GAINESVILLE — In a college career that has produced some storybook moments, Florida's seniors were hoping for a fairy-tale ending.
They've gotten a Stephen King novel instead.
Florida has lost three consecutive games at home for the first time since 1986. Saturday's 36-14 loss to South Carolina was the worst home loss in eight years and knocked the Gators out of contention for the SEC title game.
In reality, there's little left to play for. Unless you're one of the Gators' 23 seniors.
For a group that has been a part of two SEC and two national championship teams, this week there is a sense of sadness, great disappointment — and a desire to not let its final days be defined by this one, ugly season.
"It's tough for me because I feel like I gave it my all for this program," senior center Mike Pouncey said. "And it just (stinks) to end it on a note like this. But I want to finish the season out strong with a couple more wins. … I bleed Orange and Blue. I'll never give up on this program."
To salvage the season, the Gators need to avoid an upset at the hands of Division I-AA Appalachian State on Saturday at home then win at Florida State in the regular-season finale.
The way Florida has played this season, it's difficult to know which team will show up, and no win is guaranteed. Which makes these next two weeks even more critical for the seniors who have the potential to finish with the worst record in coach Urban Meyer's six-year tenure.
"It's crazy," senior offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert said. "Everything happens for a reason. We couldn't get the job done throughout this year, and our goals weren't met. But I think we have to just finish, push this through and try to make the best of it."
In reality, the fact that this class has 23 seniors says a lot. There are fifth-year journeymen who have battled injuries and other setbacks and fourth-year players finally getting their shot at significant playing time. With a few exceptions, there are no big names like previous years. Yet, Meyer said, their contributions shouldn't go unnoticed.
"Eight players in this group played for two national championships. Eight were part of two SEC championships and three SEC Eastern Division championships," Meyer said. "Three were part of three BCS bowl game wins. Their overall record is 41-10, 24-8 in the SEC, 22-5 at home and 11-1 against the rivals (FSU, Tennessee and Georgia). There are six academic All-SEC selections, and they can finish as one of the winningest classes in SEC history and … one of the top three in Florida football history.
"We are awful proud of these guys. I love these guys. Their leadership, obviously this season, has been full of speed bumps and adversity. And I would let you know if I didn't believe we have a good senior class. This is a great group of guys."
The seniors have spent the week making one last effort to rally the younger players to finish the season strong but insist no matter what, Saturday's game will still have special meaning.
"I guarantee you that everybody who is a senior is going to play their heart out no matter what," senior linebacker Brandon Hicks said.
There have been better days. Nobody knows that better than they. Saturday, one last time on Florida Field, they hope to relive the days when they were nearly unbeatable one last time.
"I regret nothing about this whole ride, and I enjoyed everything about it," senior safety Ahmad Black said. "I've met some great people, met some great players. I'm just enjoying it. I'm just living in the moment. … I know that everything is coming to an end. So hopefully, we can pull out these last few games."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.