Despite overwhelming odds, Gators have a chance to lock up spot in history

If Florida and Alabama played each of the next ten Saturdays, Alabama would probably win nine of them.

The beauty of football is that on any given day, anything can happen. Including Florida getting that one in tomorrow’s SEC Championship Game.

Nobody’s discounting what a powerhouse Alabama has become. And sure, the Gators are seriously depleted on both sides of the ball, but that didn’t stop them from walking into Baton Rouge and pulling off a daring twilight robbery in LSU’s sacred home of Death Valley. It’s hard to look at that matchup objectively and say the Gators were the better team. Florida shouldn’t have been able to stop Derrius Guice, said the stats and the amount of injuries they had. And Florida had no real chance of winning, said the 14.5 spread.

The game stats back up what logic said should have happened. LSU out gained Florida 423-270, engineered five drives that got inside the ten yard line- four of which got inside the five- on the day, and limited Austin Appleby to just seven completions on 17 attempts for 144 yards.

But the stats don’t tell the entire story. 98 of Appleby’s 144 yards and the team’s 270 yards came on a 98 yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland. Just one of those five LSU drives that crossed the Florida 10 resulted in a touchdown, and only one more resulted in any points at all. And despite being a less healthy and less deep two touchdown underdog, and despite being out gained on the day, the Gators won the game because they rose up and made the big plays when they had to.

The Gators couldn’t duplicate the result against FSU. Players on both sides of the ball made an array of mistakes, ranging from coverage busts, to missed blocks, and everything in between. Most notably, Appleby took a big step back, missing an easy touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway had he shot a bullet at him instead of lobbing up a rainbow and losing a pair of fumbles due to holding the ball too long.

But that game is over. There’s a much bigger one coming up tomorrow.

If I had to guess, two days from now I’ll be writing about all the things that went wrong. I’ll be talking about how Florida needs better quarterback play, how they’re going to develop Jake Allen and Feleipe Franks and go from there, and how injuries have completely emaciated this current team. I’ll probably be saying that good teams can’t beat Alabama when they’re fully healthy, so how can a so-so team beat them when they’re ravaged by injuries?

And I draw that conclusion based on what I know coming into this game. Alabama is a 24 point favorite tomorrow, which qualifies as the second biggest underdog the Gators have been since before Spurrier arrived in 1990. The only time Florida has been a bigger underdog in the past quarter century was three years ago against FSU (28) and the Seminoles barely covered against the single worst Gator team since 1979. This is a top fifteen ranked Gator team here, not one of Muschamp’s patented glorified trash heaps, and they’re being similarly written off because they’ve been trending the wrong way- and because Alabama appears to be unbeatable.

But even though nobody would argue that LSU is better than Alabama by any objective measure, the odds don’t appear to be that much more stacked against the Gators than they were two weeks ago. Come on, the spread may be ten points bigger, but how many of you really thought the Gators would win in Death Valley? Change the game location to a better opponent but in a far less hostile environment and the odds are about the same- not very good, but higher than zero. And Florida just beat those odds 13 days ago.

Alabama, of course, has a terrifying dual threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts, a tough runner in Damien Harris, and a pair of top flight receivers in ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley. And, well, Alabama’s defense vs. Florida’s offense is about as big of a mismatch as you’ll ever see in a championship game.

So the Gators again have their work cut out for them. Florida knows that their national championship hopes are gone, but winning the SEC is still quite an accomplishment in its own right. It would be the ninth conference title for Florida, and it would also be the biggest upset in SEC Championship Game history in terms of point spreads. (And, well, by any other objective measure.) And do remember, the Gators also had a tangible prize awaiting them if they beat LSU (the ticket to get to this game in the first place) so add that to the list of ways tomorrow’s game mirrors the game in Death Valley. Here’s hoping the Gators will see their opportunity to go down in history, and seize it by making the big plays the way they did against LSU.

No, it wouldn’t shock me in the least if Alabama won by 30. But I’ve also learned not to count out Jim McElwain’s team when objectivity suggests you should.

Rumors swirling: Jim McElwain to Oregon?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oregon, fresh off a 4-8 season just two years after playing for a national title, is about to be looking for a new coach.

What does come as a surprise is where Oregon is supposedly looking for Mark Helfrich’s potential replacement.

Rumors have begun swirling, first from USA Today’s Dan Wolken, that Jim McElwain is interested in leaving Florida for Oregon after just two seasons. Wolken uses a modicum of logic to McElwain being interested: many Gator fans have been extremely unappreciative of him despite him taking the Gators to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, and the man who hired him, Jeremy Foley, is gone, implying that he doesn’t have that built in trust with his school’s AD.

