Gators are trying to put bite on an official SEC title


GAINSVILLE, Fla. -- Steve Spurrier, University of Florida football coach and prodigal son, watched ESPN's telecast of Miami's 40-10 victory over Houston and was duly impressed.

"Miami looked so much better than they did against Arkansas," he said. "They didn't look fired up against Arkansas, but they were ready to go against Houston.

"You know, Dennis [Erickson] and I have become pretty good buddies, I would say. We and our wives spent time together on the Nike outing in February. We can do that because we don't play each other. We've got to team up and beat the Seminoles. [FSU coach Bobby] Bowden says he's the only one stupid enough to play both."

Spurrier would like to be playing both, too, but insists that economics -- not the desire to duck Miami, as Hurricanes fans so loudly proclaim -- is the reason Florida dropped UM as an annual opponent. But he hasn't given up on playing UM this year.

"I tell people this sets up the possibility of meeting in a big bowl game," he said. "I know Miami's good enough, and if we are, it would create an extra amount of excitement if we played."

A major bowl for the Gators would be great, and a national championship even greater. But first things first. There's the Moby Dick of Gators football still out there to be harpooned -- the ever-so-elusive first "official" Southeastern Conference championship the Gators have been chasing since 1933. The pursuit began last week with a thumping of against 19-time SEC champion Alabama before about 83,000 in newly expanded Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The qualifier "official" is necessary because the Gators' 6-1 SEC record last year, Spurrier's first as head coach, was best in the conference but didn't win the championship. The Gators were on probation and ineligible for the title, which was given to Tennessee (5-1-1).

It was, and remains, a bitter pill for Spurrier and the players because the punishment was for alleged child-support payments made four years earlier by then Coach Galen Hall to Jarvis Williams.

"None of our players or coaches had anything to do with those alleged payments -- and I say alleged because Galen Hall denies them to this day and they've never been proven -- but they still use it to deny a group of young men the right to be called champions," Spurrier said. "That ain't fair where I come from. But nobody said life was fair."

Does Spurrier then consider the Gators defending champions in fact, if not in name?

"No. We never use the word champion. We just say that we had the best record and that our goal is to finish first again."

With 43 of 59 lettermen back, and a "fun-and-gun" offense that rolls up yardage and points, the sixth-ranked Gators may just do that and finally bring home that SEC trophy. Furthermore, there's the giddy feeling among Florida fans that Spurrier is the man to lead them to a long-awaited golden age of football the Gators have always seemed to have the resources to enjoy.

To both goals, Spurrier says, with typical coachly caution, "We've got a chance."

"We've got the best academics in the state, the best fan support and maybe the best high school talent in the country to recruit from," Spurrier said. "We've got a lot of advantages. Miami and Florida State have done it and we've the same strengths as them, maybe more. It hasn't happened here, and I don't know if it will or not. But we've got a chance."

First things first. The SEC. Spurrier knows that Gators fans think this is their year at last.

"It's certainly something we would all like, but if we put too much pressure on ourselves that we have to do it, I don't think we will play as well as we can," he said. "It's going to be difficult. We need to stay healthy and get a few breaks. But we've got a chance."

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