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Triple threat lies in wait for Gators

If it's November, the Gators must be fading. Saturday evening, Florida's football team begins its annual stretch run of Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky (thrown in for humanitarian purposes) and Florida State.

The past three seasons, the Gators have started November with records of 5-2 (1987), 5-2 (1988) and 6-1 (1989). Each season the results were the same. UF went 3-0 against Kentucky and 0-9 against the Big Three.

"It seems like we've been snakebitten," said defensive tackle Brad Culpepper. "We've had a better ballclub than some of those teams over the years, but we just haven't done the job."

The Gators have found all sorts of ways not to do the job.

Florida has lost close (17-10 to Georgia), lost big (52-17 to Florida State) and lost heartbreakingly (10-7 to Auburn on a last-minute pass).

Although that three-game stretch includes highly respected _ and usually highly ranked _ opponents, it's not like the mission is impossible. As recently as 1984 and 1986, the Gators swept all three games.

And it's not like the past few Florida teams have been without talent. Five players who went on to be National Football League first-round draft picks were involved in those games for UF.

"It's been very frustrating," senior tight end Kirk Kirkpatrick told reporters last week. "The years I've been here, we've usually fallen apart."

Coaches and players say this season will be different. Of course, they said that last season. And the season before. But at least this year, the Gators have some tangible reasons for optimism.

They say the arrival of coach Steve Spurrier (who went 5-4 against Auburn, Georgia and FSU when he was UF's quarterback from 1964-66) has made it easier to disassociate the 1990 team from the previous three years. They also say this team has more depth than previous Florida teams, which may have felt the effects of NCAA-ordered scholarship reductions in the mid-1980s.

Spurrier scoffs at reports of Florida's futile November flings from 1987 to 1989. The only history he is concerned with is the very recent kind. As in, Florida is 6-1 this season and is ranked 15th in the nation heading into Saturday's 7:30 p.m. game (ESPN) against the No.

4 Auburn Tigers.

"Last year doesn't have a lot to do with this game. We're a different team. We have real grass, new uniforms," Spurrier said. "The players certainly remember what's happened, but we don't sit around talking about it.

"I don't see any good to keep reminding them of prior failures. Even though it's a lot of the same guys, it's a different team."

Of the nine losses in this recent string, last season's defeat by Auburn was certainly the worst.

Florida was winning 7-3 and had forced the Tigers into a fourth-and-11 situation with 26 seconds left when quarterback Reggie Slack hit Shayne Wasden on a 25-yard touchdown pass for the winner.

"I watched a tape of that game over the weekend to get back into an Auburn frame of mind," said linebacker Jerry Odom. "It still hurt watching it a year later. I couldn't even watch the tape of that game for a while, but time heals the wounds."

Time apparently did not heal the wounds quickly enough last season. Florida went on to lose three of its next four games, including a 34-7 whipping by Washington in the Freedom Bowl.

"After we lost that Auburn game," said wide receiver Ernie Mills, "we just didn't come around again for the rest of the year."

Spurrier has taken a more low-key approach to the stretch run than Galen Hall did last season. With an open date last weekend, Spurrier scheduled only two days of practice and let the team have off the rest of the week.

He also has made it clear that he doesn't want the players thinking about past failures. And the players are happy to oblige.

"If you look at that garbage too much, you lose your focus," said Odom. "I think last year we got caught up in that garbage."