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Swamp a good place to start a win streak

If ever there was a time to put together a winning streak, this is it for Florida.

"This is gut-check time," left guard Lance Butler said.

The Gators (1-1) host Kentucky (1-1) Saturday in the first of a four-game homestand that spans 35 days and includes Arkansas, LSU and Middle Tennessee State. It's the first time Florida has played four games at home in consecutive weeks.

"That's a big comfort for us, just being home, not having to travel and really getting the feeling of playing in the Swamp," quarterback Chris Leak said.

Despite the last-minute loss Saturday at Tennessee, coach Ron Zook sees similarities between this team and last season's. Struggling at 3-3, the 2003 team went on a five-game winning streak, including three against opponents in the top 11.

"I really believe our guys will take this game and it'll be just like it was when we were 3-3," Zook said. "We'll refocus and revitalize and I think our guys will take it that way and we're going to try to get on a roll if we can."

To do that, the Gators have to play better at home. Between 1990 and 2001, Florida lost just five games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Since then, Florida has lost five in two years and opponents have said the Swamp doesn't exude the same fear factor.

"We want to definitely win the big games here," Butler said. "We want to win all our games, but especially here with our home crowd and fans. We want to get that back."

LEAK'S ANNIVERSARY: Saturday's game marks the one-year anniversary of Leak taking over as the starter _ sort of. His first start was actually Sept. 27, a dramatic come-from-behind win over Kentucky.

Florida trailed 21-3 in the fourth quarter before Leak pulled out the largest comeback win on the road in school history. Eleven games later, Leak said he hasn't thought much about Kentucky's significance in his college career, but he's confident he's a better player.

"The difference is just being more comfortable out there with the guys and just getting the rhythm in the game," he said. "Just getting the experience of playing (helps)."

LONG STREAK: The last time Kentucky defeated Florida, the majority of the Gators were 1 to 3 years old.

It was 1986.

Florida has won 17 in a row over the Wildcats, and while the Florida players and coaches downplayed the significance of that streak, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks doesn't discount it.

"Yeah, I'd say it's got to be (a factor)," Brooks said. "It certainly turned out to be a factor last year when we thought we were in position to end it. You could sense it in our players as well as the fans in the stands, they were just kind of: "Oh, well, here we go again.' "

Brooks said he expects Florida to be more prepared then ever.

"Tennessee's win over Florida is really a shame in one regard," he said. "It shouldn't have happened obviously. But it's something that obviously will inspire them to go out this week. I would have been a lot happier going in there with them having won that game than having lost it."

RATINGS WINNER: The prime-time game between Florida and Tennessee earned a national household rating/share of 4.2/8, up 50 percent from last year's 2.8/7, which featured the USC-Auburn game in that same time slot on Aug. 30. It was the best rating for the Tennessee-Florida game since a 6.2/14 in 2001.

POOL PARTY: Twenty-eight Olympians are scheduled to participate in the Swimming and Diving Alumni/Parent event this weekend in Gainesville. The festivities kick off today with a banquet at the Hilton hotel. Social hour begins at 6 p.m., the banquet at 7. The meet is scheduled for noon Saturday at the O'Connell Center pool.

BASKETBALL ON TV: The men's basketball team is scheduled to make six national television appearances, four on ESPN: Louisville at noon on Dec. 11, Georgia at 7 on Jan. 5, at Mississippi State at 8 on Feb. 1 and at Kentucky at 9 on Feb. 8. Two of the Gators' final three regular-season games will be on CBS: at South Carolina at 2 on Feb. 26 and Kentucky at noon on March 6.

Seven of Florida's SEC games will be televised on WTTA-Ch. 38, plus a Jan. 2 contest against FSU.

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

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