Stop laughing: Struggling Gators still shooting for title

Updated: October 7, 2003, 10:50 PM ET

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A handful of linebackers, defensive backs and quarterbacks made themselves available to answer some pointed questions about Florida's myriad problems Tuesday. What was missing was a drummer to fire off some rim shots.

As in, cornerback Johnny Lamar's insistence that "We still have a chance to go to the SEC championship." Bah-dah-dum.

Or this from linebacker Reid Fleming: "We can still show we're a force in the SEC." Bah-dah-dum.

The Gators (3-3, 1-2 SEC) may not be very good this season, but give them credit: They are an optimistic bunch.

Player after player walked into the room on media day and repeated the same articles of faith. In seven of the last eight years, one team has made it to the SEC title game with two losses. In 1992, the first year the title game was played, the Gators made it despite losing two of their first three conference games.

At times, as they recited these mantras, it seemed as though they had been brainwashed and, in a way, maybe they had.

"I think Ron Zook is a great coach," linebacker Matt Farrior said. "Basically, y'all say we're not that good and our coaches can't coach. We've just got to block that stuff out."

But honestly, the Gators winning the SEC is a farfetched notion at this point -- not so much because of their record as the way they've compiled it, and what's coming up next.

They're coming off a 20-17 home loss to Ole Miss, and have dropped to .500 at the latest point in the season since 1987.

Their next three games are against teams in the Top 10, the first of which is Saturday, at No. 6 LSU (5-0, 2-0), a team that won 36-7 last year in The Swamp.

To many observers, Florida's offense has no real definition or structure, and freshman quarterback Chris Leak, while talented, is still far from polished. The defense, ranked ninth in the SEC, has been uneven, and most recently, its ability to stop the run has been hampered by a rash of injuries to linebackers Todd McCullough and Channing Crowder.

In all, this is as bad as it's been for the Gators in a long time. Many fans look at the team, look at the schedule, and wonder if Florida will even become bowl eligible this year. Only those deep inside the inner circle refuse to believe 2003 is a lost cause.

"I was very impressed and pleased with this football team (Monday) night at practice," Zook said. "When times get tough, that's when you find out what kind of team you have."

The players called a team meeting Sunday so everybody could "put something on the table," and get things corrected, offensive lineman Shannon Snell said.

And give the players credit. There have been very few signs of them giving up hope, turning on each other, or turning on their coach, who is 11-8 since taking over for Steve Spurrier at the start of last season.

"It's not really his fault," Fleming said of Zook. "We've got to do our assignments. It's not the coaches' fault. I'm putting it on myself. I don't think it's right to blame him when it's us on the field."

The optimists -- wherever they are -- point out that Florida is only one game behind SEC East leaders Tennessee and Georgia, and those teams play each other Saturday. With a victory, the Gators would remain only a game behind with four left on the SEC schedule.

Getting that win? The Gators are 10-point underdogs against LSU, and after the last few weeks, there aren't many positive signs.

Of course, Fleming reminded people, "this is the same team that was up on Miami by 20 points." What he left unsaid was that the Gators lost that game -- and two more since.

"I wouldn't say we're desperate," he said. "But, yeah, there is a sense of urgency."

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