"We believed in the system, we just knew it would take some time to set in," testified offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher.

An unpopular choice by AD Jeremy Foley two years ago to replace the "old ball coach" Steve Spurrier, Zook's first two seasons have been one big roller-coaster ride. The 2002 Gators whipped No. 4 Tennessee and No. 5 Georgia, but negated those big wins with bad-looking losses to Miami, Ole Miss and LSU. When Florida opened 3-3 in the first six games of 2003, the notorious www.fireronzook.com website nearly went into meltdown.

AP Photo/Bill Haber
AP Photo/Bill Haber
At the center of the Gators' remarkable turnaround was Zook's decision to go with the multi-talented, promising, but inexperienced quarterback, Chris Leak. The true freshman from Charlotte, N.C.-- who as a high school freshman committed to Wake Forest, but reneged when Wake changed coaches-- has guided the Gators to new heights since stealing the starting job from Nashville native Ingle Martin five games back.

The introverted, workmanlike, 18-year-old Leak is quite a story. He reportedly abstains from girlfriends, nightlife, and all that other wonderful campus stuff in order to devote himself to film study and the playbook. His obsessive devotion to football is quickly becoming the stuff of legend in Crocodile Country.

One would think a callow freshman would crack under the bright lights and pressure of a titanic clash like last week's vs. Georgia. But in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the year, Leak engineered a late field goal drive that did in the Bulldogs.

Many recruiting services had him the top high school player in the country last year; this year, he might just be the best college freshman in the country.

"They do a good job of putting him in situations where he can be successful, and he doesn't have to do everything on his own," Vanderbilt Head Coach Bobby Johnson said of Leak earlier this week. "He's got some good people to go to. The receivers are good; the offensive line is good. He doesn't have to get out there and make play after play after play to win the game."

Some observers have compared the gifted Leak to another true freshman Vandy has already seen, Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball. Bruce Fowler and the Commodore defense did a good job of bottling up Ball on Sept. 27-- well, at least for 58 minutes. And let's not forget that the Vandy D turned in a masterful performance vs. Rex Grossman and Zaunbrecher's offense in the second half of last year's 21-17 home loss to the Gators.

This contest is at "The Swamp," where paradoxically Florida hasn't won an SEC game in almost a full year. While the Gators will try to build on the three-game streak and avoid a letdown, the Commodores will be attempting to shed the albatross of a 22-game SEC losing streak. A Vanderbilt win would demolish the Gators' championship hopes, and would send Zook's stock careening southward once more.

Should Georgia, Florida and Tennessee all win their remaining conference games, the right to represent the East in Atlanta could actually come down to a vote of the conference's athletic directors. Vandy's Johnson said earlier this week that if it came to that, he would offer his opinion to Brock Williams, who would cast Vandy's vote.

For which team would Johnson vote? On that, he hedged.

"I think I'd have to look at who played well against us, and we haven't played two of the teams yet," Johnson said. "It's hard for me to say how one team would compare to another if we haven't played against them. On film you can look at it, but until you get out there and match up you can't really compare."

Of course, by upsetting the No. 17 Gators Saturday in the Swamp, Johnson and Vandy would immediately cast an infinitely more decisive and satisfying vote.

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