But it’s also extremely difficult to fathom McElwain going anywhere anytime soon. He still hasn’t had the chance to develop his own QB from scratch yet, and he’s got a pair of young and raw but extremely promising quarterbacks in Feleipe Franks and Jake Allen waiting to be developed. He came to Florida because he could recruit QB’s of star caliber, and we got a tease of what he could do with them for the six games he had Will Grier. Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby do not have the talent nor the mettle Grier does, but Franks and Allen might. And so I can’t imagine McElwain walking away from that.

Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that McElwain’s Gator team is already loaded at the other positions, and even with what many forecast to be heavy personnel losses on both sides of the ball, the Gators still figure to be loaded in the coming years. Florida has developed a legitimate running back in Jordan Scarlett, and legitimate big play threat receivers in Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland. And there won’t be Caleb Brantley, Jarrad Davis, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson or Marcus Maye on the defense, but there’s an abundance of young talent with guys like David Reese, Cece Jefferson and Chauncey Gardner who have stepped up thus far and appear more than capable of carrying the torch when the upperclassmen leave. I can’t imagine McElwain walking away from that, either.

So when thinking about this rationally, it makes no sense that McElwain would give up on what he’s started building to take over a program that’s fallen from greater heights to lower depths than the Gator program he took over. Then again, it’s hard to really tell what McElwain is thinking or feeling at a given moment, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

UPDATE: McElwain has been telling recruits that the Oregon rumors are just a lot of “hot air.” Again, I see reason to believe that, but I also feel pretty confident that he’d say that either way to avoid arousing suspicion. And even if he was leaving, he has a chance to coach himself to a championship on Saturday, and failure to at least attempt to quell the tumors would likely serve as a huge distraction for a team that’s already massive underdogs. So regardless, take that with a grain of salt.

Gators beat Miami in final game of dying rivalry, and may have rebooted program

Mike White pulled his starting five some two minutes into Florida’s rivalry game against Miami.

Call it a message to his team that was delivered via freshman Keith Stone.

The freshman scored 15 points in an impressive coming-out party, John Egbunu came on late and the Gators overcame several sluggish stretches to knock off the Miami Hurricanes, 65-56, in the third place game of the Advocare Invitational. The win snapped a two game losing streak to their on again, off again rivals. Good thing, because was the last meeting for the foreseeable future between these two on again, off again in-state rivals, as Florida and Miami are not currently in discussions to meet again on the hardwood.

Without the spark provided by Stone, the Gators might have lost this one, too.

White didn’t like the low energy level his starters began the game with, so he made a clean sweep and replaced his starting five with his second line for a few minutes before mixing and matching the rest of the way. Slowly but surely, Florida dug out of a 13-5 hole to eventually tie it at 16 on a three by KeVaughn Allen. The game then devolved into a defensive struggle with neither team being able to go up by more than six.

Meanwhile, Stone did a little bit of everything to make sure the Gators kept pace. He connected on both threes he attempted, scored three more buckets inside, blocked a shot and forced a turnover. His most important contribution was hitting a layup to push the Gators’ lead back up 53-47 with just under six minutes to go.

Egbunu salted it away from there.

The South Florida transfer finished off the Hurricanes with a pair of earth shattering dunks in the final minutes, the second of which made it 59-51 with 2:34 to go off a nice lob from Kasey Hill. For good measure, he muscled his way in for a layup two possessions later.

I know a lot of y’all are focused on the Gator football team, as well you should because of the frustrating loss to FSU and impending SEC Championship Game, so let’s bring you up to speed on what could be a truly special team.

With the win, the Gators sit pretty at 6-1 with the meat of the non conference schedule looming ahead: after a “road” game against North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida will then square off against a pair of quality ACC teams in Duke and then Florida State before finishing their OOC slate against Charlotte and Little Rock. Florida’s lone defeat came by five points to now 8th ranked Gonzaga in the semifinals- a game they led for most of the way- and with two quality wins against Seton Hall and Miami, the Gators earned themselves the #24 spot in the AP Poll. More importantly than the simple stats, Kasey Hill may finally be putting it all together in his senior year, Egbunu has developed into a Patric Young-esque monster, and Florida appears to have found a hidden gem in transfer Canyon Barry.

So keep your eye out for this team. Remember where they were just two short years ago, and even last year. It figured to be a long road back to glory after Billy Donovan took the Gators to the Final Four, but there may be less of that road ahead than we originally thought. And while it’s always great to beat Miami given how rarely these two schools play, the big takeaway is that Florida didn’t just win the last game of a dying rivalry. They may have experienced their rebirth of their program, too.

