Eighteen returning starters from a 10-3 team have the 2001 Florida Gators being compared to the 1996 team – the one that won the national championship.
“I was a freshman on that team, and those guys were larger than life to me,” said center Zac Zedalis, who was granted a medical hardship by the NCAA to become Florida’s first sixth-year senior.
A number of electronic and print outlets – including CNN, FOX and CBS Sportsline – have picked the Gators to win it all again.
It’s premature praise at the SEC Media Days Wednesday, Gators coach Steve Spurrier says, for a team that struggled defensively and had trouble running the ball last year. Two new defensive assistants could alleviate part of that problem.
“For some reason, a lot of people think we have one of the best teams around. Potentially we do, but not based on the way we played last year. If we’re going to have a big season we’ve got to play better and coach better.”
And beat Florida State. The Gators haven’t beaten the Seminoles in three years. Last year Florida State eliminated Florida from the national championship picture with a 30-7 win in Tallahassee.
If his team does manage a win against FSU, the Gators face another hurdle in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Florida State plays no extra game in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Some have suggested that Florida State play the Big East champ that week.
Spurrier acknowledges some benefits – like exposure for recruiting purposes – of a top preseason ranking, “but I don’t know any coach who has a No. 1 preseason ranking in his incentive clause. It doesn’t pay anything,” he said. “Last year you guys were all talking about Alabama. They were third, and they were talking national championship. Look what happened.”
Zedalis looked, and for now he’s focusing on a conference title, not a national one.
“If we get knocked off by Marshall (Sept. 1) we’ll be out of the national race, but the SEC race will go on,” he said. “We have to win the SEC, and then go from there.”
The primary challenge for Tommy Tuberville, the former Ole Miss coach beginning his third season at Auburn, is finding Rudi’s replacement.
“It will be hard to find someone like Rudi,” he said. “He carried the ball 19 times in the fourth quarter against LSU. He kept their offense off the field and gave us a chance to win the game. His yards after contact were phenomenal.”
There are several candidates in the mix, but the tailback job could eventually be won by freshman Carnell Williams (5-11, 185). He rushed for 2,600 yards and scored 38 touchdowns as a high school junior, then averaged almost 10 yards a carry as a senior.
“We know he’s going to play. He’s too good to redshirt. With his ability we can at least get a game plan together to get him on the field,” Tuberville said.
Quarterback Greg Zolman, one of nine fifth-year seniors, will often look for junior wideout Dan Stricker, who was fourth in the conference with 61 catches last season.
“All our skill guys are back,” head coach Woody Widenhofer said. “We have a pretty good stable of running backs, and we have some talent at receiver. We have some experience.”
One player without a lot of experience, although he’s expected to start at slot receiver, is former South Panola quarterback Chris Young. Young had 14 catches for 119 yards in 2000. Widenhofer says he could be a “surprise player” this season.
Vandy has finished fifth in the East the last three seasons and hasn’t won three conference games since 1991.
“This is my fifth year at Vanderbilt, and these will all be my players. It’s time to win, and it’s time to see what kind of job we’ve done recruiting the last four or five years,” Widenhofer said.