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.