Florida football fans, who waited 52 years for their first SEC title, still refuse to admit that 1984 wasn't the Year of the Gator. C'mon, they say, the players got their rings, didn't they? And doesn't the highlights film say we were conference champion? And didn't Governor Bob Graham make sure to tell us Florida won its first title during his term?
Anything, in other words, to keep from accepting the SEC presidents' cold May decision that reversed an earlier ruling by the conference's executive committee and stripped the Gators of their proudest moment. The reversal came after the NCAA had slapped Florida with a probation that will keep the Gators out of bowls and off TV until the end of the 1986 regular season, and will cost them 30 scholarships. Further, Florida will be ineligible for the conference championship until at least next year.
The partisans are numb, but the players have taken a different tack. As senior tailback Neal Anderson says, "Everything is over, and it will not affect us."
Much of the credit for the Gators' determination to look forward must go to coach Galen Hall. Last year a talent-laden Florida team was 1-1-1 and not having much fun when Hall, the offensive coordinator, was made interim coach to replace the beleaguered Charley Pell. Hall shortened practices, told his players not to read about the school's troubles in the newspapers and generally eased the pressure. The result was an 8-0 finish and a team that may have been the best in the nation at season's end. Last November, Hall got a four-year contract.
The only major area of concern this year is the offensive line. Gone are four of the five starters who comprised the Great Wall of Florida. But inexperience up front won't stop Anderson from getting the 393 yards he needs to become the leading rusher in Gator history. His running mate will be senior fullback John L. Williams, who led the team with 21 receptions in '84 and will likely wind up No. 2 on the school's alltime rushing list. At quarterback is Kerwin Bell, who finished '84 with a 148.0 efficiency rating, the highest for a freshman in NCAA history. That performance garnered him SEC Player of the Year honors in a poll of conference coaches.
Defensively, the Gators are even better than last year, when they led the SEC in total D. Seven first-stringers return, including All-America senior linebacker Alonzo Johnson, who threw opponents for 144 yards in losses in '84. Florida will once again face one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Eight foes played in bowls last year, and five of them finished in the Top 20. However, if Hall can remain undefeated, Florida could become the first team that has never won its conference to win the national championship.