GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For a moment, Steve Spurrier was back in character. Quick with a quip, he actually sounded as if he were enjoying coaching again.
But for the better part of the year, the Florida coach has been predictable, mechanical and bland. Sort of like his offense.
The offense has been a constant source of frustration, sapping the swagger and some of the life out of the 54-year-old coach.
One of his favorite sayings this year: "We're not as mighty as a lot of people think we are."
That could change Saturday when No. 3 Florida plays No. 1 Florida State, a showdown that could propel the Gators into the national title game.
This could be one of Spurrier's best seasons. The Gators (9-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) have made it back to the SEC title game -- always the top game on Spurrier's schedule -- for the first time in three years.
But for all his success, Spurrier often sounds as if he's living through a prison sentence. He talks of coaching better, getting his players to play better and prodding them to show more emotion.
"I think what frustrates all coaches is when the player he coaches doesn't quite perform like you ask him," Spurrier said. "The quarterbacks and receivers just aren't quite doing it like I think we're capable. Maybe we're not capable. Maybe we're asking too much.
"But still, we've seen guys do it before and we believe these guys are capable of doing it better. So you keep coaching as long as you can, as hard as you can."
Lately, he has treated his quarterback situation like a classified military operation. It's almost a given that Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer will alternate plays on Saturday, but Spurrier won't come out and say it.
There are a number of story lines for Saturday: Spurrier, the coaching genius trying to outfox Florida State's Bobby Bowden. Or Johnson, trying to beat a defense that befuddled the Gators in a 23-12 loss last season.
Instead, Spurrier has put the focus on a "struggling" offense, one he can't stop complaining about even though it's ranked 13th in the nation, two spots higher than Florida State.
"I think he's become a tougher coach," tight end Errin Kinney said. "He's more intense. He's doing a lot more teaching and trying to get the little things taken care of to make this offense be more successful."
Those who know Spurrier try to explain away the blistering criticism he has heaped on his quarterbacks, his receivers and himself.
"He needs to criticize us because we're the ones not executing," fullback Rod Frazier said.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley has seen this before.
"I remember in 1996, when we won the whole thing, he would get frustrated just like he does now," Foley said. "Steve Spurrier getting frustrated as a head coach is nothing unusual. That's the way he is. He's a perfectionist."
Indeed he is. And this year, it seems to have taken a lot of the fun out of the winning.
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