Which teams show up with Atlanta on the line?
Published: Friday, November 12, 2010 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 12, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.
Even before the much-chronicled changes were made that have had such a profound impact on their season, the Florida Gators grasped a glimmer of hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.
After the Gators had fallen to Mississippi State at home for their third consecutive loss, even UF coach Urban Meyer was wondering if the season was over.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "That's the negative of playing with extremely high expectations. There's also so many positives, but there are some negatives. We haven't been in that situation."
Then someone showed Meyer the SEC East Standings — and suddenly the Gators had a giant spark of hope.
Win the next three games — beat Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina — and the Gators would win the division and earn a ticket to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
"I think any time you see a light at the end of the tunnel, which our light is making a trip to Atlanta, then it just washes everything out," Meyer said. "I'm not sure our team knew after we had the third loss that we still had a shot. Once they did, I saw the team start to come together."
With the help of a new no-huddle, hurry-up offense (and playing three different quarterbacks), and the return of some key players, the Gators came out of the bye week rocking. They beat Georgia in overtime. Then they dismantled Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Two down, one to go.
A victory over the Gamecocks and former UF coach Steve Spurrier, and the Gators will be playing for the SEC title Dec. 4.
Did the Gators envision this possibility when they limped off the field after the loss to Mississippi State a little less than a month ago?
"Not back then. Not at all," senior strong safety Ahmad Black said. "But we always focus on playing one game at a time and taking everything one game at a time, so we did that and everything fell into place for us.
"It's very exciting. It's a big game. It's what we live for around here. It's what we're used to."
This is a championship game for the Gamecocks, too. Despite being humbled at home by Arkansas 41-20 a week ago, a victory on Saturday night would give the Gamecocks their first Eastern Division title.
"We have a chance to play for the Eastern Division," Spurrier said. "Back earlier in the year, after one loss, I said if we could get to Florida and play them for it, it would be a pretty good year.
"We haven't played extremely well lately. The last game we didn't play well or coach well at all. We're looking forward to playing a team that really seems to be playing well now. We have to get in a battle with them and play like we're capable of playing. If we do those things, we've got a shot."
Since upsetting then-No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 9 (a week after UF fell to the Tide 31-6), the Gamecocks have lost two of four games, falling to Kentucky and Arkansas.
While the Gamecocks have been sliding, the Gators have been on the rise.
In the two victories since the bye week, UF's once-struggling offense averaged 44.5 points and 465 yards a game, the defense tightened some things up and the special teams blocked two punts.
After a disastrous middle part of the season, the Gators seem to be peaking at the right time.
"We've come a very long way as a team," Meyer said. "I like our chemistry, our work ethic, our togetherness. It's put us in a position to play in an exciting game (Saturday night).
"We're not a great team, but we're getting better."
This is the first championship game in The Swamp since Tennessee upset UF in 2001 to advance to Atlanta. The year before, the Gators rebounded from a 21-3 deficit to South Carolina to win 41-21 to earn the berth in the SEC title game ahead of the Gamecocks.
Spurrier has beaten Meyer only once (2005 in Columbia) and is 0-2 in The Swamp.
But Meyer is wary of Spurrier and the Gamecocks, who looked almost like a lock for the SEC Championship Game after the big win over then top-ranked Alabama.
"This is by far the most talented South Carolina team that we've coached against," Meyer said. "They're extremely well-coached. On offense they have, arguably, some of the best players in the conference now."
Like Spurrier so often likes to say, his team's got a chance.
"One of our goals was to win the division, and we've got a chance," Spurrier said. "We realize we have to play really well. We'll see how we do.
"I told our players, 'We're going on the big stage, fellas. If you're nervous or scared, we're in a lot of trouble.' When we recruited all these players, we talked about getting to this game, about getting to the SEC Championship Game. We'll find out how we perform."