October 1, 2006

Fast start, but a familiar finish for Tide

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In an effort to bring back the good old days of just five years ago, the University of Florida wheeled them all out of cold storage Saturday afternoon.

With Alabama set to visit, Florida unveiled its new ring of honor at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, honoring Gator greats Steve Spurrier, Jack Youngblood, Emmitt Smith and Danny Wuerffel prior to kickoff. Smith, obviously under whelmed by the show of gratitude, said in his video acceptance speech that he was too busy preparing for his next Dancing with the Stars appearance to climb aboard a G5 and join the day's other honorees.

UF even broke out throwback uniforms and printed up tickets that looked like something Charlie stumbled upon while opening a Wonka Bar.

For the Florida Gators -- those one-decade wonders who are celebrating a 100-year football heritage that can be summed up in about 12 -- this was supposed to be the big payback. Last year's 31-3 shellacking at the hands of Alabama would be forever wiped away after the Gators made quick work of the Crimson Tide in front of a national television audience.

But after Alabama middle linebacker Prince Hall scooped up a botched Gator shotgun snap and rambled half of Florida Field for a touchdown, all of the pregame hooplah meant nothing.

The Tide had the start it wanted; the kind a 13 -point underdog desperately needs if it is going to shock the nation's fifth-ranked team on the road.

If only the rest of the Tide had been as quick to capitalize on scoring opportunities as Hall was in giving his team a 7-0 first-quarter lead.

John Parker Wilson's three interceptions, two of which led directly to 14 Florida points, negated Hall's defensive score. For the second week in a row, Wilson showed glimpses of the great play that is to come over the next two-plus seasons. But unlike a week ago, the column designated for picks was open for business.

Afterward, Wilson did what any good quarterback who throws three interceptions does: he accepted blame for the loss.

While it was Wilson's interceptions that made SportsCenter, you have to wonder how things might have played out had the Alabama defense dropped the hammer on UF quarterback Chris Leak in the second quarter.

If Ramzee Robinson comes up with an interception of a Leak pass with the Tide leading 10-0 in the second quarter, chances are the Alabama offense is doing what it does best in the second half: running clock while hanging onto a lead.

But instead of dealing with a massive psychological blow, the Gators marched the length of the field for their first score of the day, completing what might very well have been a 14-point swing in the process.

Of course, I'm assuming the Alabama offense would have made good on a red zone opportunity, which, given its continued struggles on Saturday, is assuming way too much. Apparently the kryptonite dust used to line the 20s at Bryant-Denny Stadium is being distributed around the SEC.

In keeping with the missed opportunities theme, there was also Wilson's deep ball to wide receiver Matt Caddell in the third quarter. While UF cornerback Reggie Lewis was able to do just enough to prevent Caddell from scoring, Robinson came up a few inches short of keeping Florida wide receiver Dallas Baker out of the end zone in the fourth quarter.

It was another frustrating and predictable end, no doubt, but it in no way surpassed the disappointment of a week ago in Fayetteville. In addition to all but dashing hopes of an appearance in the SEC Championship game, the Arkansas loss was the kind that could have sent an inexperienced team into a tailspin.

And perhaps that's what was most promising about Saturday's first half. With all the elements in place for a Florida blowout, Alabama was in position in the fourth to do what it had done in seven of its eight previous appearances in Hogtown. And that's where it ended.

With a critical two-game stretch that produced thoughts of Shreveport in its rearview mirror, the Tide, which has now lost consecutive games in each of Mike Shula's first four years at UA, now gets winnable games at home with Duke and Ole Miss. Two wins in the next two weeks will do nothing to satisfy its appetite for a win over a marquee opponent.

That opportunity won't roll around again until Oct. 21, when Alabama travels to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. Like the last two weeks, it's reasonable to think that this team will be in position to get a win on the road. But getting the job done will require DJ Hall finding the end zone more than Prince Hall.

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