GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Ron Zook has taken the Florida Gators to a new low — for the third straight season.
Not only was Mississippi State the worst team in the conference, it was one of the worst teams in the country. And the Bulldogs upset the once-mighty Gators 38-31 on Saturday.
It was Florida's 13th loss in three seasons under Zook and could ultimately lead to his dismissal. Zook may have to win the rest of his games — including ones against No. 10 Georgia and at No. 5 Florida State — to have a chance of returning for a fourth season.
Zook has been in this situation before. The Gators (4-3) lost three early games each of the last two years before putting together winning streaks that helped them avoid losing seasons.
But how many chances can athletic director Jeremy Foley afford to give Zook, especially after the coach has embarrassed the program on and off the field?
On the field, the Gators have had several late collapses — including against Tennessee and LSU this season. They have lost to three unranked teams, all from Mississippi. And they have fallen out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the third straight year.
Off the field, Zook got into a heated confrontation with several members of a fraternity last month while defending his players — behavior Foley called unacceptable and said would factor into a decision on Zook's future.
Foley did not immediately return phone messages left Sunday on his cell phone and at home, but he has said he would reevaluate Zook's performance at the end of the season.
Zook went 8-5 in his first two years at Florida. The Gators started 4-3 in 2002 before reeling off four straight victories. They opened 3-3 in 2003 — sparking speculation he would be fired — but then won five in a row.
After the streaks, they lost to Florida State to end both seasons and looked unprepared at times in the bowl games — something that rarely happened under Steve Spurrier.
They seemed even less ready for Mississippi State.
"I wish I had an answer," Zook said. "If I had an answer for you I probably wouldn't be in coaching. As we looked at this tape, those guys tried. Did we make some mistakes? Absolutely. Did we do some things that we normally don't do? A few times. But overall I can't fault the effort.
"I think we prepared hard. I thought going into the game we were ready. There was no indication that we weren't ready for this football team."
The Bulldogs — who lost to Division I-AA Maine last month and had been outscored 125-27 in Southeastern Conference play this season — put together a 71-yard touchdown drive off the opening kickoff. The Gators never recovered.
Jerious Norwood's 37-run with 32 seconds to play won it for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, last in the conference in total offense, finished with 251 yards rushing.
Zook said he had trouble eating and sleeping after losing to LSU two weeks ago, but he refused to compare this one to that.
"I don't like to rank losses," Zook said. "That's not something you want to get into a habit of doing. They all hurt. A loss is a loss. Our players hurt. It's supposed to hurt. When you've invested something in it like these players and these coaches have, it's supposed to hurt. I'm no different than anyone else."