SEC East hopes over, Florida Gators still have much to play for

A 10-win season and a New Year's Six bowl game are still in play for the Florida Gators
BRONTE WITTPENN   |   TimesFlorida Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (23) celebrates with Florida Gators linebacker David Reese II (33) after a tackle in the second quarter at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville on Saturday, October 27, 2018.
BRONTE WITTPENN | TimesFlorida Gators defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (23) celebrates with Florida Gators linebacker David Reese II (33) after a tackle in the second quarter at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville on Saturday, October 27, 2018.
Published November 2 2018

GAINESVILLE — Sometime on last week's quiet bus ride home from Jacksonville, No. 13 Florida began to recalibrate its season.

Any College Football Playoff hopes were done. So were the Gators' chances of winning the SEC. Even an East title was out of the question after a 19-point loss to Georgia.

So now what? What's left to play for when the Gators take the field Saturday for homecoming against Missouri?

"The way we handle this loss is going to determine the rest of the season," nose tackle Kyree Campbell said.

If the Gators handle this devastating defeat the same way they handled the first one, they'll be fine.

After Kentucky physically dominated UF at home in Week 2, the Gators looked like they might not even make a bowl. But they blew out Colorado State by 38 the next week, torched rival Tennessee the week after that and then beat top-25 teams Mississippi State and LSU. One of the biggest transformations was how UF became tougher and physical enough to win the slugfest in Starkville and knock off the Tigers.

Those performances were enough to help UF rise into the top 10 and only fall to 13th in the latest AP poll after the Georgia loss.

"That's not bad," tight end Moral Stephens said. "Coming from last year, that's not bad at all."

It's not. UF and Syracuse are the only ranked teams that won fewer than six games last season.

But UF could be even better. The Gators have a realistic chance at finishing in the top 10 for the second time of the post-Tim Tebow era.

The Gators have more at stake than where they'll finish in the polls. UF has only won 10 or more games twice since Tebow; win out, and the Gators can accomplish that before bowl season.

UF has already reached bowl eligibility, but its destination hinges on the final month. The College Football Playoff selection committee put UF at No. 11 in its first set of rankings. That would send the Gators to a prestigious New Year's Six bowl game —probably the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl, and perhaps against UCF or former coach Urban Meyer's Buckeyes.

"Our goal is to get a New Year's Six bowl game, just to show that we are one of the best teams in the nation," Campbell said.

While players are obviously focused on maximizing every game they have left, the arc of the program depends on a strong final four games.

Coach Dan Mullen said UF's 6-2 start has sparked interest on the recruiting trail, but the Gators' class still ranks No. 23 nationally. That's not good enough to build a championship-level roster, and one of the easiest ways to fix it is to keep winning.

"I think there's a lot of interest in our program right now," Mullen said. "I think a lot of young players around the country and looking and saying, 'Hey, Florida is going to be back and competing for championships in the very, very near future.'"

The Gators have one other major thing to play for this weekend: Revenge.

UF's 45-16 loss at Missouri was the nadir of last year's 4-7 debacle. It was the most points the Gators had allowed in a regular-season game in 17 years, and it left defensive end Cece Jefferson in tears, convinced he wasn't ready to enter the NFL.

A year later, the loss still stings.

"We can't have teams beat us by 30 points," defensive lineman Khairi Clark said. "We're a way better team than that, and I just feel like we're a top contender."

A top contender? Not yet.

But the Gators have four more chances to get closer to that claim.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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