Bulldogs-Gators: Playoff for SEC East
Published: Friday, October 26, 2012 at 4:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 26, 2012 at 6:34 p.m.
JACKSONVILLE — At the postgame news conference after Florida's loss to Georgia a year ago, Will Muschamp threw out a quote that seemed mystifying, almost out of touch with reality.
He said he believed the Gators were not that far off from being a contender again in the SEC.
That optimistic vision for his football team drew a lot of head shaking in the audience.
The Gators had just lost their fourth consecutive game in a winless October. The offense was broken. The defense was sagging. Spirits were shattered. The future appeared uncertain at best, bleak at worst.
But as it turns out, Muschamp was right. His feel for his team and where it was heading was right on.
The team that did not even become bowl eligible until mid-November last season has a chance to win a championship in October.
No. 3 Florida, a team picked to finish third in its division, will win the SEC East title if the Gators defeat Georgia today.
It's been a remarkable turnaround in Muschamp's second season.
“It's a great feeling. It shows all your hard work is paying off from the summer,” junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said.
The work, of course, is not done.
The Gators will have an intense fight on their hands today. Not just because this is one of the most heated rivalries in football, but because the Bulldogs also are playing for a championship today.
If Georgia wins the game, the Bulldogs would hold the tiebreaker edge on the Gators in the division race, with games remaining against teams UGA will be heavily favored to beat — Ole Miss at home and struggling Auburn on the road.
It's been an amazing turnaround for the ‘Dogs, too.
Just three weeks ago, it looked like UGA's hopes of winning the division were over after a devastating 35-7 loss to South Carolina. With the Gamecocks seizing the tie-breaker edge, the Bulldogs needed USC to lose two conference games to re-enter the race.
That has happened. A week after the Gamecocks fell at LSU, the Gators throttled South Carolina 44-11 to take command in the East — and bring the Bulldogs back into the race.
Georgia has been given a mulligan.
"We weren't happy about our loss to South Carolina, but we knew that there was still a lot of football to be played," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We knew that if we got back to work and took care of our own business then there was a good chance we'd be back in the race.
“As it turned out, that happened relatively quickly. When we were playing South Carolina, we were in control of our own destiny, and by the time we kicked off against Kentucky (last Saturday) we were in the same place.
"We were able to get the victory against Kentucky and we know what this game means for us and for Florida. I'd say that our guys are excited about the opportunity to play this game and have it mean as much as it means right now.''
It's basically a championship game.
“This is everything this week,” UF senior offensive guard James Wilson said.
Despite the game's significance, the Florida coaches and players have been downplaying it all week, saying they were going to stay in their routine and prepare the same exact way they have for every game this season.
They've been trying to convince everyone that this is just another game in this turnaround season.
“We approach all games the same,” Muschamp said. “I know no one wants to hear that, but that's the way we do it here. I think that when you consistently approach things the same way, you promote consistent performance in your players and you don't get a lot of peaks and valleys with how they play and how they approach it.
“Because, all of a sudden, if Coach Muschamp thinks this is the most important game, the next week may not be as important and they all count for one and they are all critical.”
The reality, though, is this game is different. It is bigger. It's for a championship.
“We understand what's at stake,” Muschamp said. “When we got on the practice field on Monday, our guys were excited. You don't need a bunch of pep talks this week to get them going. You don't need to find different ways to try and motivate them this week, they'll be excited to play.”
Florida has plenty of motivation. It comes with having the chance to win a championship. It comes from the memories of last season, when the Gators seemed so far away from being a contender to everybody but their coach.
“I think we've always been a hungry team,” junior outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins said. “I think the main difference in the attitude now is we've been in those locker rooms and had those tears and had the pain.
“We felt all of that, and I guess all that builds up and it's a product of where we're at today.”