No one figured the savior would look like Captain Kangaroo, only pudgier and bald, or that he would ride into town with Oklahoma plates on his Pontiac.

No one guessed that this man would bring a slight stutter and a lovable shyness to one of the state's highest-profile sports jobs, wouldn't wear a tie at his first news conference and would actually be so unassuming he would forget he had to talk to reporters after practice.

No, that wouldn't happen here. Not in the big time. Not at the University of Florida.

But nothing is the same any more with the Gators. Galen Hall, a 44-year-old former Penn State quarterback who once sat on the bench for the Washington Redskins, is the new coach. He was hired in February as an assistant and replaced crowd-pleasing Charley Pell, fired in September soon after accepting responsibility for violating NCAA rules. Hall, a lifetime assistant coach, is officially called the interim coach, which probably explains why he still hasn't bought Florida plates.

He was supposed to be a caretaker until the university could hire a big name to put the program -- which faces a minimum two years of no-bowl, no-TV probation and a crippling, unprecedented cap on scholarships -- on its feet again. In late September, Hall took over a meandering 1-1-1 football team in a program turned inside-out by two years of grueling investigation.

But the Gators won, and kept on winning. They are 6-1-1, 3-0-1 in the Southeastern Conference, going into Saturday's game in Jacksonville against Georgia. Locals cross their fingers and tell you they think this is the team's best chance to win the SEC, mainly because of an offensive line bigger than most in the NFL, averaging 282 pounds and 6 feet 3 1/2, some great running backs and a walk-on quarterback ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency.

In the 52 years of the league, the Gators never have won a football title.

"Galen has just done a great job," said Marshall Criser, who has been the university president for two stormy months. The sign in front of Leonardo's Pizza, just off campus, agrees: "Keep Galen. Mushroom $1.09." A "Keep Coach Hall Committee" slips mysterious ads into the local paper.

Even Pell, exiled to the boosters' sky boxes high above Florida Field on Saturday afternoons, feels that way. "He's done a fine job," Pell said. "I think he certainly deserves the opportunity to be the coach."

The Gators are a lot like the Chicago Cubs; they annually break the hearts of millions. If this were Hall's story alone, a five-game tale of naive joy, it would be an easy one to tell. But it's not. NCAA probation and further SEC penalties hang over the Gators like the afternoon thunderstorms. Even if they win the SEC and qualify for the Sugar Bowl, the league may take it all away because of the NCAA violations.

"I've always told my wife," said Norm Carlson, an assistant athletic director who has worked at Florida for nearly 22 years, "that we will win the conference when there is no way to win it."

To which Criser added, "It would be the ultimate irony, after all these years. After all these years . . . "

To win the SEC, the 10th-ranked Gators must beat No. 8 Georgia, 4-0 in the league.. The Gators are favored by three points, but they haven't beaten the Bulldogs in seven years. After that, they have to beat Kentucky and hope LSU, which they tied, loses to Alabama.

This is the time of year that used to tie Pell in knots. The week before the Georgia game, Florida plays Auburn. It's the same every year: the most important games, the most hated conference rivals, back to back. Pell was consumed by the Auburn-Georgia quinella, and never won it. He was 2-3 against Auburn, 0-5 against Georgia.

Hall was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma during all those years. Auburn? Georgia? What, me worry?

"He told me Auburn was like Nebraska and Georgia was like Texas. He's had big games before," Elaine Hall, the coach's wife, said from the only available room, Pell's vacated orange and blue office.

Pell chain-smoked his way through some great seasons. He still is loved in this town. He did what everyone else did, they say, and just got caught.

"Thinking people realize he made some mistakes, but they still love him," said Gene Ellenson, the executive director of Gator Boosters Inc., which earned $3.6 million for the athletic department last year and expects to do better this year.

Last Saturday, the seniors, all recruited by Pell, gathered at the 50-yard line after the 24-3 victory over Auburn and saluted Pell with raised index fingers. "I was up there in that dadgum box and I was waving so hard back," Pell said. "I had goose bumps. I wanted to play."

Pell left with a 33-26-3 record, including four consecutive bowl games and a No. 6 ranking last season, the highest finish ever for the Gators, even if they did lose to Auburn and Georgia.

In the '83 Auburn loss, tailback Neal Anderson, now the team's fourth all-time leading rusher, fumbled three times. The next week, against Georgia, Pell put him in for just two plays. Under heavy pressure for that decision, Pell later apologized to Anderson.

Shift to 1984. Anderson, now a junior, fumbles on the Auburn three in the opening minutes. Hall tells him not to worry about it as Anderson walks to the sideline, and he goes on to gain 108 yards and score two touchdowns.