Lost in ugly defeat: Florida is just a quarterback away

Playing without an army of starters turned out not to cost Florida against South Carolina and LSU.

It finally did against FSU.

The Gators were able to somewhat contain Dalvin Cook last year for most of the game. This time, though, Cook ran through, around and over Florida’s depleted defense in an ugly, frustrating and inevitable 31-13 loss to their in state rival.

The first clue that this game was destined for failure came on the opening possession. Florida went flying right down the field thanks to a well designed reverse play that saw Antonio Callaway take a pitch and take off down the right sideline. But predictably, the Gators stalled inside the Seminoles’ five. When Jim McElwain elected to go for it, it felt like the entire game hinged on this one decision, one that reeked of desperation and seemed to be more of a wish than anything else. And when Austin Appleby failed to notice a crossing DeAndre Goolsby in the end zone, the play was dead. His incomplete pass set the game’s fatal sequence into motion.

FSU drove down the field right back, but stalled in the red zone and ended up with no points when Ricky Aguayo shanked a 49 yard field. But the Noles got more than they bargained for when Appleby was strip-sacked on the very next play. That directly led to an FSU touchdown, and essentially buried the Gators.

The Gators’ defense didn’t play too badly for most of the game, but the injuries eventually took their toll. Florida was able to survive against LSU because the Tigers made a series of fatal mistakes and failed to capitalize on red zone opportunities. FSU didn’t make those mistakes, and that was the difference in the end. Florida used the exact same personnel against the Seminoles, called very similar offensive and defensive game plans and yet the results were different because FSU didn’t self destruct like LSU did.

But while the real problem was hidden against LSU, there was no hiding it against FSU.

Florida’s total offensive production was six points, on a pair of field goals by Eddy Pineiro. This- as we all knew it was coming, even against such a weak FSU defense- helps me sort of understand McElwain’s desperation to go for it early on. It wouldn’t matter that FSU fumbled a punt right to Marcell Harris, who returned it for a touchdown, nor would it matter that FSU’s offense was shut down for a little more than two full quarters following their first touchdown. The Gators’ offense was bad, really bad, and not even having the special teams score for them was enough help.

I could swear I’ve heard that before.

We have a long offseason to discuss the semantics of it, but it really all boils down to quarterback play. And I’ll say the same thing about Appleby that I said about Luke Del Rio: he’s a good, smart guy with the right attitude and leadership skills, but he is not the answer at QB. If Florida is to ever win a championship, they’re going to need a quarterback/leader that can make better decisions and run the offense more efficiently than both Del Rio and Appleby. To his credit, Appleby quarterbacked his team to a win on the road against a stingy LSU team, and that’s great for him. I’m genuinely happy that he gets to live the rest of his life with that memory. It doesn’t make him a good enough quarterback to lead the Gators’ return to college football’s elite.

And when you think about it, QB play is the only remaining hinderance. McElwain has already developed one gem at the wide receiver position in Antonio Callaway, and appears to have found another one in Tyrie Cleveland. Combine those two big play threats with the bruising runner Jordan Scarlett has become and you have all the other pieces to the offense you need.

But you still need that quarterback.

Sure, Doug Nussmeier gets some of the blame for the struggles this season. His horrendously called second half against Tennessee directly led to the Gators’ demise, and he could be doing a little more to demonstrate his lack of talent on the offensive line (like not having a QB take a deep drop with a line that’s not capable of blocking for more than two or three seconds). But he’s ultimately not the main problem. He doesn’t miss open receivers by overshooting them, throwing rainbows when he should throw a bullet and vice versa, or simply not seeing them. On the other hand, if the line gets healthy, it’s very easy to fathom a guy like Jake Allen or even Feleipe Franks thriving in this system. Guys are getting open, mismatches are taking place, and creativity is there. Now we just need a competent line- a lot of which is a matter of simple healing- and a competent trigger man. Which I believe will be found next year when Allen and Franks compete for the job.

So now we have to listen to Nole fans brag for another year, which really sucks. If you want to feel better: Florida does still hold a 34-25 lead in the all time series, and nothing FSU does will ever erase the memory of the 52-20 curb stomping the Gators handed them in New Orleans for the 1996 national championship, or the Gators’ unceremonious desecration of Doak Campbell Stadium by beating the Noles with Ron Friggin’ Zook- who had already been fired, mind you- on the night FSU named their field after longtime coach and hero Bobby Bowden. But those memories are fading fast now, and they aren’t helping Florida much on the recruiting trail as FSU gradually widens the gap between the two schools in terms of prestige.

