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Three-way tiebreaker has Gators wondering

A little more than a month ago, talk of Florida in a three-way tie for the SEC East title seemed ridiculous.

Today, it's a lot less far-fetched.

With three straight wins, the Gators have gone from a pitiful .500 team to a tie for first place in the Eastern division. Whether UF makes it to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game depends partly on Florida and partly on a lot of other things.

But if Florida (6-3, 4-2 SEC), Georgia (7-2, 4-2) and Tennessee (6-2, 3-2) win their remaning conference games, there will be a three-way tie for first.

And that's where the controversy comes in. The final tiebreaker is a vote of the athletic directors who aren't affected by the decision.

Florida coach Ron Zook has declined comment on the issue several times, saying his opinion doesn't matter and the Gators need to focus on what they can control: the next game. The players are doing the same.

"The only thing we control is our destiny," defensive tackle Kenny Parker said. "This game is crucial to us. We lose a game, we're basically out of the SEC. That's the only game we can control. We can't control what Georgia does or if they win out or if Tennessee wins."

No, they can't. But the conference can.

The SEC has seven factors for determining a champion in the event of a three-way or more tie, including combined head-to-head record among the tied teams, record of tied teams within the division and overall record vs. non-division teams. SEC commissioner Mike Slive has said that the league will reevaluate the current tiebreaker system at the end of the season. For now, it stands.

Conventional wisdom says the athletic directors will vote for the team ranked highest in the AP poll at the end of the year. But many Florida fans aren't so sure that a vote will go their way, no matter what. Nor are the players.

"Not a lot of people like Florida anyway, so I wouldn't expect a lot of votes," senior tackle Max Starks said.

PLAYER OF YEAR: Stephanie Freeman, a former standout at Countryside, was named the SEC Soccer Player of the Year by the league's coaches Wednesday night. The junior center-midfielder has started every match and is second on the team with 17 points off of six goals and five assists. This is Freeman's second consecutive year on the All-SEC team; she was named honorable mention in 2002. Freeman is the fifth UF player to earn the award. Senior Crystal Frimpong and freshman Melanie Booth were selected to the All-SEC second team. No. 8 Florida (14-3-1, 6-2-1 SEC) opens SEC Tournament play at 8:30 tonight against Vanderbilt (8-6-3, 3-4-2).

UPON FURTHER REVIEW: As it turns out, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff should be celebrating his eighth interception and the school's single-season record. The senior had an interception overruled by an official in Saturday's game against Georgia, but it shouldn't have been. Ratliff stepped out of bounds, then back onto the field to make the interception and an official ruled the pass incomplete. Saturday night, Zook agreed with the call, but on Tuesday he said he was wrong.

The former NFL assistant coach thought the college rule was the same as the NFL where a player coming from out of bounds can't be the first to touch the ball. But NCAA rules dictate that a college defensive player can come from out of bounds and be the first to touch the ball.

"The reason I didn't say anything is I thought it was a good call," Zook said. " It should have been an interception. I'm sure Keiwan is asking about it."

Zook said it's important for Ratliff to break the record. "If you get up around nine or 10 (in a season) you're going to be an All-American if you can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.

_ Antonya English covers Florida athletics. She can be reached at (813) 226-3389 or