All right, so Florida didn't win the SEC title last year, for
the first time in five years. That hardly rates as futility in
fifth-year senior tailback Terry Jackson's book.
Jackson--student body vice president, team captain and
all-around deserving guy--has played with teammates in about 20
video-game leagues over the past four years, competing in
everything from Madden football to NBA Live to Super Mario
Karts, but he has yet to win the big one. "I'm the only one who
hasn't won a championship," says Jackson, who is so passionate
about the leagues that he draws up membership contracts
stipulating when games must be played. "I'll go undefeated
during the regular season and then choke in the playoffs. But I
have a feeling this is going to be my year."
This might be Jackson's year to grab some long overdue glory on
the real gridiron as well. The third member of his family to
wear number 22 for the Gators (his father, Willie Sr., a
receiver from 1970 through '72, was Florida's first black
player; his older brother, Willie Jr., became the school's
alltime leader in touchdown receptions before being drafted by
the Dallas Cowboys in '94), the 6-foot, 218-pound Jackson has
lined up at tailback, fullback, linebacker, strong safety and
punt returner. He played each position with such skill that
coach Steve Spurrier has called him "the best all-around player
in college football." Jackson has 216 carries for 1,207 yards (a
5.6-yard average) and 14 touchdowns in his Gators career, but
though his talent remains impressive, his achievements have been
curtailed by injury or obscured by bigger names.
This year there are no big names on offense, only big questions,
especially at quarterback. Junior Doug Johnson threw for 21
touchdowns in '97 but is recovering from a surgically repaired
shoulder and only began throwing footballs again this month. He
won't be ready for the season opener against The Citadel on
Sept. 5. That puts the ball, at least for now, in the hands of
talented but raw sophomore Jesse Palmer, who was yanked quickly
in his only start as a freshman, against Auburn. Whoever ends up
taking the snaps will be throwing to the leanest group of
receivers in Spurrier's seven years in Gainesville. "This year,"
says Spurrier, "I think we'll be more Fun, Run 'n' Gun."
So why can't anyone wipe that grin off Spurrier's face? For one
thing, Palmer had a terrific spring game (three touchdowns, no
interceptions), and his smarts and work habits have prompted his
hard-to-please coach to routinely invoke the name of 1996
Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. Moreover, although
Johnson's erratic play frequently sent Spurrier into his
trademark visor-tossing tizzy last fall, he has demonstrated
that when healthy he can put up big numbers--and win--in the
Florida coach's madcap system. Indeed, Johnson showed his mettle
last year in wins over Tennessee, in which he threw for 261
yards and three touchdowns, and Florida State, in which he and
the now departed Noah Brindise combined to throw for 336 yards
against one of the nation's most fearsome defenses. As for the
concerns about the unit's lack of star power, consider this:
From 1991 through '96, not a single Florida offensive player was
taken in the first round of the NFL draft (only two were taken
in the first three rounds), yet the Gators won four SEC titles
and had the conference's highest scoring offense during that
August 30, 1998
Spurrier didn't have half the defense then that he has now. Last
year the Gators allowed just 70.7 rushing yards a game, second
in the nation, and set a school record with 50 sacks. Since Bob
Stoops arrived as defensive coordinator two years ago, Florida
has held opponents to three-and-out 39.9% of the time, and the
Gators should be even more brutally efficient this year. The
front seven might be the nation's best. Six of the projected
first-teamers started the 1997 Sugar Bowl, and the one who
didn't, 6'5", 254-pound junior linebacker Jevon Kearse, has been
making up for it ever since: Despite starting just four games
last year, Kearse led the team with 6 1/2 sacks and 29 1/2 "big
plays," Stoops's accounting of forced fumbles, quarterback
hurries and the like.
One thing Florida won't have is the swagger that comes from
topping off four straight SEC titles with a national
championship. Returning vets remember with stinging clarity the
ambushes that Georgia and LSU pulled on them last year. "Those
games felt like losing the '96 Fiesta Bowl," says senior
defensive tackle Ed Chester, recalling the 62-24 thrashing at
the hands of Nebraska in the national title game. "We know now
we can't take anybody in this league for granted. I'm just glad
I get one more chance at those guys."
