$55 million spruces up Gators' stadium; now, about the team ...

Updated: August 29, 2003, 8:18 PM ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A newly refurbished stadium, a new quarterback and a bunch of new players. Maybe this season, Ron Zook's second as Florida's coach, is the real beginning of a new era for the Gators.

Florida opens the season Saturday against San Jose State. A record crowd is expected at The Swamp, which has added almost 5,000 seats as part of a $55 million expansion project that began 2{ years ago.

Finishing touches were still being made Friday, but most of the new luxury seats have already been sold -- a testament to the popularity of a football program that remains in good shape despite an 8-5 record, the worst in 13 years, in Zook's inaugural season.

"It was a pretty easy sale," Doug Brown, the director of the Bull Gators booster club, told The Gainesville Sun.

While the accommodations will be world-class, the quality of the product on the field is less certain. The Gators begin the season unranked for the first time since 1990.

Zook claims his team is better at this point this year than last, but he acknowledges the defense -- missing nine starters from last year's team -- has room to improve.

Essentially, much of Florida's success on defense can be pinned to ends Darrell Lee and Bobby McCray, two seniors viewed as possibly the top two players on defense.

"We're looking at two defensive ends who can play anywhere in the country," said defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who took over when John Thompson left to coach East Carolina. "If we play hard, then we have a chance. We can be just as good as anybody in the country."

On offense, there will be a steep learning curve for the quarterbacks. With Rex Grossman gone, it appears freshman Chris Leak, redshirt freshman Gavin Dickey and sophomore Ingle Martin could all get a chance in the opener. Zook won't announce a starter until game time. The best of the three might be the starter next week, when the Gators travel to No. 3 Miami.

Ran Carthon will take over for Earnest Graham as tailback.

"I'm very hungry," said Carthon, a fifth-year senior who hasn't seen extensive time in the past. "I'm hungry to get out there and prove to the world I can play. I feel I'm due. I feel I'm good enough to handle the job."

Whether he does will be seen over a 12-game regular season that begins Saturday and ends Nov. 29 against Florida State.

The renovations, however, are a nearly finished product. The road outside the stadium was dug up and rerouted so workers could add more than 160,000 square feet covering seven floors. Capacity grew from 85,777 to 90,022. The new seats are spread between 62 suites that go for $48,000 for the season and about 3,000 club seats that go for $2,000. Former Gators coach Steve Spurrier owns four of the club seats.

The University Athletic Association paid for the expansion with help of a 20-year bond. Associate athletic director for internal affairs Greg McGarrity said the UAA will bring in about $8 million a year in revenue from the new seats.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM