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Florida Gators' down season need not be a lost season

GAINESVILLE — To the rest of the world, this was probably worth a few giggles.

The once-proud stadium with empty seats and little expectation. The homecoming victory rescued by the inexplicable cessation of pass interference rules.

The Florida Gators coming oh-so-close to their first five-game losing streak in 32 years and their first potential loss at home to this particular opponent since 1945.

The entire afternoon had a vibe of poetic comeuppance. It just felt like the right time to make fun of a program that wears its arrogance on countless orange and blue sleeves.

Except, sometimes we forget about the young men actually playing the game.

This is what you might have noticed as UF players filed out of their locker room Saturday afternoon. This is what might have stuck with you when they talked about dancing and hollering and celebrating a 26-21 victory against Vanderbilt.

Yes, Vanderbilt.

"Ecstatic," said defensive end Earl Okine. "Everybody was very happy. Relieved. All of the above."

"It was crazy," safety Matt Elam said of the locker room celebration. "We were ready to get that W."

Florida does not need your pity. And Gator fans should not expect any slack.

When you have taken up residence near the top of the mountain as UF has done for the past two decades, you have to expect some pain when you finally lose your footing.

And make no mistake, this is Florida hitting some long forgotten lows. This is worse than the Ron Zook era. This is worse than Urban Meyer's final season. This is far worse than anything that ever happened during Steve Spurrier's watch.

The Gators are too young, too thin, too mismanaged, too something. The offense has no identity whatsoever. It's not a true spread passing attack, and it's not a power running game. The defense rarely forces turnovers and doesn't overwhelm at the line.

There are reasons, or excuses if you prefer. But the bottom line is the Gators are no one's idea of dangerous.

For the moment, they are the bridge between the upper crust and the impoverished in the SEC. They have lost all four times when facing a team with a winning record in the league. And now they have won three times when facing losing teams.

That is pretty much the definition of mediocrity, and that is a description with which the Gators have been largely unfamiliar since 1990.

"We're building our battle scars right now. We've got a bunch," said first-year coach Will Muschamp. "We will benefit from the tough times we're traveling through. People better enjoy it while they've got it."

Vanderbilt, which had lost 20 consecutive games against Florida, did its best to take advantage on Saturday. After falling behind 17-0, the Commodores nearly made up the entire deficit in the final 20 minutes.

Along the way, they were on the wrong end of two fairly obvious pass interference penalties that somehow were not called against UF defenders.

The second, on third and 8 in Florida territory, forced a Vanderbilt punt that eventually led to UF's winning score.

"My job is to coach the team. I'm going to do my job very, very well," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said when asked about the second noncall. "The other stuff I can't control, and I'm going to leave it at that."

And so, in the end, Florida still has a chance to salvage something from this season. A win next week in South Carolina could even change the tenor of the conversation.

"We needed a win," said linebacker Jonathan Bostic. "We needed to turn everything back around."

This season will never be special, and it will hardly be memorable, but that doesn't make it completely hopeless. Saturday's victory means a bowl game is a near certainty. And a signature victory against South Carolina or Florida State is still a possibility.

Perhaps a long shot but a possibility.

During Friday night's team dinner, the Gators had nearly two dozen former team captains back in town for homecoming.

"They kept stressing that, 'Y'all only have three more times to run out of that tunnel,' " said quarterback John Brantley. "We've got to cherish these moments."

Maybe, in retrospect, that will be the saving grace of this season.

A lesson in appreciation. In understanding empathy.

In humility.

Florida Gators' down season need not be a lost season 11/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 9:20pm]
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