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Gators have rare hollow victory

11/17/2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Rex Grossman played one of his best
games of the season, and so did his Florida teammates.

In the end -- or by halftime, really -- that meant nothing.

Grossman threw four touchdown passes Saturday night to help Florida (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) defeat South Carolina 28-7 in what turned out to be one
of the most hollow victories in program history.

The Gators (8-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) came into the game
knowing they needed help to win the SEC East. They didn't get it,
and because of that, they'll finish second in the division to
Georgia.

"We'll take Sunday to celebrate this win, and realize how close
we were,'' Grossman said. "But that's really not that
interesting.''

The Gators did suffer a key loss Saturday, though. Receiver Carlos Perez caught six passes for 59 yards and a touchdown, but his season ended late in the first half
when he was tackled on the sideline. Coach Ron Zook said he broke
his fibula.

What was interesting was the Georgia-Auburn game, the one the
Gators needed Georgia to lose. Auburn was ahead through most of the
game. But just before the Gators reached halftime of their game
against the Gamecocks (5-6, 3-5), Georgia's Michael Johnson made a
great fourth-down touchdown catch to give the Bulldogs a 24-21 win.

A fan near the sidelines had been updating Florida's Shannon
Snell on the score, and when Snell heard the final, he was
distraught. Snell was the player who last month predicted the
Bulldogs would lose to Florida, which they did, then lose again,
which they didn't.

"I guess I'll take some ribbing for that,'' Snell said. "The
second half of my prediction didn't come true. I apologize to
Georgia. They came back and showed perseverance.''

Despite their troubles, the Gators never quit either this year.
Still, that doesn't change reality.

They are playing for pride and for a 10-win season, but not for
a championship.

"It just wasn't meant to be,'' coach Ron Zook said.

Their next game is in two weeks at Florida State, a rivalry that
will mean far less than usual. Then, it's a bowl trip -- probably
the Outback, but certainly not the Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta,
which is where conference champions from around the country will
play in January.

Indeed, programs like Florida are measured by championships, and
that makes Zook's first season as coach no better or worse than
Steve Spurrier's last. Both teams came up empty.

Just as big an issue is what the Gators have become since
Spurrier took his Fun 'N' Gun and headed for the pros.

Against an overmatched South Carolina team, Zook persisted early
in the game at chipping away with short receiver screens and
playing the conservative defense-and-field position game he learned
in the NFL.

The first 22 minutes of this game were scoreless and boring.
After that, the Gators finally revved it up and started playing
solid, exciting football. They iced the game with 9:08 left, when
Grossman hit Kelvin Kight for a 27-yard score. The touchdown was
set up by a 21-yard reception by Grossman from receiver Keiwan
Ratliff. It was one of the few razzle-dazzle plays the Gators have
executed in weeks.

"We've had four or five great games this year, and this one was
right up there,'' Grossman said.

Zook said he was proud that the Gators defeated all five of
their SEC East foes.

"The lesson to be learned is we play eight conference games,
and you have to play all eight games,'' he said.

Indeed, it's a pair of losses to SEC West opponents Mississippi
and LSU that will sit hard this offseason. A win in either of those
games and the Gators -- big favorites both weeks -- would have been
celebrating Saturday instead of lamenting Georgia's victory.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it, I couldn't stop talking
about it, I couldn't stop yelling about it,'' Snell said.

"Obviously, I'm not going to stop thinking about it for the next
few weeks or the next few months.''

The loss was the fourth straight for Lou Holtz and the
Gamecocks, who could still become bowl eligible with a victory over
Clemson next week.

After moving their starting quarterback, Corey Jenkins, to
safety, and replacing him with Dondrial Pinkins, the Gamecocks
still struggled. They threw for only 74 yards and have now scored
31 points in the last four games.

"If they hadn't invented the forward pass, we wouldn't be
hurting as much as we are now,'' Holtz said.

Grossman completed 24-of-36 passes for 228 yards in another
efficient game. He won't win the Heisman this season, and now the
guessing game begins as to whether the junior has played his final
home game.

"I have no idea. I really don't,'' Grossman said, when asked if
he would return.

Sure not to come back are senior tailback Earnest Graham, who
rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries, and senior receiver Taylor
Jacobs, who sat out with an injured knee.

They and 13 other seniors will leave with lots of nice memories,
but only one ring -- the SEC championship ring they won in 2000 on a
team that went 10-3.