Big 3 lose in same day for first time since '78
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida, Florida State and Miami were out of the national championship picture by Thanksgiving last year.
It could happen even sooner this season.
All three lost Saturday, the first time that happened on the same day since Oct. 14, 1978. The rare feat gave them a combined seven losses this season, their most this early since 1981 and staggering numbers for teams that dominated the 1990s.
It also is an indication that each program has problems, the biggest of which may be that the rest of the country has closed the gap on the Sunshine State.
The Hurricanes (6-1) have given up an average of nearly 500 yards the last three weeks and were upset 31-28 at North Carolina on Saturday night, losing for the first time since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. They fell to 11th in the latest Associated Press poll, 10th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
The Seminoles (6-2) missed three field goals against Maryland, lost 20-17 and dropped to No. 13 in the rankings.
The once-mighty Gators (4-4) have tumbled the farthest. After winning six Southeastern Conference championships and a national title in Steve Spurrier's 12 seasons, the team has gone 20-14 in three seasons under Ron Zook.
"It's hard to maintain the level of intensity that you have to maintain," Zook said Sunday. "There's not very much difference between playing at the level you have to play at to win and not. That happens on every level and with every team."
Throw out the two non-conference cupcakes scheduled each year and Zook is 14-14 at Florida. He also has one loss each year to an unranked opponent -- the last one prompting athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire him last week.
Players responded by ripping Foley and threatening to transfer -- even if Spurrier returns to Gainesville.
They also vowed to win their remaining games for The Zooker, but the emotion couldn't carry them past Georgia. The Bulldogs' 31-24 victory at the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was their second in the series in the last 15 years.
Now the Gators have four conference losses for the first time since 1986 and need to win two of their remaining three games -- at Vanderbilt, against South Carolina and at Florida State -- to become bowl eligible.
Florida has gone to a bowl every year since 1990, when the team finished 9-2 in Spurrier's first season but was on NCAA probation.
"These guys have a lot of pride and they want to play well," Zook said. "It's important for them to show people that they can be a good football team."
The Seminoles -- who won national championships in 1993 and 1999 and played for others in 1996, 1998 and 2000 -- have lost 10 of their last 31 games and are out of the title chase for the fourth consecutive year.
This year's problems have been obvious -- poor play from the quarterback and place-kicker.
Chris Rix threw two interceptions and fumbled twice in a season-opening loss to Miami in overtime. Xavier Beitia, the second- leading scorer in school history, also had a 34-yarder blocked late in the game.
Beitia struggled again Saturday against Maryland. He missed a 41-yarder wide left in the second quarter and hit the left upright from 52 yards out in the fourth. He could have tied the game with a 45-yard attempt late but was wide left again.
Although missed kicks have defined Florida State's series against Miami, they rarely have played roles for the Seminoles against others.
"It goes back to parity. There's much more evidence of that than there was five years ago or 10 years ago," coach Bobby Bowden said. "Our conference is getting pretty balanced."
Miami's woes can be directly related to losing players.
The Hurricanes had 19 players drafted in the NFL's first round over the last four years, including a record six in April.
They also have lost two starting offensive linemen to injuries this season, tackle Eric Winston and guard Tyler McMeans.
But the Hurricanes don't want to make any excuses. Despite needing overtime to beat Florida State and a late comeback to avoid an upset against Louisville, they still have a good chance to win the ACC and earn a fifth consecutive berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
Even so, that would be a drop-off for a program that captured five national titles between 1983 and 2001, played for several more and had 34-game winning streak just two seasons ago.
"Teams that play us, I think they raise their level," Coker said. "That's part of the beauty of being at Miami."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press