After the Gators pounded Georgia 27-3, the only team that can keep Florida out of the SEC Championship in Atlanta is Vanderbilt. The two teams meet next week in Gainesville at 12 p.m., and the Gators can erase any doubt by clinching the SEC East.
“It would mean a whole lot,” Florida running back Kelvin Taylor. “We just got to keep taking it one game at a time and just keep practicing hard and just try to see everything we could have done better in film tomorrow, but it definitely would mean a whole lot for us to get to Atlanta. We’re going to keep working hard and that’s our goal. That’s definitely our goal.”
For the Gators to miss Atlanta, the Commodores would have to run undefeated through the remainder of their SEC slate at Florida, against Kentucky, against Texas A&M and at Tennessee while the Gators would need to lose to Vanderbilt and at South Carolina. That’s a lot of “if” outcomes for Florida not to return to Atlanta for the first time since 2009.
It’s a goal that didn’t seem likely in the offseason. First-year coach Jim McElwain was taking over a roster with flaws at multiple spots, and Georgia was ranked in the top 10 to open the season with Tennessee viewed as an up-and-comer in the division.
At SEC Media Days, the Gators were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East behind Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina. Florida is now 3-0 against those teams with a game at South Carolina coming on November 14. McElwain claims he always thought Atlanta was a realistic goal.
“Yeah I did because I don’t expect to lose,” McElwain said. “We should never go into an event thinking we’re going to come in second. The one thing you learn quickly in this business is there’s no participation ribbons in this business. It doesn’t matter who we play, we go in with a mindset that we’re going to put a plan together to do what it takes to win the football game.
“I don’t know, you ask if I’m surprised, I’m not. It’s how we’re built. Every competitive guy, and our team is competitive. It’s not about thinking about going to the championship. It’s about what do we do right now to get better? Because a championship will never come if we don’t take care of the now. Our guys are getting it.”
Not many outside the program believed this kind of run would be possible. Inside the walls of The Swamp, the Florida coaches and players all knew this season could end up in Atlanta.
It all started with McElwain’s optimism. It’s what the Florida program has been built around, and for players that were drowning in negativity over the past two seasons, it was a breath of fresh air. They had a coach who believed in them, and he made sure they were aware of it daily.
“You can't be so uptight all the time,” Florida safety Marcus Maye said. “He tells us to relax and play the game four seconds at a time. And each play, for the most part, that's his coaching style ever since he came in. We all adjusted to it, and it's been great so far."
Saturday was hardly a time for McElwain to let the team celebrate. It took him just three minutes into his postgame press conference to harp on the importance of the Gators handling this win well. They needed to keep their focus on next week’s challenge, as McElwain pointed out Vanderbilt’s defense has been playing well and the Florida offense was just OK on Saturday. He went into talking about the importance of Sunday night’s team dinner and handling themselves the right way.