JACKSONVILLE — There are multiple angles to this rivalry game.
Both teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally for the first time since 2008.
This is an elimination game in the SEC East.
It’s the offensive head coach (Florida’s Dan Mullen) against the defensive head coach (Georgia’s Kirby Smart).
It’s the team that got beat by 35 points a year ago seeking redemption.
It’s the defending SEC champions who lost to LSU by 20 points two weeks ago looking to make a statement with a strong rebound.
It’s, well, Florida-Georgia (or Georgia-Florida) — and all the intensity, anger, atmosphere (and alcohol) that comes with it.
But the Florida Gators are viewing this from a much different angle.
Next game on the schedule.
Yes, it’s coachspeak, but this is the approach Mullen’s team has taken since the Sept. 8 loss to Kentucky, and the result has been five consecutive victories, a winning streak that has vaulted the Gators, and this rivalry, back into national prominence.
“We’ve been winning games by just playing the next game and not really worrying about our record,” junior running back Jordan Scarlett said. “As long as we keep that same energy, we will keep doing good things.
“Coach Mullen instills it in us, and coach (Greg) Knox. He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about how big the game is, just go out there and play and have fun and I promise you, we’ll come out on top because every time you guys have fun and do what you’re supposed to do, we do good things.’ We’re just trying to keep that same tempo going.”
Here has been Florida’s formula for success: the Gators focus on themselves, on going hard and physical in practice and getting better every day. Then they go out and win on Saturday, undeterred by early (or sometimes late) deficits, trusting their coaches will make the necessary adjustments.
“I like the way our guys have embraced and started understanding that your production and performance (in practice) are an indication of how you play on the field,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We control that. So in a game like this you really have to ignore the noise, you’ve got to make sure you get down the basics, you have to make sure that you execute your call and you communicate. Because it’s going to get down to the basics.”
For the Gators, the next game — this game — is the biggest of the season, It’s a rivalry game, it’s on the national stage, and it could determine who goes to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. And a win by the Gators would be a huge boon for Mullen’s program.
The Gators are aware of all this. But that is not where their focus has been this week, junior wide receiver Josh Hammonds said.
“We’re not really too much worried about the standings,” he said. “We know we can control what we can control. That’s how hard we play and how we go out in practice and how we prepare for this game Saturday. I think that needs to continue to be our mentality. Just follow the game plan and come out and work all week so we can be prepared come Saturday.”
During their current winning streak, which includes a win over the same LSU team that beat Georgia by 20 points two weeks ago, the Gators have not only shown a strong work ethic and focus on the practice field, they’ve shown great resiliency in games.
In their last three games, the Gators have come from behind in the second half to win.
The coaches credit the players for playing with relentless effort throughout games. The players credit Mullen and the coaches for making adjustments during games that have made a difference.
“We’re a team that is really learning how to play hard and play together as a team and finding ways to win,” Mullen said. “I don’t think we’re a team you point at and say, ‘Wow, they are just this smothering, dominating defense or this explosive, high-scoring offense. They’re a team that plays together as a team and does what they need to do to win.’ We we play that way.
“If we don’t put in the time, if we don’t put in the work, in every phase of the game, we can’t expect to be successful. I think that’s the biggest one that our guys have really bought into. That it’s not about one thing or another; it’s about everyone on the team living up to do their part and live up to the standard.”
When things aren’t going right, like in the first half at Vanderbilt two weeks ago, when the Gators fell behind 21-3, the players put their trust in their coaches.
Especially on offense.
“Coach Mullen is an offensive guru, man, that’s what I call him,” junior running back Lamical Perine said. “He’s a great guy calling plays. He always has us ready.
“Last year there were a couple times defenses were calling out our plays. They can’t really do that now because we have them so off balance. It’s something that we added to our game with Dan Mullen coming in.”