Gators welcome winner-take-all game for SEC East

When Florida lost three consecutive games last month, players

feared the worst.

They thought their shot at winning the Southeastern Conference’s

Eastern Division was over. They figured their goal of getting to

Atlanta for the league title game was lost. They even wondered what

it would be like to play relatively meaningless games down the

stretch.

The Gators were down and definitely feeling out.

Then came the turnaround. Florida overhauled its offense during

the bye week and responded with an overtime win against rival

Georgia and a lopsided victory at Vanderbilt. Now, the 24th-ranked

Gators have a winner-take-all game against No. 22 South Carolina on

Saturday night to decide the division race.

”We always want to be fighting for a spot in the SEC

championship in November, and that’s what we’re doing,” Florida

quarterback John Brantley said. ”We put ourselves in that

situation. Maybe not in the way we wanted to, but we stuck together

and we’re fighting for our spot.”

The Gators (6-3, 4-3 SEC) dropped games against Alabama, LSU and

Mississippi State to open October, a three-game losing streak that

knocked Florida out of the polls for the first time in coach Urban

Meyer’s tenure and had many wondering what happened to a program

that had won two of the last four national titles.

Meyer turned to his staff for answers, and the assistant coaches

came up with a no-huddle offense featuring three quarterbacks. Not

two, but three.

With John Brantley, Trey Burton and Jordan Reed alternating

snaps, the Gators delivered two of their top three offensive

performances of the season. They managed 450 yards and four

touchdowns against the Bulldogs, then racked up 480 yards and eight

TDs against the Commodores.

”This has been a really, really hard year, been a challenging

year,” Meyer said. ”Hard in the respect that you’ve got to work

(for it). We’ve had times where, ‘Hey, flip it to that guy and

watch him make three people miss and take it to the house.’ We’re

not there right now. We certainly weren’t when we were without some

of our playmakers.

”It’s been a challenging year. You’ve got to make sure you come

out the other end of it, which we haven’t done yet.”

The Gators could come out fairly unscathed with a victory

against the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2), whose kept Florida in the hunt

for the East with losses to Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas.

”It was a tough season,” center Mike Pouncey said. ”We

stumbled around a lot. I feel like we’re back on track. It means a

lot. Our whole goal in the offseason is to get to Atlanta. If you

would have told me we would have lost three games and still had a

chance to win this last game and go to the SEC championship, I

wouldn’t take it back for nothing in the world.”

The Gators have won 18 of the last 19 games against South

Carolina and are 12-0 against the Gamecocks in Gainesville. But

none of those meetings have had this much at stake. In fact, it’s

the first SEC East game with winner-take-all implications in

Gainesville since Tennessee and Florida played in December

2001.

Meyer already dubbed it ”championship week.”

And he expects a championship crowd.

”I’d like to make this one go down in the books,” Meyer said.

”Obviously, the football team’s got to do their part, which is the

most important one, but I’d like to see this stadium out of

control. … Unless people got something else to do, I would like

to see a couple hundred thousand people here packed outside,

inside, wherever it is, and have a lot of fun with this one.”

Although the Gators didn’t anticipate this kind of game a month

ago, they’re welcoming it now.

”Everything’s falling into place for us,” safety Ahmad Black

said. ”It’s very exciting. It’s a big game. This is what we live

for around here, this is what we’re used to.”