NASHVILLE -- Since August, Florida has talked about going to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference championship game. Until recently, that goal seemed unlikely.
But after escaping Nashville with their sixth straight win to remain undefeated, the No. 3 Gators have a realistic expectation to reach that goal.
They sit atop the SEC East standings and control their own destiny. Continue to win and they’re in.
However, according to coach Will Muschamp, it’s not exactly that easy.
“We’ve got a long season to go,” he said. “I’m very pleased with where we are. Have we arrived? Absolutely not. I mean, we have some serious issues we need to work out within our team. I’m talking about some personnel, some schematic — a lot of things we need to improve on. We need to continue to work.”
In addition to problems with penalties and injuries — the Gators played without six starters for the majority of Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt — Muschamp knows a huge roadblock stands in the way of a trip up I-75: South Carolina and Steve Spurrier.
The head ball coach has gotten the better of his old team in consecutive seasons, marking the first time the Gamecocks have beaten the Gators in back-to-back years since the 1930s.
Last year’s loss was especially painful for Florida. Although it was close throughout, mistakes cost Florida late and it dropped its fifth game in its last six by the score of 17-12.
“We had our opportunities,” Muschamp said of last year’s game, mentioning a long pass given up that led to a field goal and an offside call that gave South Carolina a crucial first down late in the game.
“You’ve got your opportunities to win the game. You want to look at the difference between this year and last year? We’ve won those games. We won LSU, we won [Texas] A&M, we won Tennessee. Let’s flip those, and I ain’t a good coach anymore. At the end of the day, we’ve made the plays in those situations. There is a very, very fine line between winning and losing. There really is.”
So when the Gators beat the Commodores on Saturday to match their win total from Muschamp’s inaugural season, the first topic of discussion was the upcoming challenge and the chance at redemption.
“Coach Muschamp said you don’t get many second chances in life and we got a second chance and we’re going to try to take advantage of it,” quarterback Jeff Driskel said.
His teammates shared that sentiment and called this weekend’s game “personal.”
But to have the best chance at success this weekend, at reaching Atlanta, Florida must focus on reducing mistakes, mainly the penalties that continue to be a problem.
The Gators racked up 10 for 80 yards Saturday, and Muschamp admitted that must be shored up before the “stakes get a little higher.”