Florida enters 'uncharted waters' after clinching SEC East
The 11th-ranked Gators turned the ball over four times, gave up a big play on defense, and needed a shanked punt and 43-yard field goal in the closing minutes to escape with a 9-7 victory. It was a stark reminder of how thin the team's margin for error has been at times this season.
Coach Jim McElwain is hoping the ugly yet gritty game pays dividends down the stretch, beginning at South Carolina (3-6, 1-6 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday.
Florida (8-1, 6-1) clinched the SEC's Eastern Division with the win against the Commodores and still has a shot at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. It's a position McElwain is openly embracing, quite possibly using to motivate his team in hopes of avoiding another letdown.
''Now they're truly in unchartered waters,'' said McElwain, who coached in back-to-back SEC title games in 2008 and 2009. ''The good thing is some of us have been in these waters, which helps. With that being said, there's certain things you go about from the psychological standpoint to be able to handle the unchartered waters.
''Part of that is you can't be afraid. You can't be afraid. Once you're afraid, if you have a fear of failure, you're going to go into a cocoon and never come out. A lot of problems that a lot of people have is that the fear of the unknown makes you horrible, makes you worthless. The excitement and enjoyment of the journey moving forward is what we're trying to explain.''
Getting guys to practice and play loose is the key. And maybe the close call against Vandy will help the Gators accomplish that.
''Hopefully this past week was a wake-up call that we need to really be ready to bring it,'' tight end Jake McGee said. ''We got to be honed in on our assignments, our effort and really do what we can control and really not give that opportunity to our opponent to steal one.''
The Commodores almost did, leading 7-6 for most of the second half before Florida turned a 12-yard punt into the go-ahead points.
''As they continued to kind of take it to us, I'm not sure we responded the way you should,'' McElwain said. ''In other words, go finish and don't worry about the end results. Too many times we worry in life about results. What we've got to understand is to get the results we want it's an accumulation of consistent play-by-play, moment-by-moment wins that help you get the result. So keeping our head down, not focusing on anything but what's important at that moment is something that we've got to do.''
The Gators get a chance to perform better against the Gamecocks, who have won two straight and four of the last five in the series.
Last year's loss in Gainesville was a low point for the program. The Gamecocks blocked a short field-goal attempt that would have given Florida a 10-point lead with a little more than 3 minutes to play and then blocked a punt with 39 seconds left, which set up the game-tying touchdown and forced overtime. South Carolina won 23-20 in the extra frame.
Florida coach Will Muschamp was fired the next day.
''That was a bad feeling last year,'' linebacker Antonio Morrison said.
So last year's game against South Carolina and last week's performance against Vanderbilt, the Gators should have extra motivation. Being in what McElwain calls ''a championship run'' also could prove beneficial.
Then again, McElwain said ''there's no magic wand.''
''There's no wizard behind the curtain over there,'' he added. ''It's in each one of us. It's a choice within each one of us as to how we're going to go through those waters. Are we going to take a step back? Are we going to go out and see what we can do? That's the excitement about this and that's really the fun.''
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