Simply put, the Gators are going to have to beat FSU again if they want to take that next step and return to the nation’s elite. And it looks like they’re a quarterback away from doing so.

Believe it or not, Florida controls its own destiny to a national championship

Nobody could fathom Florida being in the position they’re in right now ten days ago.

Yes, it was just two Saturdays ago that the season seemed destined to settle for consolation prizes. The Gators were celebrating their Senior Day in Gainesville against South Carolina. Jim McElwain’s team was coming off a 31-10 thrashing at the hands of an unranked Arkansas squad, and even though they still controlled their own destiny in theory, everybody was watching the scoreboard to see if Tennessee would lose. That’s how much faith this fan base had in Florida beating LSU in Death Valley.

It wasn’t just the fact that LSU was favored, or that the game was in Baton Rouge that had the Gator Nation hoping instead of believing. It was the way the Gators were so thoroughly taken apart by Arkansas- a team that was then in turn taken apart by that LSU team Florida had to play next- that made for the most depressing mood I’ve ever seen from a fan base that controlled its own destiny to its conference championship.

Then a 16-10 win over LSU changed everything.

Once the shock wore off, reality set in. Not only did Florida clinch their spot in the SEC Championship Game in the most unbelievable way possible, the Gators now control their own destiny to the College Football Playoff. Yes, really. And let me preface this entire explanation with this: nobody is claiming Florida will win out. That’s an entirely different argument. I’m just saying that if they do, the ultimate reward will be waiting for them.

Florida comes into rivalry week sitting at #15 in the CFP Rankings. That’s not a terrible position to be in with two games still to play, but it isn’t idea, either. However, should the Gators beat #14 FSU and then beat #1 Alabama, they would have two advantages that nobody else in the country can claim, and a third that only four other teams could claim.

Per the CFP’s official guidelines, they select the four playoff teams based on four main criteria:

  • Did you win your conference?
  • Head to head competition
  • Strength of schedule
  • Common opponents

Florida’s strength of schedule throughout its first nine games wasn’t much to sneeze at, with the exception of a road game against Tennessee (which they lost). But that’s about to change. And on top of that, they would have additional criteria in their favor that the current rankings do not reflect.

Don’t be fooled into worrying about all the teams Florida is currently stuck behind, or even how Florida would simply be dumped into the massive pool of two-loss teams. Things will work themselves out.

Let’s start with the (safe) assumption that Florida jumps all three of the three-loss teams currently ranked ahead of them if they can beat FSU this weekend. The committee has not yet factored in the road trip to #14 FSU into the Gators’ strength of schedule, but once they do- assuming Florida wins, of course- Florida would hop up to #12 heading into its showdown with Alabama. The only logical way this doesn’t happen is if Auburn shocks Alabama this weekend, but even if they do, the Gators would vault over Auburn if they beat Alabama in two weeks simply because they won their conference and Auburn did not. But really, nobody’s worrying about being stuck behind three loss teams; I’m just covering all the bases here.

The first cluster of teams the Gators will need and figure to pass reside in the midwest. Three of the Big 10 teams currently ranked ahead of Florida will be in that two loss pool, and won’t be able to say they won their conference; either Ohio State or Michigan will have a second loss after Saturday, and Penn State and Wisconsin already do. The Big 10 would get its champion in, but that would be it.

Louisville would be in that two loss pool, too. But nobody really believes the Gators wouldn’t jump them simply with the added strength of schedule that the next two weeks provides, right? Good. Moving on.

With all that said, the Gators still have seven teams left to deal with, and that number needs to get whittled down to three. Realize that #8 Oklahoma and #10 Oklahoma State play each other, and one of them has to lose their third game of the season, and now that number of teams needed to pass is six.

The Pac-12 is where things get tricky. #5 Washington (10-1) plays #23 Washington State (8-3) for the Pac-12 North championship, while #9 Colorado (9-2) has to beat Utah to clinch the Pac-12 South. If Utah springs the upset, #13 USC (8-3) takes the South and goes to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Play around with all the permutations you’d like, but all that does is alter 10-2 Florida’s Playoff chances from lock to pretty sure bet. To be completely safe, the ideal scenario is that one of the three loss teams wins the Pac-12. The worst case scenario is that Washington wins it. But even if Washington does win the Pac-12, it feels like Florida is pretty likely to jump the entire Pac-12 should they win their next two games.