For Chester, Jackson and even the sublimely self-assured
Spurrier, overconfidence will not be a problem. For the rest of
the SEC, that is the problem.
1997 record: 10-2 (6-2, tied for 2nd in SEC East)
Final ranking: No. 4 AP, No. 6 coaches' poll
Rushing Passing Total
1997 Averages Scoring Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 37.2 145.0 276.3 421.3
DEFENSE 18.1 70.7 219.7 290.5
Coach: Steve Spurrier
Ninth year at Florida (83-16-1); career Division I-A record:
WR Nafis Karim[*] Sr. 12.2-yd. avg. gain on 23 catches
LT Zach Piller Sr. Junior year marred by injuries
LG Corey Yarbrough[*] Jr. Plays center until Kalich returns
C Ryan Kalich Jr. Broken foot, out four to six weeks
RG Zac Zedalis[*] So. 2 starts as a freshman
RT Cooper Carlisle Jr. On SEC Academic Honor Roll
TE Dwight Edge[*] So. 1 catch for 2 yds.
WR Travis McGriff[*] Sr. 25 catches, 382 yds., 4 TDs
QB Jesse Palmer[*] So. Doug Johnson will bid for job
RB Terry Jackson Sr. Has also played LB and FB
FB Rod Frazier So. Tommie Frazier's kid brother
K Collins Cooper Sr. Career-long FG is 40 yds.
LE Tim Beauchamp Sr. Had only 11 tackles in '97
LT Ed Chester Sr. 28 tackles, 3 sacks
RT Reggie McGrew Jr. Out four games with torn MCL
RE Willie Cohens Sr. Led line with 61/2 sacks
OLB Jevon Kearse Jr. First-team All-SEC last year
MLB Johnny Rutledge Sr. Butkus Award semifinalist
OLB Mike Peterson Sr. Moves from strongside LB
CB Tony George Sr. Started every game at SS
SS Rod Graddy[*] So. Played in 11 games as freshman
FS Teako Brown Sr. 10 career int.
CB Dock Pollard[*] Jr. 1 tackle in two seasons
P David Wasilewski[*] Fr. In battle with Josh Korn
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
Junior quarterback Doug Johnson, who was in coach Steve
Spurrier's doghouse for playing minor league baseball in '97--he
hit .191 as a third baseman for the Princeton (W.Va.) Devil Rays
of the rookie league--eschewed the diamond over the summer to
rehab after rotator-cuff surgery in May. Sophomore Jesse Palmer,
who completed 21 of 38 passes, will begin the season as the
starter....Senior tailback Terry Jackson excels at both carrying
the ball (118 yards and two TDs in the 1997 Sugar Bowl) and
catching it out of the backfield (41 career receptions, four
TDs)....Starting wideouts Nafis Karim and Travis McGriff, both
seniors, have only five career TD catches between them....
Senior Tony George, who moves from strong safety to cornerback
(both of last year's starters are gone), will be under the gun
in the pass-happy SEC....The Gators need injury-plagued senior
defensive tackle Ed Chester (second-team All-SEC last season) to
stay healthy and anchor the line.
Schedule strength: 25th of 112
Sept. 19 at Tennessee You can't win the SEC without winning your
division first; in four of the past five years this game has
determined the Eastern champ. Florida won all five times.
Oct. 10 vs. LSU Revenge match: Last year in Baton Rouge the
Tigers dethroned the reigning national champs 28-21, snapping the
Gators' 25-game SEC winning streak.
Nov. 21 at Florida State The Gators knocked the Seminoles out of
national championship contention in each of their last two
meetings--but Spurrier is just 0-3-1 in Tallahassee.
The X Factor
The Gators, known for their high-octane Fun 'n' Gun offense,
have actually run the ball 48.8% of the time in Spurrier's eight
seasons as coach. Look for that percentage to rise this year.
The Bottom Line
The offensive line is solid, the defensive line superior. If the
Gators can establish their passing game and find a way to stop
everyone else's, they should collect their sixth SEC title in