Saturday It's All About Staying Focused

If the Florida Gators want to realize what they face this Saturday against Vanderbilt, they only need to look to what happened last weekend in Stillwater, Palo Alto, Miami, Tallahassee, and Waco.

All over America last Saturday, teams clearly superior to their opposition either hung their heads after a bitter loss, slacked off because of a big game looming ahead, or simply rolled the ball on the field expecting to win without breaking a sweat.

UCLA was asleep for 52 minutes against Stanford. Damn near cost them.

Texas did not think Oklahoma State ---a 36-point dog --- could touch them. Well, OSU didn't win, but they sure touched the Longhorns enough to finally get their attention.

Miami did not give a darn in the first half against North Carolina. Had UNC's Jarwarski Pollock not dropped the easiest TD pass you'll ever see, the Canes might not have recovered at home against a team they should have dismantled.

Florida State slopped around until getting its head on straight against a Maryland team led by a backup QB.

Texas Tech, drooping after a woodshed whipping suffered against Texas, finally decided that six points through three quarters was unacceptable, hanging 22 on Baylor in the fourth to win 28-0.

This game for Florida against Vanderbilt is not about scheme or strategy or talent. It's about one thing and one thing alone: focus. Florida will win big if it plays this game with passion and attention to detail. Players giddy from the win over Georgia and eager to face Steve Spurrier the week after have this trap game to deal with, and the level of mental and emotional maturity from these Gators --- so evident in a gritty, lunch-pail win over Georgia --- will be tested even more on a Saturday evening at the Swamp.

Great teams pay attention to these games, dusting off inferior squads with just as much panache and enthusiasm as they dispatch more formidable foes. Steve Spurrier himself often used the Vandy game as a time to build confidence and swagger for the USC-FSU finishing kick, and when South Carolina stunk, Spurrier used the Gamecocks as a stepping stone for the semis. Back in 1997, before the great 32-29 win over FSU, it's instructive to remember that the Head Ball Coach rolled it up in Columbia, with the Gators scoring 48 points in what seemed at the time to some as a panicky and desperate attempt to build back Doug Johnson's flagging confidence. One week later, though, no panic showed in a composed Gator performance against then-No. 2 Florida State. Taking the equivalent of a "warm-up game" as seriously as the big show gave the Gators a proper mental mindset. And oh-by-the-way, it happens to be the kind of attitude that national championship teams possess --- just ask USC, who continues to light up the scoreboard instead of taking mental holidays.

So consider this Vandy game not just practice for South Carolina, a big SEC East finale that could deliver the division title to Gainesville if Auburn does its thing in Athens. Don't even view this Commodore contest as a game "to be gotten through quickly." Now that Urban Meyer's focus is clearly on winning ballgames and not so much on pure systemic implementation, the Gators can genuinely see where their attitude and focus really are. With less pressure on making a system work, Florida can just play winning football, and against Vandy, winning football will mean "not slacking off or looking ahead."

Against Vanderbilt, Florida is playing Jay Cutler, but even more prominently, the Gators are playing their own minds and attention spans. Can Chris Leak deliver another first-drive touchdown and then continue to pour on the points? Can DeShawn Wynn avoid costly fumbles? Can excellence be sustained from beginning to end? Can the Gators begin to realize just how far mental toughness can carry them? Before they tackle Spurrier, they need to know they can play 60 complete minutes without stepping off the gas pedal. The first nine minutes against Georgia were awesome; if Florida's players have their minds right, there's no reason they can't play 51 more magnificent minutes.

Vanderbilt is the official opponent for Florida this Saturday. But the essential opponent is the collective mind of these Gators. And while mental toughness is the single most underappreciated element of college football, it matters, and moreover, you know it when you see it... or not. Before the ESPN2 cameras --- and a familiar voice in Sean McDonough --- one hopes to see the Gators mind their own business.


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