"You can't run around carrying a scared stick," Hall said. "I would never have thought about (taking Anderson out). I am not a negative person. You can't operate that way."

"It's kind of funny when you look at it," Anderson said. "Coach Hall is a lot more laid-back than Coach Pell. Maybe it helps that Coach Hall has never been here before."

Florida fans are some of the most enthusiastic in the country and the media coverage among the most intense of any college team. And rival teams show little love for the Gators.

In its '84 football issue, Sports Illustrated called Florida fans the "dirtiest" in the country. In 1980, they pelted the Miami bench with ice and tangerines (in celebration of the Gators' bid to that bowl). Howard Schnellenberger, then Miami's coach, got so angry he ordered his team to kick a last-second field goal in a 31-7 victory.

SEC rivals would like to see the Gators show a little remorse.

"I don't know what kind of image they present to the country for our league," said LSU Athletic Director Bob Brodhead. "If they are guilty, do you allow them to go out and have some fun before they go to prison?"

Auburn Coach Pat Dye, who feuded viciously with Pell over the officiating in their '83 game, complained this year about having to play against "professionals." (In the list of Florida violations, a few players' names mistakenly were not scratched out with a magic marker. They were made public along with their testimony before the NCAA, which concerned money they received.)

The university is waiting now. It has asked the NCAA to "modify" some of its charges, and expects a 15-day extension so it can decide whether to appeal.

What irks Florida is the proposed penalty, which will allow only 85 players on scholarship in 1985 and 75 in 1986, instead of the usual 95. Other schools have lost scholarships, but in a different way. They have been permitted to sign only 20 players a year rather than the normal 30. Florida also received that penalty, meaning it could wind up below the 85 and 75 scholarships allowed.

After this season, Florida will lose 18 scholarship players and will have 76 remaining. With a limit of 85, the Gators thus will be able to sign just nine recruits, unless others quit or leave school.

One of those scholarships is set to go to quarterback Kerwin Bell, the walk-on freshman from Mayo, Fla. He is called, appropriately enough, "The Throwin' Mayoan." Bell, who was eighth on the depth chart at the start of fall drills, has started every game and is among the top passers in the nation.

The scholarship prospects are the same for 1986, which means Florida will have incredibly small senior classes at the end of the decade.

Criser, who fired Pell amid statewide controversy, is expected to eventually appeal to the NCAA, hoping to hold the SEC at bay until after that. By then, it could be January, and the bowls will be over.

Yet, while he calls for "due process," Criser knows the SEC can make its decision any time, after giving Florida 10 days notice to prepare for a hearing. And SEC sanctions for '84 bowls would give the Gators a three-year probation, counting 1985 and 1986, from the NCAA.

"I would hope people would rise above the emotional issues," Criser said. "But that is a concern."

It is not a worry of Hall's. "We are thinking about Georgia, and that's all," he said from the sparse assistant coach's office he refuses to leave.

It's a typical coach's statement in an atypical time. Florida has played beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic of fans, and praise is quick to fall into Hall's ample lap. Criser said Hall has performed with "a great amount of class."

Most observers believe Hall may have the job locked up, or almost certainly will if he beats Georgia. It would be only the fifth time the Gators have won the Auburn and Georgia games the same year.

But there are other choices; Schnellenberger, Criser said, "certainly is a serious candidate."

Both Pell and Schnellenberger are slicker public-relations men than Hall, observers say. "I can't be Charley Pell or Howard Schnellenberger," Hall said.

But he can be the folk hero neither one of them is. His wife calls him a "homebody" who watches "Hotel" on TV, gardens and plays golf. He was a Doug Flutie-sized quarterback (5-9, but now 210 pounds) for Penn State, and was the starter in 1960 and 1961. He got into coaching after a shot at the pros and went to Oklahoma in 1966. As offensive coordinator, he coached Joe Washington, Steve Davis and Billy Sims, among others.

Practice this week ended as all Hall's do, with quarterbacks running deep patterns to catch passes and other players imitating sandlot games. The consensus is that Hall has his players, some of whom even threatened to quit if Pell was forced out, much looser than Pell ever did.

But the biggest compliment of all comes from fans who dare to dream that this, finally, is the long-awaited Year of the Gator. The Sugar Bowl has been on the line before, but never has there been such optimism. As one insider said, "Now that the pressure is off, because of the probation, we'll probably win it."

What then? What if Florida wins the title but must stay home to serve its sentence?

The answer invariably is the same. This one comes from Charlie LaPradd, an all-America tackle for Florida in 1952 who now is a beer distributor in town.

"Once you've done it," he said, "they can take it away from you and wipe it out of the record book, but you know.

"You always will know."