Keep in mind that the committee has not factored in Florida’s road trip to #14 FSU or neutral site game against Alabama into its strength of schedule calculations, nor have they factored in that Florida won their conference as this hypothetical situation has them doing. Washington’s strength of schedule is more impressive than Florida’s right now, but won’t be for long. Each of the next two weeks see Florida play much stronger teams than Washington, and though they’d be even in the “we won our conference!” department, the hypothetical wins over FSU on the road and on a neutral field over Alabama- a team that the committee has shown undying allegiance to since it was first formed in 2014- would almost surely vault the Gators over the Huskies and into the four team field, even with one more loss than Washington, and would probably touch off riots if it didn’t.

Having said all that, I’m not counting on Hypothetical 10-2 SEC Champ Florida jumping Hypothetical Pac-12 Champ Washington quite yet. I’m pretty confident they would, but they’re not guaranteed to. They would, however, jump the rest of the Pac-12 for sure, so that cuts Colorado out of the mix. We’re down to five teams still ahead of Florida.

Now let’s circle back to the Big 12. Given that the Big 12 champion would have two losses, we can safely assume a 10-2 Florida team would be given the same preferential treatment over that Big 12 champion that they would over a two loss or potentially even one loss Pac-12 champ. The number of teams Florida needs to jump is adjusted downward to four.

So here’s where we stand, if you’ve followed everything so far. Barring a Clemson upset, there are four teams ahead of the Gators: one-loss ACC champ Clemson, a one-loss Big 10 champion, one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington, and… one-loss SEC runner-up Alabama… a team that Florida would not only have the “we won our conference!” advantage over, but the head to head advantage over as well. And while a comparison of overall records and common opponents would benefit Alabama, (Alabama beat Arkansas and Tennessee, both of whom beat Florida) that’s not nearly enough to overcome the head to head loss to Florida that Alabama would have nor the fact that Florida won their conference and Alabama did not.

So mark this down: if Florida wins their next two games, they would jump Alabama.

And now, at last, we have our four team playoff in a scenario where the Gators get no help: 12-1 ACC Champ Clemson, 12-1 Big 10 Champ Ohio State/Michigan, and 12-1 Pac-12 Champ Washington. Of course, getting help via mass chaos at the top of the rankings is never a bad thing, like if Clemson loses to either North Carolina or Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship, or if Washington State wins the Pac-12, but it’s never safe to assume anything like that happens, and even if it does happen, it wouldn’t necessarily change much.

Again, none of this is to say that Florida will win out. They could very well lose their next two games. All I’m saying is that if the Gators do win their next two games, they should have nothing to worry about.

VIDEO: Florida Gators vs. LSU Tigers (15 minutes- condensed)

Guess what? We’re going to Atlanta!

As I usually do, I’ve condensed the Gators’ division clinching win over LSU down to fifteen minutes, and uploaded to YouTube for your enjoyment. (I actually had this cut down and ready to go by Sunday night, but YouTube was giving me problems. Sorry about that.)

Enjoy…

Surprise! Gators silence LSU in Death Valley, clinch SEC East

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All week, the message Jim McElwain preached to his team was finishing the season 6-0 in the Swamp.

But neither McElwain nor Florida fans had to worry about the location of Saturday’s game against their cross division rival. LSU turned out to be great hosts- they made the Gators feel right at home on their biggest day of the year.

And the end result was one that very few outside that Gator locker room ever expected.

Thanks to a 98 yard touchdown pass from Austin Appleby to freshman Tyrie Cleveland, a big day on the ground from Jordan Scarlett and a slew of LSU miscues, Florida waltzed into Baton Rouge and came away with a 16-10 victory. The win puts Florida in Atlanta, of course- cry your eyes out, Tennessee fans- and gives McElwain the notable distinction of being the first coach to ever take a team to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two years.

That’s some feat given the way this season has played out.

An early loss to Tennessee put the Vols in the driver’s seat, and had many questioning the future of this team. And the way Florida struggled in some of its ensuing games against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Arkansas probably didn’t do a lot to assuage the fears that Florida wouldn’t repeat as division champions, either- even as Tennessee began to fall apart.

Then came the LSU game. You know, the game that was scheduled to be played in Gainesville back in October, but was then postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. And because LSU athletic director Joe Alleva refused to play the game in Gainesville as the SEC declared they had to, Florida had no choice but to go along with his demand to play in Baton Rouge. SEC teams have to play all eight scheduled conference games in order to be eligible for the conference championship, and so Florida either had to comply with the fascist’s orders or lose its shot at repeating as division champs.

But McElwain made sure his players knew where this game was supposed to be played, and challenged them to continue to defend their home turf. And they did.

