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Saturday November 3, 2012Gators Cap Comeback SEC Season in Familiar Fashion

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators' 14-7 win over Missouri on Saturday played out like some of their other victories this season.

The offense did enough to win but never came close to blowing the Tigers away. The defense stood strong like a concrete wall in a hurricane. It bent but never broke, creating four turnovers. The special teams had their moments as usual, especially punter Kyle Christy.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel managed the game and limited his mistakes following a forgettable day in Jacksonville a week ago. The receivers were rather quiet, a common trend. The offensive line finished the game without three starters due to injuries.

Yes, you've seen it all before. So has he.

"It hasn't always been pretty,'' Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "I'm a realist."

Here is a reality few saw coming three months ago: Florida finished 7-1 in the SEC, the 12th time in program history the Gators have won seven or more conference games.

They clinched a share of the SEC East regular-season title with Saturday's victory over the Tigers in Missouri's first visit to The Swamp. Florida even earned a trophy for that (at least) co-title.

Still, it's not exactly a trip to Atlanta.

When the Gators dispersed after Saturday's game, they had two shots left. The first vanished a couple of hours later when Georgia overcame an early deficit to defeat Ole Miss 37-10. If Georgia had lost, Saturday's win would have sent the Gators to Atlanta.

Instead, for Florida to earn a trip to the SEC Championship Game, it needs Auburn to upset Georgia in two weeks. That's unlikely, we know. But stranger things have happened.

Thus, the Gators are left with the mixed emotions of a terrific comeback season -- Florida finished 3-5 and with a losing SEC record for the first time in more than 20 years in Muschamp's first season -- and the fact they likely aren't headed to the Georgia Dome.

Muschamp addressed that reality too on Saturday.

"At the end of the day, and when I took this job -- understanding fully the expectation is to go to Atlanta and win a championship -- I've made my comment on how I feel about your season if that is not accomplished. We've made strides, but we're not where we want to be."

More than once in his tenure Muschamp has said that if the Gators don't make it to Atlanta, the season is a failure.

Maybe that's fair most seasons in the last 20-plus years, but it seems harsh considering where Florida started this season.

The Gators had more talent and depth than in Muschamp's first season, but they were a young team with a first-year starting quarterback and unproven track record.

Most of the preseason projections had the Gators finishing behind Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC East. A few picked them to finish as low as fourth. They said if the Gators won eight or nine games, it would be a great season.

Now look. Florida has eight wins but in just nine games. The Gators are ranked in the top 10 after climbing to No. 2 in the BCS until that disappointing loss to Georgia last week.

With Louisiana and Jacksonville State set to visit The Swamp the next two weeks, it's not hard to imagine Florida traveling to Tallahassee later this month at 10-1.

That's the kind of turnaround that has Muschamp's name mentioned in most National Coach of the Year conversations.

No one asked Muschamp about that chatter Saturday, and if they had, he would have likely blown the question off without much thought. He did talk about his team following the Gators' fourth comeback SEC win of the season.

A team that doesn't always earn style points but finds a way to win.

"That's who we are. We do what we've got to do to win the game,'' Muschamp said. "Our guys don't panic. Our guys play the game. Our guys don't get flustered regardless of what you guys may write.

"They just play the game. They do what they are supposed to do. They play within the scheme and within the system for the most part and they play for each other and they have a very strong bond within the locker room. They really do."

After last week's loss to Georgia, people wanted to see how the Gators would respond to adversity. They won Saturday by sticking together even when the offense did little in the first half to help out the defense.

That's not the first time the defense has carried the heavier load. Still, the Gators managed to find a way.

"That just shows that we have some guys who have true heart, who are going to play all four quarters until the last second of the game,'' center Jon Harrison said. "We want to be a successful team and play for each other."

The Gators put the Tigers away on Josh Evans' interception in the end zone with Missouri threatening to tie the game in the final seconds.

The play secured at least that co-SEC East regular-season title.

It might not mean a trip to Atlanta, but it's something. Something much better than the 15-11 record of the last two seasons.

"I'm a senior, and after the last two seasons, it feels good,'' running back Mike Gillislee said. "It's a good way to go out."

The Gators don't always do it pretty, but they get the job done. For a blue-collar coach like Muschamp, wins like Saturday are some of the sweetest.

"The effort, the attitude and the resolve of the football team is as good as I have been around,'' Muschamp said. "I'm so proud of how these guys bounced back and found a way to win."


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