COLUMBIA, S.C. — Florida survived its two-week Wild West adventure, splitting games with top-10 opponents Auburn and LSU on consecutive Saturdays. Now the Gators are back on their own turf, the SEC East, with a clear path to Atlanta and the conference championship game.
Clear, but not easy, of course. And it starts with a tough one: the South Carolina Gamecocks, who are all jacked up coming off their overtime upset of then-No. 3 Georgia in Athens last Saturday.
“Big challenge, really the biggest game of the year for us right now,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “The last two weeks, Top-10 matchups, were big games, but they weren’t against SEC East teams. So, huge game for us right now and a good challenge for our team. In the middle of a four-game stretch that no one else in college football can match. The huge challenge is the mental, physical toughness, we have to keep grinding, keep moving forward as a team.”
This daunting four-game stretch started with Auburn two weeks ago, went through Baton Rouge, La., last Saturday night and now brings the Gators into another tough, hostile environment today. It concludes two weeks from today in Jacksonville against No. 10 Georgia.
Speaking of the Bulldogs, the way they fell at home to South Carolina clearly caught the attention of the Gators, many of whom watched the conclusion of that game at the team hotel in Baton Rouge.
With that impressive victory by the Gamecocks, today’s challenge grows only bigger and tougher for the Gators.
“Talented team, obviously a team that has some great playmakers on their offensive side of the ball,” Mullen said of USC. “One of the best receivers in the league, run the ball really well, good offensive front, able to block.
“They’ve got a premier defensive line. Some veteran players at linebacker that are great playmakers, and then some real big-time playmakers in the secondary. I think everybody saw that last week. So, should be a big challenge for us. We’ve got to try to find a way to win.”
A victory would keep Florida squarely on the path to Atlanta. The Gators know that’s where they’re going to end up if they win their four remaining SEC games — at South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt and at Missouri.
“We control our own destiny,” senior wide receiver Josh Hammond. “We can still get to where we want to go, which is Atlanta. The biggest thing for us is to put those two games (Auburn and LSU) in the past and just continue to move forward.
“We have these four SEC East games coming up. We’ve got to be prepared to go execute. All these teams we’re going to play are great football teams. They’re wanting the same thing we want, so it’s going to start with practice and how we go execute and continue to follow through for the next week and the weeks after.”
Even though there were some real positives that came out of last Saturday’s loss to LSU — the main one being the way the offense went up and down the field — the Gators seem determined to file that one away.
They say they’ve learned from experience that dwelling on a tough loss can lead to another. It happened to the Gators last season. After an emotional loss to Georgia, UF came out flat the following week and got drilled by Missouri at home on homecoming.
The Gators say there will be no hangover today over what happened a week ago.
“We’re not going to come out slow,” junior wide receiver Trevon Grimes said. “We’re all excited to get out there and just to get back on the field. Coming from a loss, a lot of people think we have our heads down, but we know that game, like Coach Mullen said, was just a fun game.
“This game is very much more important. We have to come out fast and do what we do, play Gator football, come out victorious and onto the next game.”
It is the biggest game of the season. Not just because it’s the next one, but because it stands in the way on the Gators’ path to Atlanta.
“We control our own destiny,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “South Carolina is the biggest game of the season because it’s the next one and it’s the SEC East. We have to play our best to win this one and win the rest of the season out.”