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UF seeks a finish that matters

Of all the things Florida football players are feeling this week _ disappointed, distraught and embarrassed, to name a few _ the overriding sensation is entirely strange.

The Gators are now ordinary.

And they don't know how to act.

Likely to miss the SEC Championship Game for the first time, Florida must come up with a convincing reason to play hard for the rest of the season, starting with Saturday's homecoming game against Vanderbilt.

"This is a new position for the Gators," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We're sort of playing out the season, sort of like those other teams have been when it looks like there's very little hope for a conference championship."

Florida has represented the Eastern Division in every SEC Championship Game since it was introduced in 1992. After losing the inaugural game to Alabama, the Gators won four straight and planned to play for a record-tying fifth.

Make that had planned.

Add last week's 37-17 loss to Georgia to last month's 28-21 loss at LSU and it marks the first time since 1992 Florida has lost two SEC games in a season _ a serious blow to a program accustomed to talking well into November about its championship goals, SEC and otherwise. Though the No. 13 Gators (6-2, 4-2) are mathematically alive in the East, No. 8 Tennessee (6-1, 4-1) would need to lose once and No. 9 Georgia (7-1, 5-1) twice for the Gators to play in Atlanta on Dec. 6.

That doesn't leave much hope or inspiration. After playing for the national championship each of the past two years, Florida is looking instead to a berth in a low-profile New Year's Day bowl, the Citrus or the Outback.

Lose again and it could get worse.

"Some guys get motivated to stand up and say I'm tired of losing, and some guys will think it's the end of the season," defensive end Thaddeus Bullard said. "Hopefully, we've got a lot of those guys that want to go ahead and win out. And I think we do."

If only it were that easy. Lost amid the disappointment of a season gone awry is the reality that Florida is not a very good football team right now. After cruising in a 5-1 start, the Gators offense has struggled to move the ball, let alone post the numbers once considered routine to the Fun 'n' Gun. The defense has been prone to second-half letdowns.

"It's crazy around here," wide receiver Jacquez Green said. "It's the worst time since I've been here _ off the field, on the field. It's real bad right now. It's frustrating."

A quarterback controversy is in full swing, with starter Doug Johnson rapidly falling from favor since serving a one-game suspension for missing curfew two nights before the LSU loss. Johnson, who threw 20 touchdown passes in his first five games, has none in his past two games and six interceptions.

"When we lost to LSU everyone was just kind of "Man, I can't believe we lost to LSU,' " offensive lineman Pat Browning said. "Then we got so focused on Auburn that once we beat them we thought, "Well, now we're good. We can walk through Georgia, Vandy and South Carolina and put everything into FSU.' We kind of overlooked Georgia, and they really stuck it to us."

The psychological advantage of a once-mighty 25-game SEC win streak suddenly has turned against UF. It took only two losses.

"I feel like everybody feels they can beat us now," Bullard said. "The feeling before was that Florida can't be beat. Now a lot of teams feel they can beat us, and if we don't come ready to play, they can.

"Some people probably thought it was going to be easy to win out the rest of the games and have a shot at the national title. Now there's no national title talk. No bowl talk. Just win talk."