Saturday, November 18, 2017
Colleges

Shelton: Florida Gators take big step with win against LSU Tigers

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GAINESVILLE

This is the way it used to sound, back when the sun revolved about the Florida Gators.

Just like in the old days, the stadium was loud and raw, and the noise fell across another opponent whose flaws had been exposed. The fans danced and screamed, and even when the game was over, they did not stop. There was cheering and chomping, and every now and again someone would whoop for no apparent reason.

It looked like a big game, and it sounded like a big game, and it felt like a big game.

And once again, the Gators matter.

When the 10th-ranked Gators stuffed No. 4 LSU on Saturday 14-6, it sent a message across the SEC, and yeah, perhaps even the nation. Once again Florida is an essential team. No, it is not yet back, at least not back to the excellence it had in winning three national championships. But it seems to be on the way.

The Gators are stronger than they have been. They are fresher. If you look closely, their swagger is getting better.

For the Gators, this was their biggest win in some time, perhaps as far back as the national championship victory over Oklahoma at the end of the 2008 season. After all, LSU had won 18 consecutive regular-season games, had reached last year's BCS title game and had entered this game ranked third in the coaches poll and fourth in the media's. True, LSU had scuffled around in two straight games, but it was still far ahead of the Gators in the SEC pecking order.

In the end, none of that mattered. Florida simply wore down the Tigers, controlling the second half the way it had against Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Gators coach Will Muschamp had taunted for a year with suggestions they were soft a year ago looked fresh throughout.

As he came off the field, you could see the big victory in Muschamp's face. His hair was slicked with sweat, and his face was glowing, and he seemed to be intent on high-fiving every player in the tunnel. It was only later that Muschamp threw up a bit of caution.

"It's a good win," Muschamp said, "but it's only one win. It doesn't count for 1 ½, and it doesn't count for two. The thing our guys need to realize is the more you climb the mountain, the more dangerous it gets."

That sounds good, of course, but to be honest, this was more than one win, at least more than the wins Florida gathered a year ago when it beat FAU and UAB and Tennessee and Kentucky and Vandy and Furman. The Gators hadn't beaten a ranked opponent in either of the last two years.

"It was louder than it has been in a long time," said Florida offensive lineman James Wilson. "Maybe since Tebow's last game. Are we back? We'll see. But we're closer to being back than we have been in a while."

To be honest, no one was asking if Florida was back in the first half. They were asking why quarterback Jeff Driskel was spending so much time on his back. The Gators spent a half looking as if the end zone was 4 miles away and they were never going to get there. Driskel was sacked five times, and the Gators gained only 47 yards on 16 snaps.

This is the college of Tim Tebow, remember? And Emmitt Smith and Danny Wuerffel and Wes Chandler and Steve Spurrier and Cris Collinsworth and Kerwin Bell and Percy Harvin and all the rest, and it couldn't move the ball an inch. Granted, LSU is a very talented defensive team, but you might have thought the Gators would get closer than a long-distance phone call.

If nothing else, however, say this much for the Gators: They are a better second-half team than a first, which speaks well to the coaching staff and its adjustments, and for the conditioning staff and its demands. Last year SEC opponents outscored Florida 72-22 in the fourth quarter. This year Florida has outscored its four SEC opponents 65-6 in the second half.

A win like this is sure to jump Florida into the top seven, eight teams in the country in this week's polls. Are the Gators that good? Maybe not. Until Florida has its back-to-back games against South Carolina and Georgia, we may not know how good the Gators are.

Judging from the celebration, and from the blank faces of the LSU faithful as they left the stadium, they are closer to being a quality team than they have been in some time.

"I think we're on our way," said center Jon Harrison.

For a day, at least, it looked like it. Sounded like it, too.

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