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Florida Gators a lock for a College Football Playoff spot? Not just yet

Fennelly: One big test is out of the way, but there’s still a few more to pass before the Gators are truly back to SEC and national supremacy.

GAINESVILLE — Are we there yet?

No.

Florida isn’t there yet.

But Dan Mullen and his team must have felt awful close early Saturday evening at the Swamp as the 10th-ranked Gators beat No. 7 Auburn 24-13 in a grueling game of twists and turns before a couldn’t-sit-down crowd of 90,584.

Speaking of twisting and turning, that might be the lasting image: Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix, whose father, Patrick, helped beat Steve Spurrier and No. 1 Florida here 25 years ago, going every which way on third and long to try and save a last-gasp Auburn drive as Florida’s defense closed in on him, as it did all day to win this game.

As a matter of fact, Nix twisted and turned himself into the Gainesville sod for a 22-yard loss. If you are all for the Gators, feel free to stand up and holler this morning. They have made it through the first test in a three-game gauntlet that will decide if they are of College Football Playoff stock.

Are we there yet?

Related: RELATED: Florida Gators beat Auburn Tigers 24-13 to stay undefeated

No, not yet. Florida could be back to kicking itself as early as next Saturday night, after a game in the bayou against Joe Burrow and No. 5 LSU, or maybe after No. 3 Georgia in Jacksonville in early November. The story is still to be written.

That is for then.

“It’s a big win tonight,” Mullen said. “It won’t mean much by tomorrow morning.”

Florida wide receiver Josh Hammond (10) celebrates with running back Lamical Perine (2) after catching a touchdown pass against Auburn during the first half. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Saturday started with a bang. On Florida’s second offensive snap, quarterback Kyle Trask connected with receiver Freddie Swain, who split the Auburn secondary for a 64-yard touchdown.

Saturday ended with a bang, with Florida running back Lamical Perine breaking off a tackle and bolting down the right sideline for an 88-yard touchdowns to ice the game against a program that didn’t offer him a scholarship. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn didn’t think Perine, from Mobile, Ala., was fast enough. It went through Perine’s mind after he scored.

“I almost had tears in my eyes,” Perine said.

In between, there was toughness as Florida extended its win streak to 10 games dating to last season.

There was Trask, a redshirt junior who has waited so long for this chance, going down when his knee was bent the wrong way but coming back just as the Nation was beginning to see the season pass before its eyes in a Feleipe Franks sort of way.

“I felt something pop,” Trask said.

Related: RELATED: Matt Baker’s takeaways from Florida vs. Auburn

But he popped back in and finished with 19 completions for 234 yards and two touchdown passes.

And there was the defense rallying around several crises, including the offense’s mistakes. It made big plays at big times.

Auburn had 13 points at halftime. Auburn had 13 points at the end of the game.

The defense stepped up all second half, including Donovan Stiner picking off a pass in the end zone to kill a drive, one of three Gators picks. Then that swarm forced Nix into confusion, exhaustion and submission at the end.

Florida coach Dan Mullen prepares to take the field with his players during the first half. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The Gators even overcame some Mullen lunacy, when he tried a fake punt in the second quarter that was stuffed and led to Auburn’s only touchdown.

This was a game of survival. Florida survived. It never let go of the rope.

Who knows what that will mean in Baton Rouge, another top-10 matchup, or after Georgia, but it meant a lot on Saturday at least.

HBO was here just last week, tracking Mullen and his team before the Towson win. The past was never far from view. Even the Old Ball Coach, Spurrier, popped into a staff meeting and pitched an idea he had for a play.

Related: RELATED: ESPN’s College GameDay headed to Florida vs. LSU

The past is never far from the present in Gainesville, though it can be tiring at times. Mullen and his Gators are trying to get back in the conversation that Spurrier burst into 30 years ago and Urban Meyer doubled down on.

“We showed we’re a big-time team,” Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson said.

That was true enough Saturday. But there is always next Saturday. When Florida beat LSU here last season, we thought that turned the trick. Only it didn’t. It’s a long way back to Florida being Florida. You can hit all the splashy plays you want, all the boom-and-zoom moments.

“You still have to earn it,” Trask said.

They did that Saturday. Now comes next Saturday.

Are we there yet?

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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