It was the morning after Florida's 23-21 victory over Tennessee, and jubilation was still in the September air in Gainesville, Fla.
Gators coach Steve Spurrier picked up the newspaper and read statistics you wouldn't normally associate with a team fresh off slaying the previous year's national champion: Five turnovers, 112 yards worth of penalties, two touchdowns called back because of penalties, two unsuccessful fourth-down conversions.
"When you're winning, you don't think about those things," Spurrier said. "But we win the game, so we think, `Hey, we're pretty good.' But that crap just sort of continued all year."
Last season indeed was un-Gator-like for Spurrier, whose team finished 9-4 and lost three consecutive games for the first time in his 10-year tenure. To climb back to its perch as SEC dominator, Spurrier said, Florida needs to become smarter.
"You look back at a lot of the games we've lost, and we sort of beat ourselves at times," said Spurrier, whose team won four straight conference titles from 1993 to 1996.
Two weeks after the monumental win over the Volunteers, Florida was leading Alabama late but fumbled, allowing the Crimson Tide to force overtime and eventually win, 40-39.
The Gators responded by reeling off five straight victories, including an impressive 30-14 thumping of Georgia that essentially wrapped up the SEC East. But the last three games were an abomination by Spurrier standards.
Florida committed a slew of turnovers and penalties in an "embarrassing" 30-23 home loss to Florida State, suffered a 34-7 torching to Alabama in the SEC title game, then fell at the last second in the Citrus Bowl to Michigan State, 37-34.
And to top it all off, Florida State's Seminoles dropped a few grains of salt in the Gators' gaping wounds by beating Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.
As he looks toward this season, Spurrier is the first to assert that making the Gators look more like champions begins with a look into the mirror.
"I was probably too negative after a lot of errors that our players were making," said Spurrier, whose team gave up a combined 101 points in its last three losses. "You've got to just sit back and say as a coach, and a coaching staff, `we did a lousy job coaching last year."'
The staff's first task is to find a quarterback. Senior quarterback Jesse Palmer returns but is largely unproven of late, having tossed two touchdown passes and five interceptions in relief of starter Doug Johnson in 1999.
Celebrated freshman Brock Berlin finished high school early and got in some practice during the spring, a commitment that didn't go unnoticed by Spurrier.
"He tries to learn everything he can," Spurrier said of Berlin, who will compete with Palmer and redshirt freshman Rex Grossman for the starting job. "He watches a lot of tape, and he's inquisitive, and he knows the importance of knowledge."
Another unknown is at wide receiver, where the Gators have little proven talent. Travis Taylor and Darrell Jackson skipped their senior years to go pro, leaving former walk-on Alex Willis (24 receptions in 1999) as their most dependable threat.
"I know that people are used to the big names," Willis said. "But I believe some of us are going to make names for ourselves this year. I think our offense is still going to put the ball in the air and still put up big numbers."
Florida's defense might appear vulnerable on the surface, having finished eighth in total defense (332 yard per game), ninth in passing yardage allowed (240 yards per game) and sixth in scoring defense (19.6 points per game).
But Spurrier doesn't appear too concerned, citing two years of stellar recruiting classes that have stocked the Gators with their typical abundance of talent.
"Having another player ready to go in there will certainly help," said Spurrier, adding that several returning starters were displaced in the spring by younger talent. "If a guy knows we haven't got anybody behind him, maybe he's not too concerned about being too accountable every play.
"Playing time is the best motivational factor for a player to play well."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
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