Florida started the game on its own 40 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on LSU, and picked up a couple of first downs before being forced to punt. LSU then drove right down the field and scored on a short run from Derrius Guice. Those two drives ate up the entire first quarter, and it felt as though the Tigers were in control. That remained the feeling as Florida’s next drive reached the red zone but stalled, and Eddy Pineiro kicked a field goal. And that feeling only heightened when LSU drove all the way down the field again and appeared poised to score another touchdown.

But the entire complexion of the game changed when Caleb Brantley stuck a paw into Guice’s body and poked the football free. Florida recovered to end the LSU drive. And though neither team scored again in the half, it just felt like an entirely different game.

LSU seemed to retake the momentum on its first drive of the second half, marching right back into the red zone with surprising ease. But Florida’s defense came up with two more game changing plays in succession. On a second and goal from the 3, LSU quarterback Danny Etling took off for the pylon and appeared to have a touchdown when linebacker Vosean Joseph came out of nowhere and leveled him at the one inch line, sending him flying out of bounds clearly short of the goal line. And on the next play, Brantley blew past the line and dropped Guice for a loss. That set up a short field goal attempt- which LSU botched on the hold. And again, Florida survived the threat having given up no points.

This time, though, the Gators made LSU pay. Austin Appleby lobbed a rainbow to Tyrie Cleveland, who caught it at his own 40, shook off LSU cornerback Donte Jackson and trotted the remaining 60 yards for an unbelievable- and unbelievably easy- 98 yard touchdown. And incredibly, Florida had the lead.

LSU responded with the tying field goal with 12:18 to go, but then Florida got the ball back and started to drive. On the backs of Jordan Scarlett- the first running back to rush for over 100 yards against LSU all year- and LaMical Perine, the Gators got down inside the LSU one yard line, eating up nearly eight minutes of clock in doing so. A questionable third and goal play call by Doug Nussmeier to pitch the ball backwards instead of having the large bodied Appleby try to sneak it in from a few inches away failed miserably, and Florida was forced to kick a field goal with four and a half minutes left. The Tigers then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and gave Florida the opportunity to put the game away, but they couldn’t take advantage of that either and Pineiro kicked another field goal to make it 16-10 with 3:24 remaining.

That gave LSU one more shot, and set up a classic championship moment. If Florida kept LSU out of the end zone, they’d be division champs. If LSU scored a touchdown and made the extra point, the division would be turned back over to Tennessee. It was that simple. This Gator team had its moments that made fans question it all year long, but it all came down to one final drive.

And LSU appeared dead in the water on that final drive until Etling hit DJ Chark for 32 yards on a fourth and ten to put the ball at the Gators’ 16. The Tigers then picked up another first down to set up a first and goal with under a minute left.

Time for a brief aside. When LSU picked up that 4th and 10, it felt like the Tigers were going to take it all the way in and end the Gators’ season in heartbreaking fashion. It really did. All the heartbreaking losses to LSU in recent years- 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2015- felt like they would soon be joined by the most heartbreaking loss yet.

But as LSU learned, never underestimate the heart of a defending division champion.

Two runs by Guice put the ball down to the one yard line. The fullback JD Moore was stuffed on a dive play, which had worked repeatedly throughout the game up until then. That ran the clock down to three seconds to set up one last play. And on that last play- the famed LSU toss, Guice was stopped short. It was over. Florida had won, and the long process of reality sinking in began. It’s still ongoing, if you want the truth.

But whenever reality does sink in for you as an individual, it’s going to be quite a glorious feeling. Florida, the team that was disrespected by being forced to play a road game that rightfully belonged in the Swamp, disrespected the team that disrespected them right back with a 16-10 win, right in front of 90,000 of the rabid fans who once laughed with glee at their ability to finesse themselves a home game they didn’t deserve. Along the way, they shut down that team’s star, Leonard Fournette, to 40 yards on 12 carries. And wait, it gets better. Now that team has to play in Gainesville the next two years.

Oh, and best of all? The Gators are Eastern division champs. They’re going back to Atlanta, and if they can beat FSU this weekend, quite possibly with a College Football Playoff berth on the line.

Florida’s season begins anew this Saturday against FSU. By beating LSU, they unlocked the door to a whole new world they never knew existed, with prizes available that they never could have dreamed of a few short weeks ago. An SEC Championship. A playoff berth. Maybe even a national championship. Who knows?

It’s still very difficult to predict this team, but if they’ve proven anything, it’s that they cannot be counted out regardless of how unfavorable the odds appear to be stacked against them. And given where they are now, that’s all you can really ask for.

Florida 16, LSU 10, Instant Analysis: Gators shock Tigers, book ticket to Atlanta

Upset baby. Book it.

With a 16-10 win over LSU in Baton Rouge, the Gators advanced to Atlanta for the second year in a row. It would be hard to believe if you didn’t see it given all the Gators’ injuries, but they did it.

