NASHVILLE — Promise kept. Potential remains.
The subject of a letdown following last week's emotional win over Georgia continued to creep up during the week leading up to Saturday's Vanderbilt game.
But Florida junior quarterback Tim Tebow and the rest of the No. 4 Gators promised there would be no such thing. With so much at stake, they were focused completely on Vanderbilt and securing a goal they set at the beginning of the season: winning an SEC title.
And even with the knowledge that No. 3 Penn State had suffered a 24-23 loss to Iowa earlier in the day, the Gators didn't get distracted.
With a 35-point first half, and a road stadium overflowing with Gators fans, Florida defeated Vanderbilt 42-14 in front of 39,773 at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday night.
The victory earned Florida an SEC East division title and kept the potential open for playing in the BCS national championship game.
"I'm very pleased with their attention to detail and the fact that we're representing the eastern side of the Southeastern Conference as a champion," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "That's a great accomplishment for our players."
Florida (8-1, 6-1) will play Alabama (10-0, 6-0) for the SEC championship on Dec. 6 in Atlanta.
It is the second SEC East championship for the Gators in the past three years, and their ninth appearance in the title game in Atlanta. The Gators are 6-2 in SEC championship games. Both losses — in 1992 and 1999 — were to Alabama.
"We were just trying to get to Atlanta," said quarterback Tim Tebow, who was 12-of-17 for 171 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed 11 times for 88 yards. He did not play in the fourth quarter. "It's exciting, it's exciting. You already know you're going, so now there's even much more of a focus on playing each game one game at a time."
Florida wasted no time taking control of the game. The Gators scored 21 first-quarter points and have now outscored opponents 80-0 in the first quarter in the past five games. Florida scored more points (28) in the first 18 minutes than the Commodores had allowed in any game this season.
"I was very impressed with the way we jumped out early," Meyer said. "It was a product of very good defense and very good special teams. If we play like that, and the offensive line blocks, that's a very good team out there."
Of Florida's 35 first-half points, 21 were a direct result of the defense and special teams.
Sophomore Carlos Dunlap blocked two punts in the first half, and both led to touchdowns, a 12-yard pass from Tebow to senior receiver Louis Murphy and an 11-yard pass to junior Riley Cooper.
It was Cooper's first touchdown reception of the season. The Gators now have five blocked punts this season.
Then with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter, safety Ahmad Black's interception led to an 8-yard touchdown run by Tebow, who accounted for all five touchdowns in the first half, including a career-long 26-yard touchdown run with 4:50 remaining in the first quarter. On that four-play drive, Tebow was responsible for 34 of the Gators' 58 yards.
While Florida's offense was generating points, giving it 243 in the past five games, its defense continued to dominate. Vanderbilt was held scoreless until Chris Nickerson's 2-yard pass to Jamie Graham with 1:04 remaining in the third quarter. Vandy (5-4, 3-3) also scored with 5:07 remaining in the game.
UF junior receiver Percy Harvin had nine carries for 60 yards and one touchdown, and also had three receptions for 32 yards.
"I'm awful proud of them," Meyer said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]