Gators Return To Starkville, A Dark Period of My Past Resurfaces

Josh BassettCorrespondent IOctober 23, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 18:  Head coach Ron Zook of the Florida Gators yells at his team during their game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium on September 18, 2004 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

As the No. 1 ranked Florida Gators get set to battle the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville this weekend, there are plenty of storylines to choose from. 

  • Urban Meyer makes his first visit to Starkville, where he will face his long-time friend and assistant Dan Mullen.
  • All-American middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, along with both of the Gators' starting defensive tackles Jaye Howard and Lawrence Marsh are most likely out (as is Justin Trattou, who plays NT in Florida's 'Joker package'), causing some depth issues for the UF defense.
  • The Gators offense looks like, well, garbage right now.

I'm sure there are plenty of people writing about all those topics this week, but for me, the Gators' return to "The Dawg Pound" only serves to remind me of a period in my life where I felt lost and confused. Yes, I'm referring to none other than this exact day in history, five years ago. October 23, 2004.

I was a freshman in college, experiencing my first football season as a student. I went to all the games in The Swamp, and it was so much different than all the other times I came up to Gainesville for games as a high school student. But something was different this year, and its not just the amount of alcohol being consumed.

The 2004 season was an odd time for Florida football. Players were being arrested weekly, was in full force, and we were coming off an embarassing Outback Bowl loss to Iowa.

After easily dealing with the first opponent of the season, Eastern Michigan, on my birthday (which was a 12:00 game, the morning after my first college birthday experience. Talk about a serious hangover, and an omen for the season to come), in week 2 the Gators suffered defeat at the hands of Phil Fulmer and the Vols.

It was a particularly painful loss, as James Wilhoit booted a 50-yard field goal as time expired in Knoxville, and my friend proceeded to punch a hole in the wall.

After a ho-hum victory over Kentucky and a thrilling win over Matt Jones and the Razorbacks, I witnessed an even more painful loss, this time at the hands of the LSU Tigers.

This game was on ESPN at night and the campus was buzzing all week, hoping the we could get a big win to forget about the Vols loss. The Gators defense was dominating a young JaMarcus Russell, and even knocked him out of the game.

With a 21-7 lead and 1:39 to go in the first half, and LSU's backup quarterback in, things were looking up...but an LSU touchdown pass with nine seconds left before halftime really killed that momentum.

Second string quarterback Marcus Randall and the Tigers went on to score 10 points to our goose egg in the second half, leaving us with a bitter 24-21 loss.

The next game was against Middle Tennessee State University, which was mostly what you'd expect it to be. A blow out. But watching it live, it wasn't as convincing as to 52-16 final score might suggest.

It is worth noting, however, that mere days before MTSU, Ron Zook and some players confronted a frat house and tried to pick a fight. I mean, honestly. What is going on here?

This sets the stage for a game that caused me to feel such a way that I have never felt before.

October 23, 2004: Starkville, Mississippi.

This was a game that, by all accounts, the Gators should have dominated.

And yet, after taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Bulldogs never once trailed in the game. Jerious Norwood gashed the Florida defense for 174 yards, and they could not seem to be able to stop Omar Connor...yeah, the unstoppable force that was...Omar Connor. The Gators kept up with the Bulldogs in scoring, but the entire game felt strange, as if we knew that we had no shot at winning that game.

I remember being in my friend's dorm room as the clock hit 00:00. I wasn't even mad, which was odd, because I normally get an fell and intense mixture of fury, rage, and depression after a loss.

No, instead, I was lying on the floor of a dorm room laughing uncontrollable and feeling slightly euphoric. I felt like I was in some sort of alternate universe. I feel like we just won, but in actuality, we just lost to the worst team in the Southeasten Conference, and one of the worst teams in the country.

What an embarrassing loss? I mean, that was incredibly awful. Even for a Zook-coached team. Needless to say, he was informed that he would not be returning for the next season.

After that, the rest of the season didn't mater. We lost to Georgia for the first time in 15 or so years, but it didn't really matter at that point.

It was a painful season, yet there was a silver lining. Everyday there was speculation on ESPN on who would be the next coach at UF. Steve Spurrier just got canned by the Redskins (Looking back, what Spur-Dog did with the Redskins is kind of impressive compared to the coaches that have followed) and everyone thought he would come back.

Some thought Mike Shanahan, and others some Urban Meyer guy. But he was going to Notre Dame, or was he?

As painful as the 2004 season might have been for Gator fans, that embarrassment in Starkville was a blessing in disguise.

Zook was gone, and enter Urban Meyer.

Two National Championships later...

What a difference five years can make?



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