Here’s a look at how it unfolded:

It was over when… Derrius Guice was stuffed on fourth and goal from inside the one yard line. Florida’s defense got pushed around a bit, but they stood tall and made the game saving stop. Hats off to them.

Play of the game… Down 7-3, Florida appeared to be in a hole inside its own two yard line when Austin Appleby lofted a bomb to Tyrie Cleveland, who caught the ball at his own 40, shook a defender, and trotted the rest of the way for an unbelievably easy coast-to-coast touchdown pass. Appleby finished with 144 yards on the day, with 98 of them on this one play.

Game ball goes to… Everybody. Tyrie Cleveland gets one for breaking through with his 98 yard touchdown reception, Jordan Scarlett gets one for totaling 108 yards on the ground, everyone on the offensive line gets one for opening holes for Scarlett, and Appleby gets one for quarterbacking a team to a road win in Death Valley. Do the rounds on the defense, too. Teez Tabor broke up what would have been a huge completion down the field, Cece Jefferson came up with a huge sack of Danny Etling in the red zone, and Vosean Joseph lit Etling up near the goal line on a dive for the pylon to save a touchdown.

Stat of the game… 2. Jim McElwain has taken Florida to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, something no coach has ever done before. Ever.

What to be proud of… Florida was licking their wounds after a bad loss to Arkansas, but they rebounded to win the biggest game of the year. It wasn’t always pretty, and LSU certainly helped by turning it over twice inside their own red zone and botching an easy field goal attempt, but give Florida credit. They made the plays they had to make in a game they had to win. Oh, and they won in Baton Rouge, a place they haven’t won in since 2009.

What to work on… Doug Nussmeier’s play calling was certainly strange. He elected to throw on a third and three despite Scarlett being unstoppable in short yardage situations. That didn’t work and LSU forced a punt. But the real head scratcher came on third and goal from the LSU two inch line. Instead of having Appleby try to sneak it in, he opted to have Appleby pitch it backward and give LSU time to snuff it out. The fact that the pitch was botched was immaterial, as it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Florida won, and that’s great, but I’m really starting to wonder about him as a play-caller. Let’s see what kind of game he calls against FSU.

Bottom line: Florida won the SEC East for the second straight year. Further analysis will come tomorrow. Let’s party.

Scoring recap:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th Final
FLORIDA 0 3 7 6 16
LSU 7 0 0 3 10

Scoring plays:

Team Time Play FLA LSU
LSU 1st 2:36 Darrius Guice 1 yd run (PAT good) 0 7
FLORIDA 2nd 13:19 Eddy Pineiro 36 yd FG 3 7
FLORIDA 3rd 8:57 Tyrie Cleveland 98 yd pass from Austin Appleby (PAT good) 10 7
LSU 4th 12:18 Colby Delahoussaye 22 yd FG 10 10
FLORIDA 4th 4:37 Eddy Pineiro 36 yd FG 3 7
FLORIDA 4th 3:24 Eddy Pineiro 36 yd FG 3 7

Against LSU, Gators have opportunity to step up and become champions

Given the mood Florida fans seem to have about their football team these days, it’s almost easy to forget how favorable the mathematical circumstances are for the Gators.

Florida, remember, still controls its own destiny to the SEC Championship Game. An even more optimistic outlook for the Gators is that their magic number for Atlanta is one: this means that with one more Florida win or Tennessee loss- in whatever form it may come- the Gators would clinch the SEC East.

Of course, those simple mathematics doesn’t tell the whole story. Florida’s remaining SEC game is in the backyard of a resurgent LSU team with a pair of bruising running backs in Darrius Guice and Leonard Fournette, while Tennessee plays a pair of schools with three and four wins, respectively. Realistically, the likelihood of Tennessee beating Missouri and Vanderbilt in succession is higher than Florida winning in Baton Rouge.

Translation: if the Gators want to make it to Atlanta, they’re going to have to do it themselves, and they’re going to have to do it the hard way. They absolutely cannot rely on getting help from their friends in the Show-Me State or the Music City- as difficult as their road may be.

By now, we all know the story of how LSU shamefully yet successfully whined their way out of coming to Gainesville. But the fact of the matter is that this game is going to be played in Louisiana. Fair or not, that’s the reality. Here’s another reality: the Gators could have avoided this mess had they held a 21-0 lead against Tennessee or shown up against Arkansas. Blame whomever you’d like for those losses (and if you’re into pointing fingers, you could be at this all night) but the simple truth is that if Florida had won either of those games, they would have already wrapped up the SEC East and would not be stuck in the unenviable position of having to beat LSU in Baton Rouge to reach Atlanta.

