GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Their goal at the start of the season was to win the SEC East. When they said it then, not everyone took the Gators seriously.
Florida didn’t have a starting quarterback or its best pass rusher healthy. The Gators had Mike Gillislee, but not everyone was sold he could be a featured back in the SEC. The defense was supposed to be good, but could it be great in coach Will Muschamp’s second season?
Two months later, their goal remains to get to Atlanta. People are now taking the Gators seriously.
“Most people, I think, were talking about us or Georgia [winning the East], and right now obviously Florida is on top of the heap here in the Eastern Division, so they’ve done a super job and their guys have played well in the second half, fourth quarter, so they know how to win,’’ South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said this week. “So, it will be a monumental task if we can regroup, go down there and get in a close game with them.”
The Gators are 6-0 for only the eighth time in school history. Coupled with South Carolina’s loss at LSU last week, Florida moved up to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 following a 31-17 win at Vanderbilt. The Gators are currently second in the BCS standings as the No. 9 Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) come to town.
While the Gators have accomplished a lot – some of it unexpected – in the first half of the season, they clearly are not satisfied. They want to open the second half of the season with a win over the Gamecocks to remain in the driver’s seat in the SEC East race.
“It’s only halfway through the season,’’ senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. We still have some more SEC opponents on our schedule ahead of us. Everything is not said and done yet.”
Far from it.
If South Carolina wins on Saturday, the Gamecocks, No. 7 in the BCS standings, return to the driver’s seat to represent the SEC East in Atlanta. The Gamecocks have won two in a row over the Gators and have never beaten Florida three consecutive times.
The streak started two years ago at Florida Field, a memory that the Gators don’t want to repeat as they try to regain some of their mojo at The Swamp, a place Florida went 68-5 in Spurrier’s 12 seasons.
“That’s something [Coach Muschamp] talks to us about every day, about holding down The Swamp and make sure we keep everybody happy,’’ senior safety Josh Evans said. “It’s a bad day when you lose in The Swamp. Everybody’s down and it takes a lot to get back after that.”
Whenever Spurrier returns home, there is always added hoopla. But this game has enough merit without the visor-themed storyline. Two SEC teams in the top 10 jockeying for position in the conference standings, and ultimately, the national championship picture.
Florida coach Will Muschamp had little to say about Florida’s debut at No. 2 in the BCS. His focus remains on keeping the Gators focused so they can keep winning.
If the recent past is any indication, Muschamp is pushing the right buttons. The Gators have won at Texas A&M and Tennessee, and knocked off No. 4 LSU at home two weeks ago.
“I think we’re playing very good team football right now,’’ Muschamp said. “I don’t think it’s any one component of our football team that’s playing a superior to the others. I think we complement each other very well.
“Our players have bought into the team concept and understand they’re playing for what’s on that helmet rather than what’s on the back of their pads. That’s what’s been the difference in this football team. There’s a huge buy-in to be unselfish and play for your football team and your university and your teammate. That, to me, has been the key to our season.”
That unselfish attitude has trickled down from the top to each position group.
Florida offensive lineman Chaz Green was asked this week about trying to block Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, one of the premiere pass rushers in the country.
Florida’s offensive line played a huge role in the 14-6 win over LSU by taking over the game in the second half. Part of that dominance was keeping LSU’s talented duo of defensive ends – Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo – quiet.
They face the same challenge against Clowney and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor.
“We know we have to work as a unit,’’ Green said. “One guy can’t do this and another guy do that.”
The Gators’ team-first mentality has paid off in contributions all over the field. Gillislee is second in the SEC in rushing. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel won the starting job in the season opener and continues to improve. The defense has been solid despite not having junior defensive end Ronald Powell, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
The special teams have done their part, and the Gators have improved significantly in turnover margin, going from a minus-12 last season to a plus-7 through six games this season. The passing game hasn’t done much the past couple of games and the receiving play needs to improve, but the Gators are where they want to be.
They are in position to make it to Atlanta if they can keep winning.
“That’s been our goal from Day 1,’’ Bostic said. “Nothing has changed.”