GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They call these "nice" seasons at places like Florida. Not great, not spectacular, but simply "nice."
They are the kind of seasons where the Gators win big games, beat traditional rivals, rack up a good number of victories, but miss the ultimate goal - that of winning a championship.
Seasons like this have become more frequent in recent years. Florida has won only one Southeastern Conference title in the last six seasons. Of all those shortfalls, however, this was the wildest ride of all.
It came in Ron Zook's first season as head coach and it reached its decisive moment, oddly enough, on a night when the 19th-ranked Gators (8-3, 6-2) played some of their best football in a 28-7 victory over South Carolina.
Alas, winning wasn't enough. Around halftime of the Florida game, Georgia wrapped up a win over Auburn to clinch the SEC East. The Gators played the second half knowing they would finish in second place.
"We were really like over it in five minutes," said quarterback Rex Grossman, who threw a season-high four touchdowns. "Then we just went on and said, 'We have a job to do. Let's finish our business with South Carolina."'
When the job was completed, Zook insisted it could still be "a big, big season" at Florida, and he has a point. The Gators could still win 10 games. They could still become the first Florida team since 1995 to go 3-0 against top rivals Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.
They will probably go to the Outback Bowl, which isn't the Sugar, but also isn't the Independence, which is where they appeared headed in October when they lost to Mississippi and LSU and stood at 4-3.
They can be thankful they weren't like Arizona, where half the team revolted against second-year coach, John Mackovic, and nearly had him ousted. The Gators stood by Zook through all the trials and turmoil.
They can be thankful they weren't like Alabama, a team that might be the best in the SEC this season but won't be able to celebrate because of another set of NCAA sanctions, the likes of which have plagued the program for almost a decade.
They might even be thankful they weren't like the 2001 Gators, a team that was favored to win a national title, but "underachieved" its way to a 10-2 record and a No. 3 ranking at season's end.
Last season was viewed as something of a failure, and that was one of many reasons Steve Spurrier stepped aside and made way for Zook.
With no head-coaching experience, Zook cobbled together a mix of awkward offense, pretty good defense and bad special teams, and had his team playing for a title on the last weekend of the conference season. In that respect, the season was something of a success.
"We took on some water this season," Zook said. "But I'm proud of the way we stayed together and kept fighting back."
They fought their way back to something much less than a championship, but something far more than a disaster. It was a "nice" season that the Gators insist could still get better.
"What we can do now is beat Florida State," Grossman said, pointing toward the regular-season finale in two weeks. "Florida State is our championship game."
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