GAINESVILLE — For months, beginning with spring practices, you could ask any Florida player what the goal was for this year's defending national champions, and the answer, inevitably, would be the same:
"We want to get to Atlanta."
The prevailing feeling was if the Gators could make it to the SEC title game and win, a trip to the BCS title game would be secured.
With four regular-season games left, No. 1 Florida has clinched the SEC East title and the trip to Atlanta. Now a season filled with twists and turns adds another challenge for Florida: making sure it doesn't get complacent on the way to the league title game.
"There could be some danger in that," junior defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. "But I feel that our team is mature enough to know that we still have some business to take care of.
"Just because we've clinched the East doesn't mean we've reached where we want to be. One loss could take us off track of … being in the bowl game that we want to be after (the SEC title game)."
The focus was evident Sunday after the win against Georgia, when the subject was purposely avoided.
"The word 'Atlanta' didn't even come up in the team meeting," defensive line coach Dan McCarney said. "We're not even talking about it. We had some hard lessons a year ago. We've had some hard lessons this year. You learn from them. You see what happens around college football, and you see what happens in the SEC.
"And the bottom line is, I think our kids have a deep respect for all of our opponents in this conference. It is the best conference in college football. If you're not ready, you'll get beat. If you're ready, this team has a real good chance to win each week."
On paper, the road to Atlanta appears fairly uncomplicated. The Gators' final four opponents are a combined 14-20. Florida hosts Vanderbilt (2-7) tonight, travels to South Carolina (6-3) and closes with home games against Florida International (2-6) and Florida State (4-4).
But Florida's season has been as much about navigating off-field drama as it has been red-zone scoring.
You name it, it has been an issue: constant national scrutiny; multiple planes to transport sick players to Kentucky; quarterback Tim Tebow's concussion Sept. 26 at Kentucky and subsequent debate over when he would return; a lackluster offense adjusting to a new coordinator; the team facing its former offensive coordinator at Mississippi State; senior linebacker Brandon Spikes' team-issued one-game suspension this week for unsportsmanlike conduct against Georgia.
Nothing has come easily, which is why the players insist there's no chance they'll become complacent now when they've already overcome so much, and so much remains at stake.
"We're 8-0, and we're excited about that," Tebow said. "We have an opportunity to be 9-0 and keep getting better. That's what keeps you motivated.
"If you can't be motivated and focused when you are 8-0 and have a chance to be 9-0 and everything you want is right there in front of you, when everything you want is a possibility … I would be shocked if anybody on our team wasn't motivated or focused on our next four games. If they weren't, I would be very disappointed."
Then there's that other goal. The one they backed away from earlier this season but now seemingly are embracing.
"We're trying to work on a good season this year and stay undefeated, so we've got to win," junior offensive lineman Mike Pouncey said. "(Atlanta) was one of our goals in the offseason, and an undefeated season was, too.
"Now that Vanderbilt is in our way this weekend, we've got to go out and play our best ball. Last year around this time, we hit our stride, and we started playing our best ball. And that's what we hope to do this year."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389. Follow her blog at blogs. tampabay.com/gators.