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Nov 16, 2002

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AP Sports Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Rex Grossman played one of his best games of the season, and so did his Florida teammates.

In the end – or by halftime, really – that meant nothing.

Grossman threw four touchdown passes Saturday night to help No. 20 Florida defeat South Carolina 28-7 in what turned out to be one of the most hollow victories in program history.

The Gators (8-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) came into the game knowing they needed help to win the SEC East. They didn’t get it, and because of that, they’ll finish second in the division to Georgia.

“We’ll take Sunday to celebrate this win, and realize how close we were,” Grossman said. “But that’s really not that interesting.”

What was interesting was the Georgia-Auburn game, the one the Gators needed Georgia to lose. Auburn was ahead through most of the game. But just before the Gators reached halftime of their game against the Gamecocks (5-6, 3-5), Georgia’s Michael Johnson made a great fourth-down touchdown catch to give the Bulldogs a 24-21 win.

A fan near the sidelines had been updating Florida’s Shannon Snell on the score, and when Snell heard the final, he was distraught. Snell was the player who last month predicted the Bulldogs would lose to Florida, which they did, then lose again, which they didn’t.

“I guess I’ll take some ribbing for that,” Snell said. “The second half of my prediction didn’t come true. I apologize to Georgia. They came back and showed perseverance.”

Despite their troubles, the Gators never quit either this year. Still, that doesn’t change reality.

They are playing for pride and for a 10-win season, but not for a championship.

“It just wasn’t meant to be,” coach Ron Zook said.

Their next game is in two weeks at Florida State, a rivalry that will mean far less than usual. Then, it’s a bowl trip – probably the Outback, but certainly not the Sugar, Orange, Rose or Fiesta, which is where conference champions from around the country will play in January.


South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz, right, argues with a referee during the second quarter.



Indeed, programs like Florida are measured by championships, and that makes Zook’s first season as coach no better or worse than Steve Spurrier’s last. Both teams came up empty.

Just as big an issue is what the Gators have become since Spurrier took his Fun ‘N’ Gun and headed for the pros.

Against an overmatched South Carolina team, Zook persisted early in the game at chipping away with short receiver screens and playing the conservative defense-and-field position game he learned in the NFL.

The first 22 minutes of this game were scoreless and boring. After that, the Gators finally revved it up and started playing solid, exciting football. They iced the game with 9:08 left, when Grossman hit Kelvin Kight for a 27-yard score. The touchdown was set up by a 21-yard reception by Grossman from receiver Keiwan Ratliff. It was one of the few razzle-dazzle plays the Gators have executed in weeks.

“We’ve had four or five great games this year, and this one was right up there,” Grossman said.

Zook said he was proud that the Gators defeated all five of their SEC East foes.

“The lesson to be learned is we play eight conference games, and you have to play all eight games,” he said.

Indeed, it’s a pair of losses to SEC West opponents Mississippi and LSU that will sit hard this offseason. A win in either of those games and the Gators – big favorites both weeks – would have been celebrating Saturday instead of lamenting Georgia’s victory.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I couldn’t stop talking about it, I couldn’t stop yelling about it,” Snell said. “Obviously, I’m not going to stop thinking about it for the next few weeks or the next few months.”

The loss was the fourth straight for Lou Holtz and the Gamecocks, who could still become bowl eligible with a victory over Clemson next week.

After moving their starting quarterback, Corey Jenkins, to safety, and replacing him with Dondrial Pinkins, the Gamecocks still struggled. They threw for only 74 yards and have now scored 31 points in the last four games.

“If they hadn’t invented the forward pass, we wouldn’t be hurting as much as we are now,” Holtz said.

Grossman completed 24-of-36 passes for 228 yards in another efficient game. He won’t win the Heisman this season, and now the guessing game begins as to whether the junior has played his final home game.

“I have no idea. I really don’t,” Grossman said, when asked if he would return.

Sure not to come back are senior tailback Earnest Graham, who rushed for 81 yards on 17 carries, and senior receiver Taylor Jacobs, who sat out with an injured knee.

They and 13 other seniors will leave with lots of nice memories, but only one ring – the SEC championship ring they won in 2000 on a team that went 10-3.