Florida hoping to avoid another ‘Cocktail Party’ hangover
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s chances of winning the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division are slim.
The 10th-ranked Gators need to win their final two conference games and have No. 6 Georgia lose twice in the next three weeks to get to Atlanta for the first time in three years. The Bulldogs host Missouri on Saturday and then play at No. 12 Auburn before finishing league play back home against Texas A&M.
No one in Gainesville is counting on that scenario playing out, so Florida has altered its goals down the stretch.
After weeks of talk about possibly getting back to the SEC title game and being in the mix for the College Football Playoff, the Gators (7-2, 4-2 SEC) are now focused on winning 10 games in consecutive years for the first time in a decade and making another New Year’s Six bowl.
It’s a realistic outlook if Florida can avoid another “Cocktail Party” hangover.
The push begins Saturday against Vanderbilt (2-6, 1-4), which has lost five straight and 27 of the last 28 in the series.
“It’s hard to win double digits in college football,” defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “We think we’re capable of doing it. It would mean a lot to us — to leave our names.”
Florida hasn’t notched double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons since quarterback Tim Tebow’s final two years (2008-09). Coach Dan Mullen mentioned that to his team after last Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Georgia in Jacksonville, reminding players “there’s an awful lot to still play for, a lot of football still left.”
“For our guys, the focus has to be the competitive nature,” Mullen said this week. “If you’re a competitor, you can’t wait to get back out there and get back to work. You can’t wait to go find a way to win the game this Saturday and hit the field again.
“If you’re competitor, that drives you, that anticipation to make sure that you correct what happened in the last game.”
The Gators did little right against the Bulldogs. They finished with 278 yards on 52 plays — both season-lows — and failed to force a turnover, get consistent pressure on Jake Fromm or get off the field on third down. Georgia converted 12 of 18 third downs.
The result was a third straight loss in Jacksonville and sixth in the last nine years.
“The biggest thing for the leaders on the team is just to make sure everybody’s heads are still up, everybody is still focused on the big games we still have in front of us,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “A lot of guys are just ready to get back out there and take the bad taste out of our mouths.”
The Gators haven’t handled losing to Georgia very well in recent years. They followed the last three losses in the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” with setbacks the following week and didn’t play well in two more games.
They were drubbed by Missouri the last two years, getting outscored by a combined 50 points. They lost 34-17 to Vanderbilt in 2013 on homecoming.
They also staved off upsets in 2011 and 2012. Florida had to recover an onside kick to hold off Vanderbilt in 2011 and needed two interceptions in the final 5 minutes, including one in the end zone in the final seconds, to edge Missouri 14-7 the next year.
“If you dwell on a game for too long, it’s going to affect the next game,” safety Donovan Stiner said. “And we can’t let that happen.”
Especially not if the Gators are going to win out and accomplish their newly revised goals.
“It’s a great check of where our character’s going to be over these next three games and what type of team (we have), how we’re going to finish this up,” Mullen said.