It could get scary in Gainesville this fall. Florida fans have waited 78 years for the Gators to win their first SEC championship, and the fateful day is drawing closer. Everyone wants to be a part of it: Twenty-five daily newspapers cover Gator home games, and the names of 54 businesses in the Gainesville telephone directory include the word Gator. "I'm not sure we want to fool with the hype," says coach Charley Pell. "It's a motivator." But Pell knows hype is a two-edged sword and answers accordingly when asked if, at last, this might be the Year of the Gator: "We expect to be a contender."
Florida has become more and more of a contender since rising from the 0-10-1 ruins of 1979, Pell's first season. Last year's 9-2-1 team was the best in Gator history. Florida began 1983 by handing eventual national champion Miami its only loss and wound up by beating Iowa in the Gator Bowl to finish in the Top 10 for the first time.
However, for Florida to continue to improve, Pell must find a quarterback to replace Wayne Peace, who started the Gators' last 43 games. Says senior Roger Sibbald, one of the eight candidates, "If you could put all of our talents together, you'd have an All-America. Of course, none of us is perfect." Pell will settle for something less. "By midseason I see strong quarterback play," he says.
Florida's attack should get a boost from new offensive coordinator Galen Hall, who held the same job at Oklahoma for 11 seasons. Hall won't tinker much with the Gator pro set, but he will make sure that junior tailback Neal Anderson has ample opportunity to improve his nine-touchdown, second-team All-SEC performance of'83. "I'm looking forward to being relied upon," says Anderson, a public relations major with a B average. "I enjoy persuading others to my way of thinking."
Bolstering the offense are versatile tailback Lorenzo Hampton and powerful fullback John L. Williams. They'll run behind a huge, experienced line, which is led by all-conference center Phil Bromley and 6'5", 277-pound tackle Lomas Brown. Says Pell, who was a 180-pound tackle for Bear Bryant at Alabama, "The good Lord is good to teams with good tackles."
When drives stall, Florida can turn to the country's best kicking game. Ray Criswell averaged 47.4 yards on long-range punts, while coffin-corner specialist Dave Nardone had six of his flares downed inside the 10-yard line. The platoon system worked for field goals as well, with Bobby Raymond converting 20 of 23 attempts inside the 50, and Chris Perkins, who also kicks off, making all three of his long-distance boots—from 47, 48 and 53 yards.
On defense, the Gators lost two-time All-America linebacker Wilber Marshall as well as their entire secondary. But middle guard Tim Newton thinks the '84 unit will be even better than the '83 bunch. "The guys are more mature," he says. "We're being grown up about it." Newton should know; he has grown from a 6-foot, 220-pound freshman linebacker to a 280-pound senior, and he still runs a 4.85 40. Florida's new defensive backs will have to grow up quickly to contend with Miami's Bernie Kosar in the season opener.
Except for an NCAA inquiry into possible recruiting violations that was pending at press time, the Gators' sternest test will again come in the eighth and ninth games of the season, against Auburn and Georgia. In 28 years of such scheduling, Florida has consecutively beaten both SEC rivals only three times. Last year the Gators lost to Auburn by seven points and to Georgia by one. If Pell develops a quarterback and wins those games, this could be the year the waiting ends for Florida fans.