When you think about it, real champions take matters into their own hands when given the opportunity to, and don’t count on having others do the work for them. You could certainly use that line of thinking to say that Florida had their chances to win the East and already blew it, but this season isn’t over. Rather, the football gods gave Florida another opportunity- a much more difficult opportunity, but another opportunity nonetheless.

And now, the 2016 Gator football season will be judged on whether or not Florida can win this one game. Sure, the injury situation won’t help (although getting Cece Jefferson back is a huge plus). Florida will be without Cam Dillard, Luke Del Rio, Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis and Marcus Maye against the Tigers. But again, championship teams find ways to overcome injuries. New faces step in and step up, like linebacker David Reese did in Davis’s absence and Austin Appleby did in LDR’s absence.

It’s up to you, Gators. How do you want this team to be remembered? Do you want to go down in history on a team that overcame early losses, learned from mistakes and came through in the biggest game of the year?

Gators get back on track with crucial win over South Carolina

Florida isn’t winning a national championship this year. They’re probably not winning an SEC Championship either, and they may not even win the SEC East.

Despite all that, Florida’s 20-7 win over South Carolina was big. Really big.

The Gators overcame a pair of turnovers in the red zone and a less than perfect game by the officials to knock off the Gamecocks in their home finale. Say what you want about Florida’s chances of beating LSU in Death Valley next week, but the Gators are one win away from reaching the SEC Championship Game.

At the very least, the nasty taste of the 31-10 loss to Arkansas the week before is out of their mouths, and this team proved to be able to rebound against a hot South Carolina team that had just won three in a row with a new quarterback- one of which came against the same Tennessee team that beat Florida. In particular, Jordan Scarlett used a much better effort from his offensive line to burn Will Muschamp’s defense for a career high 134 yards on the ground, an effort that was undoubtedly sweeter due to Muschamp never offering him a scholarship at Florida. So if nothing else, the Gators achieved the slightest sliver of redemption.

They didn’t make it easy on themselves, though.

South Carolina opened the game by going nowhere and then punting to Antonio Callaway- despite overwhelming annual evidence that this was not a good idea- who returned it near midfield. From there, it took four plays, one of which was a 33 yard designed run by Austin Appleby- to go 56 yards and reach the end zone on a quick dump off to C’yontai Lewis. The above sequence repeated itself, and Florida looked poised to score again. But then Mark Thompson did what everybody feared he would do since the offseason. He fumbled.

And that began a long, frustrating day for the offense.

The Gators made South Carolina punt on its ensuing possession, and it looked as though Florida would score again on its next drive. At least, until they got to the two yard line and Appleby bobbled the exchange, which South Carolina recovered. To their credit, the offense recovered on its next drive to score on a deep strike from Appleby to Ahmad Fulwood. That made the score 14-0.

But then they completely collapsed, managing just two field goals and seven first downs for the remaining 40 minutes of game action. Florida went three and out three of its next five possessions, and a fourth drive started and ended with Appleby throwing an interception over the middle. Of course, another way to look at that was that the Gamecocks’ defense eventually settled in and started to make plays on the ball, as opposed to simply looking shellshocked like they did for the first quarter and a half. The reality is that it was a combination of both.

Ultimately, none of that mattered on this day. South Carolina’s offense was completely dormant for three and a half quarters before finally coming alive. But by then it was too late. Will Muschamp’s team was in too deep of a hole to climb out of, and though they did eventually score, it served as little more than a consolation prize. As frustrating as it was to watch the Gators self destruct on offense, the outcome was never in doubt. Nor was the team’s mindset.

Florida could have folded after an ugly loss to Arkansas last week. They could have gone down the drain given that their national championship dreams were dashed. They could have felt sorry for themselves, saw the gauntlet of a schedule that lays ahead and mailed it in. It wouldn’t have been very respectable, but they very well could have. That they instead scrapped and clawed their way to a win over a red hot (albeit modestly talented) opponent speaks volumes about the type of team Jim McElwain has, and gives the Gators a much needed dose of confidence as they head into the home stretch.

Now, Florida heads to Baton Rouge as a huge underdog, and with many of the same problems they had going into the South Carolina game. On the flip side, the Gators still lead the SEC East race, and the finish line is so close, but there’s just one final obstacle. But perhaps just as important as reaching Atlanta, at least to me, is seeing this team come together and play its best football at the end of the season.

In any case, Florida has an opportunity to succeed in both departments next week when they share the field with what oddsmakers say is a much better football team than they are. And for better or worse, we may finally find out what this team is made of.