When Florida lost to Tennessee back in September -- a difficult setback that ended with controversial officiating on the game-winning drive and a last-minute 50-yard field goal -- Coach Ron Zook said he wasn't eating or sleeping much. That got worse when the Gators lost at home to Louisiana State, another game in which they frittered away a late lead.
So now what?
Florida's loss to Mississippi State on Saturday was the kind that can change a program's future. The numbers are starting to stack up against the third-year coach. His predecessor, Steve Spurrier, never won fewer than nine games in his 12 years at Florida. Zook's first two Florida teams won only eight times apiece; this version is 4-3, 2-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Zook not only must overcome his 20-13 record at Florida, but his questionable behavior of two weeks ago, when he confronted members of a campus fraternity who reportedly had been involved in a scuffle with football players. Zook apologized for his actions, which Athletic Director Jeremy Foley called "unacceptable," but it could still haunt him. Florida President Bernie Machen told the Orlando Sentinel that he would consider the incident as part of Zook's postseason evaluation.
"Everything counts," Machen told the paper. "We just don't make decisions in the middle of the year like this."
Some Florida fans undoubtedly wish they would, particularly because they know Spurrier is out of work and hopes to coach again. Why not Gainesville? One online poll asking the simple question, "Should the Gators fire Ron Zook?" had registered 1,084 "yes" responses yesterday evening, with just 89 saying "no." That's a 92-percent-to-8-percent landslide.
Zook's struggles seem more stark when measured against Spurrier's success. Zook has already lost six games at "The Swamp," Florida's once-feared home field. Spurrier lost six home games in his 12 years. The Gators would have to win their final four regular season games -- against Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State -- plus a bowl game to reach nine wins, what used to be considered an off year for Spurrier.
With any luck for Zook, Saturday's 38-31 loss in Starkville, Miss., will be the nadir. If it's not, he won't be employed for long. The Bulldogs had not only dropped five straight games since winning their opener, but they hadn't even been consistently competitive. Their losses to Auburn, LSU, Vanderbilt and Alabama-Birmingham had come by an average of 28 points. They lost to Division I-AA Maine, which is .500 against I-AA competition.
Now, Zook must try to keep together a fracturing team.
"A lot of players weren't ready," tailback Ciatrick Fason told the Sentinel after Saturday's game. "The same players that were talking during the week [about how well they would play] weren't ready."
If the Gators aren't ready again, it could be Zook's last season in Gainesville.
Asked by reporters if he had an explanation for Saturday's debacle, he said simply, "No, I don't."
Miami's Pyrrhic Victory
Miami's victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night was both impressive and costly. The Wolfpack, which entered the game with the nation's top-ranked defense, had given up as many as 300 yards just once this year. The Hurricanes gained 415. Quarterback Brock Berlin tied a school record with five touchdown passes, and now has 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the last three weeks.
But Miami lost defensive tackle Santonio Thomas and guard Tyler McMeans to knee injuries. Coach Larry Coker said yesterday that both injuries might be season-ending. Thomas, a senior, had three tackles for loss and a sack in six games this year.
But the more significant loss could be McMeans, a 6-foot-5, 337-pound junior. Two weeks ago, Miami lost left tackle Eric Winston for the season with a knee injury, and he was replaced by junior Rashad Butler. Now, McMeans will likely be replaced by redshirt freshman Derrick Morse, meaning the offensive line is both younger and thinner than Coker would like.
Boise State Getting Close
From the so-late-you-might-have-missed-it file: Eighteenth-ranked Boise State remained unbeaten with an impressive 33-16 victory over Fresno State late Saturday night, perhaps the Broncos' most significant hurdle en route to an undefeated season. The odd thing about this one: The Broncos, who lead the nation in scoring offense, won it with defense.
Boise State (7-0), which has won 18 games in a row, allowed Fresno just 17 yards rushing by bringing eight and sometimes nine players close to the line of scrimmage. The Broncos' remaining schedule -- Hawaii, at San Jose State, Louisiana Tech and at Nevada -- doesn't include a team with a winning record.
Washington's loss to top-ranked Southern California not only extended the Trojans' winning streak to 16, but ended the Huskies' streak of 28 consecutive years without a losing season. Washington is 1-6 with four games remaining. . . .
How bad is the Big 12 North? While South powers Oklahoma and Texas A&M prepare for a Nov. 6 showdown between the only teams with unblemished conference records, no team in the North is above .500 in league play. Nebraska, which allowed the last 21 points in a 45-21 loss to Kansas State, and Missouri, which blew a 17-0 lead in a 20-17 loss to Oklahoma State, share the division lead at 2-2. The Cornhuskers and Tigers meet this Saturday.