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Sunday, October 5, 2003
Pressure on Zook heats up as losing continues


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The yard outside the fraternity house across from The Swamp was dotted with couches, empty cups, trash cans -- all the remnants of a big celebration on one of America's most fervent football campuses.

But only a few hours after the game ended, the party was over.

And attached to the doorway, posted on a 20-foot-high sheet of black crepe paper so everyone could see it, was a handmade sign written in huge, white letters. It read:

fire

ronzook

.com

There are losses, and then there are LOSSES, and Saturday's 20-17 setback to Mississippi -- Zook's eighth in 19 games since he took over the program -- certainly fits into that second category.

"It's embarrassing," said tailback Ran Carthon, who called a player's-only meeting for Monday.

It's not like Florida (3-3, 1-2 SEC) hasn't fallen to teams like Ole Miss before. In fact, the Gators lost to the Rebels in Oxford last year. But this was nothing like years past, when lesser teams played the games of their lives to sneak up on the clearly superior Gators.

The Rebels merely played efficient football, nothing spectacular, to get a win against a team that couldn't have been overlooking them -- not after last year, and certainly not after last week, when the Gators had to overcome an 18-point deficit for a 24-21 victory over league doormat Kentucky.

It was Florida's first home loss to an unranked team in 61 games, dating to 1989, when the same Rebels won 24-19 in the season opener.

"I'm sure it's heated up good," Zook said Sunday, when asked about the fanning criticism being directed his way. "I can't waste energy dealing with things I have no control over."

Even Zook wasn't trying to spin this as a success story, as he has after past losses. And why try? This wasn't some loss to a highly ranked rival (Tennessee), or some game where the Gators played well but blew a 23-point lead in the final 20 minutes (Miami).

Nope, these were the Rebels, a team with a potentially great quarterback in Eli Manning, but not much else of note. Ole Miss hasn't won the SEC since 1963, and this year's Rebels came into Saturday's game with the country's worst pass defense.

At this point, nitpicking Florida's game plan would just be piling on to Zook and his somewhat callow staff. Suffice to say that, even though its young, Florida's roster was stacked with more talent than Mississippi's, and the Gators coaches felt they could win their way -- by establishing the run and not worrying about exposing the obvious flaws in an defense that allowed 661 yards passing the previous week.

The Gators ran 35 times, passed 27 times and Zook could defend his run-first theory by pointing out the three fourth-quarter interceptions thrown by freshman Chris Leak.

Despite the bad finish, Zook said Leak would remain the starter.

"The pros are, he's very talented and can make things happen," Zook said. "The cons are, he lacks experience and makes mistakes you don't want to see."

Thanks to Tennessee's loss to Auburn on Saturday, the Gators head into the meat of their schedule just one game behind the Vols and Georgia in the SEC East. Zook reinforced to his team that the conference title is still a possibility, however farfetched that might sound.

Several more losses are also possible. The Gators still have games at No. 6 LSU, at No. 7 Arkansas, against No. 8 Georgia in Jacksonville and at home against No. 5 Florida State.

Barring wins in any of those games, the highlight of the 2003 calendar year will remain Feb. 5, national signing day, the day Zook brought in one of the top three recruiting classes in the nation.

So far, it's good recruiting that gives the Gators hope, and allows calmer heads to prevail in athletic director Jeremy Foley's office. Foley has consistently stood by the first-time head coach, insisting he deserves at least three seasons to turn the program around.

Whether the growingly impatient group of Gator fans will accept that is another matter. They know that when Steve Spurrier left, the Gators were coming off a 10-2 season, much of which was spent in the Top Five of The Associated Press poll.

Florida is now out of the poll -- the Gators didn't even get a vote Sunday -- and seriously staring at a losing record for the first time since 1979.

"If this doesn't hurt you deep down inside, then you don't love the game of football," defensive end Bobby McCray said after the game.

Clearly, this does hurt -- the coach, the players and the fans. The toughest part is that, right now, it's hard to know when the pain will stop.