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Friday October 12, 2012Gators Head to Music City with Plenty Left to Prove

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gators cornerback Jaylen Watkins looked around the locker room when he arrived for practice on Monday afternoon. He couldn't help but notice how different the scene was compared to less than 48 hours earlier.

The Gators' locker room overflowed on Saturday with jubilation. Florida's 14-6 win over No. 4-ranked LSU -- the biggest win under second-year coach Will Muschamp -- was reason to celebrate.

People wanted to know if this Gators team was really better than the past two seasons, and they proved it with a convincing win over the Tigers, snapping LSU's 18-game regular-season winning streak.

On Monday here is what Watkins saw: a focused team ready to get back to work and not interested in recent history. The win over LSU was over, finished, a part of the past.

The future is now.

"None of that means anything,'' Watkins said of Saturday's emotional win. "We're still hungry and we still have something to prove. That was the weekend and now we're focused on Vanderbilt."

While fans and media analyzed Florida's win over LSU for much of the week, the players and coaches insisted they let it go. They had to.

They know if they revel in a 5-0 start and their highest ranking since the end of the 2009 season, a game like Saturday's at Vanderbilt could turn into trouble. Real trouble.

The Gators have defeated the Commodores 21 consecutive times, including a 26-21 win at home last season. The No. 4-ranked Gators are favored to make it 22 in a row prior to coming home to face No. 3-ranked South Carolina next week.

Still, the Gators are trying their best to cover their ears and block out the hoopla in the wake of their upset of LSU.

"We knew that was going to happen,'' offensive lineman James Wilson. "We can't change what we do in preparation in order to keep the thing going."

As part of that focus the Gators prepared for Vanderbilt as if they were playing South Carolina this week instead of next week. The Commodores are coming off a win at Missouri and gave the Gators fits a year ago in Gainesville.

Florida jumped to a 17-0 halftime lead but Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers diced Florida's defense for 297 yards passing and two touchdowns as the Commodores' second-half comeback fell short.

Florida linebacker Jon Bostic was reminded of Rodgers' performance this week. He doesn't want to be reminded of it Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium.

"They are good at what they do,'' Bostic said. "They have a mobile quarterback. We've got to be able to keep the quarterback contained. We can't let him get out of the pocket like we did last year."

One of the most obvious signs of improvement for Florida is a bigger and stronger team, which paid off nicely in the second half against LSU. The Gators' offensive line took over and helped Mike Gillislee rush for 146 yards on 34 carries.

Florida's deeper roster and newfound toughness should be a distinct advantage over the Commodores, who have improved under second-year coach James Franklin. Vanderbilt is 8-10 under Franklin and earned only the fifth bowl bid in school history last year.

Watkins said the Gators' approach Saturday would be no different than the one they had for LSU.

Strength-and-conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman delivers the message daily.

"He coaches us to be more physical in everything we do,'' Watkins said. "It's always about physicality. The game is 60 minutes; just keep punching them in the mouth. Swing first and swing last and we'll come out on top."

Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease didn't see any major attitude shifts from the players in practice. That's a good sign for a young team having success.

"We set expectations and we talk about how to handle them, what are standards are," Pease said. "It shouldn't change. It doesn't matter who we're playing. Cover up the scoreboard, put new-colored jerseys on and you go get ready for the next game."

Muschamp wants to see more from the Gators. With the schedule they have ahead, they will need to be at their best to stay in the SEC race.

"We need to understand that as you continue to climb the mountain, it gets more and more treacherous, Muschamp said.

Wilson has been around longer than anyone. A sixth-year senior, he was a true freshman when Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007, he was here when the Gators won the national title in 2008, and he witnessed their struggles the past two seasons.

His message to the younger players on how to handle their sudden prosperity is simple and direct.

"Steady in the boat,'' Wilson said. "We're all pretty focused on one goal and it's to get to Atlanta first. Nothing is done yet. Got Vandy next."


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