Zook, Gators frustrated again

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you don't care to wait for CSI: Gainesville to autopsy the career of Florida football coach Ron Zook, grab a tape of the Gators' 31-24 loss Saturday to archrival Georgia. It was all there, all 34 games crammed into 60 minutes -- the talent, the mistakes, the intensity, the lulls, the penalties, and the frustration -- with one additional story line: Georgia beat Florida for the first time in seven years.

The 7th-ranked Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) kept themselves in the SEC East race. The Gators (4-4, 2-4) must win two of their last three games to qualify for a bowl game. The abridged version of The Zook Years may not be a big seller.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," Zook said, bracing his upper body with one hand on each side of the lectern in the post-game press conference. "But I'm going to tell you something. " He bowed his head to collect himself. "Those guys didn't quit. ... I'm proud of this team. They fought. They fought to the end. They could have cashed it in and they didn't."

A week that began with the firing of Zook on Monday concluded with the coach delivering the heartfelt but faint praise for his players' effort. The Gators didn't give in to a sloppy start in which they allowed the Bulldogs to score touchdowns on each of their first three possessions.

Georgia tight end Leonard Pope, who had made eight receptions all season, caught touchdown passes of 35 and 27 yards in the first 11 minutes. On the fourth possession, Georgia got to the Florida 1, then fumbled the ball away, and the Gators began to come back.

They came back without their best defensive player, sophomore Channing Crowder, who came out early and spent most of the game on crutches, reportedly for a torn ligament in his right foot (the university wouldn't say). They came back, a team of mostly sophomores playing a team of juniors and seniors. They fought hard, yes.

In other words, Florida proved it's good enough to spot Georgia a 24-7 lead and then make the Dawgs sweat. Literally, in the case of Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, whose shirt stuck to his back as he jogged down to the student section after the game, state troopers and photographers in tow.

Richt raised each index finger, and switched to a double thumbs-up. Several Georgia cheerleaders posed near midfield to have their picture taken with the scoreboard serving as backdrop. This was the end of a week seven years in the making.

For the Gators, it was a week that would never end. Zook's shirt stuck to him, too, so much so that he changed at halftime from a blue polo shirt to an orange with a blue stripe. He made one other apparel change. In the first half, Zook, standing with his team on the east sideline, wore a visor.

The Florida fan who spent a little too much time and money at The Landing on Friday night might have squinted through the muggy air Saturday and thought his dream had come true. The Ol' Ballcoach, visor and all, really had come back. But no, it was not Steve Spurrier. That was Zook's biggest problem from the day he arrived. He was never Spurrier.

At halftime, the sun safely down, Zook left the visor in the locker room. It just so happens that that's when Florida began to rally. Chris Leak, the wonderful Florida quarterback, pulled the Gators within 24-21 with 12:20 to play, but that would be as close as Florida would get.

As the Gator Nation waits to see if Spurrier returns, it voiced its feelings in many ways Saturday: by t-shirt (Zook Happens; also, SOS Spurrier), by poster (We Don't Need a Coach to Beat Georgia; also, Come Back Spurrier) and by leaving at halftime. The ones who didn't return missed a spirited comeback by the Gators, the only citizens of Gator Nation who continue to believe in Zook and his staff.

"Losing a lot of sleep this week," junior center Mike Degory said. "That (the firing) was one thing we can't control. That's the hand we were dealt. We were all trying to win, not just for Coach Zook, but the staff and the seniors."

Strong safety Cory Bailey, a half-step too late to stop Georgia flanker Fred Gibson from making a remarkable catch of a 15-yard pass for the clinching touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, didn't like looking at the bright side.

"It's like taking your soul away from you," Bailey said. "For me to go out in my fifth year 4-1 (against Georgia), that's a good record. But everybody I know went out 4-0 or 5-0."

The Gators had won 13 of the last 14 games against the Bulldogs. Now they have lost three consecutive SEC games. The Zook Years have three games remaining: at Vanderbilt, South Carolina, at Florida State. Four years ago, Alabama fired coach Mike DuBose with three games to play. That week, the Crimson Tide played one of its best games of the year, but fell short at LSU, 30-28.

After the initial emotion, reality set in, and the Tide lost its last two games by a combined 38-7. As Zook walked to Florida buses after the game, he listened to the question, forced a smile and turned his head as if to dismiss the question.

"I hadn't thought about it," Zook said. "It's been a day at a time. We're banged up a little bit, probably more than we ever have been. Maybe (staying up) will be the biggest challenge to date."

All the Gators have left is playing hard, and that's not going to get any easier.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.