COLUMBIA, S.C. — There have been many other close victories this season, but most of those times, No. 1 Florida spent the first few minutes afterward dissecting all that went wrong. Sometimes, coach Urban Meyer was forced to remind his players they had won.
But in the locker room after the Gators' 24-14 victory over South Carolina on Saturday evening, the mood was much, much different.
Florida (10-0, 8-0 SEC) had just completed its first undefeated conference season since 1996, remained one of the nation's six undefeated teams and extended its school-record and nation's-best winning streak to 20 games.
So even though the win wasn't secured until after Justin Trattou's momentum-changing interception on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the Florida offense missed out on far too many scoring opportunities, the victory was no less sweet.
"This was the best locker room after a win that we've had, even though we didn't win by as much as we thought we could," said junior safety Joe Haden, who had an interception in the final minutes.
"Coach Meyer just told us, 'Just get 10-0, get 10-0.' And for some reason, it felt like after we won this game, everybody was just so happy. No matter what happened in the game, if you messed up, if you did good, everybody just felt like we'd won a championship."
"That's the most important thing out of everything that is going on, just winning, being 10-0," said Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who was 14-of-25 for 199 yards.
"Going through the SEC undefeated really means a lot because that's a really good conference, and we played a lot of really good teams. So to come away undefeated really means a lot."
In a season held together by its stellar defense, it was a defensive play that turned the game.
With South Carolina (6-5, 3-5) facing third and 2 on the Gators 22 — on a drive in which the Gamecocks had already converted on fourth and 2 — Trattou, a junior defensive tackle, intercepted quarterback Stephen Garcia's pass that deflected off a receiver. Trattou returned it 53 yards.
Four plays later, Tebow scored on a 1-yard run.
And suddenly, the Gators went from potentially being down 21-17 to a 24-14 lead.
"Our offense played well enough in the first half, but we didn't match with defensive intensity," Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "We knew we had to play better. And our guys did."
From that point on, the defense held South Carolina to minus-17 yards, blitzing from all sides and putting enormous pressure on Garcia (17-of-32 for 186 yards). Florida held South Carolina to 41 yards of total offense in the second half, (minus-5 rushing, 46 passing), and recorded five sacks and two interceptions.
On five of the six second-half possessions, South Carolina had a combined minus-8 yards. In all, the Gators sacked Garcia, the former Jefferson High standout, six times.
Meanwhile Florida's offensive struggles continued, particularly in the second half. The Gators were inside the 50 three times but couldn't score. And Florida amassed just 88 second-half yards.
Caleb Sturgis was also 1-of-4 on field goals.
"It's real frustrating, but it eases the pain when you win the game," Meyer said. "We didn't play perfect, but I'm not sure we've played perfect in quite awhile.
"But 8-0 in the conference, it's unbelievable. It takes my breath away."
For South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, the most difficult part was the what if?
"The pick that ricocheted was certainly the turning point of us being in the game or not," said Spurrier, whose team has lost four of its past five after starting 5-1, the third time in his five seasons at USC he has finished with a sub-.500 SEC mark — something that never happened during his run at Florida (1990-2001). "I would have liked to see what would have happened (in the game without Trattou's interception)."