GAINESVILLE — Steve Spurrier had come ever so close once before to winning at Florida Field — the place he nicknamed The Swamp and where he won six SEC championships — since his departure as Florida coach in 2001.
In 2006, South Carolina's potential winning field goal with eight seconds left was blocked.
Not this time.
Saturday night, he returned in front of 90,855 fans in the house he built and against the program for which he won a Heisman Trophy and has his name sitting in the Ring of Honor.
Spurrier brought his Gamecocks into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, earned a 36-14 victory and walked out with Florida's pride and dignity in his back pocket and South Carolina's first SEC East title.
South Carolina (7-3, 5-3 SEC) will play Auburn (11-0, 7-0), which clinched the West by beating Georgia earlier Saturday, in the title game Dec. 4 in Atlanta. Spurrier will make his eighth trip to the title game.
The Gamecocks' only previous conference title came in 1969 while in the ACC.
"We haven't had many championships," Spurrier said. "We had to coach them up a little bit. But we never talked about it until the game was over."
Florida (6-4, 4-4) was trying to earn its fourth SEC East title under coach Urban Meyer but instead must find a way to regroup and attempt to salvage a season that has gone terribly wrong.
"Yeah, that's our goal to get to Atlanta," Meyer said when asked if the loss makes the season a failure. "Obviously, that's not going to happen."
Since the SEC began division play in 1992, this is the first time Florida has finished 4-4 in the conference. It's the first time Florida has lost three home games in a row in one season since 1986.
"That was a pretty good team we played out there," Meyer said. "We're just not a great team right now. We're just not very good. Execution-wise, we're not where we need to be."
With the exception of the opening play of the game, nothing went right for the Gators.
Freshman Andre Debose returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to give the Gators a 7-0 lead 14 seconds in.
But that was all the firepower the Gators could muster. South Carolina responded with 29 unanswered points.
Trailing 22-7 in the final minute of the third quarter, Florida junior John Brantley's pass was tipped and intercepted by cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Gamecocks capitalized with an 8-yard touchdown run by quarterback Stephen Garcia, the former standout at Tampa's Jefferson High, with 13:35 remaining to give South Carolina a 29-7 lead.
It effectively ended Florida's chances for a comeback and sealed South Carolina's win.
The Gators scored once more — a 26-yard pass from Jordan Reed to Chris Rainey with 7:12 remaining in the game.
Garcia was 15-of-22 for 156 yards and rushed 12 times for 28 yards, and South Carolina had 395 yards of offense.
But the night belonged to freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who rushed a school-record 40 times for 212 yards. He also had three touchdowns.
"We didn't play good," Florida senior safety Ahmad Black said. "We didn't play Gator defense like we're supposed to. We were a game away from getting to our goal."
The Gators, whose revamped offense was impressive against Georgia and Vanderbilt, reverted to the inept operation it had been during the first six weeks of the season.
The three-quarterback system of Brantley, Reed and Trey Burton failed, with none gaining continuity or momentum. The no-huddle offense looked out of synch. South Carolina blitzed all night, disrupting the offense, and the Gators had no running game.
Florida rushed 20 times for 35 yards (32 from Rainey) and had 226 yards of offense.
"There's really no explanation right now," said Brantley, who was 16-of-31 for 130 yards and one interception. "We couldn't get things going. Obviously, our offense works because it worked the last two weeks. But it's tough when you're one-dimensional. And South Carolina played a great game."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at .tampabay.com/blogs/gators.