Gators aiming to maintain their momentum
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They ran over to the stands behind their bench and celebrated with the fans that made the trip. Many of the fans took keepsake photos of the celebratory gathering late Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
The players high-fived one another, basking in a second consecutive SEC road win. Florida coach Will Muschamp raced over and joined the party, firing up fans even more with a series of emphatic Gator Chomps.
The scene was one of exhilaration and triumph. It also painted a picture of a team riding a wave of momentum.
The Gators' 37-20 victory at Tennessee capped a difficult two weeks that started with a 20-17 win at Texas A&M. Both times Florida trailed at halftime. Both times the Gators stormed back, a stifling defense did the dirty work in College Station and offensive fireworks sunk the Vols.
"I think as much as anything it brings the guys confidence that, regardless of the situation or circumstance, we can make this thing happen," Muschamp said.
The No. 14-ranked Gators return home Saturday to face Kentucky before a bye week. Then LSU comes to The Swamp on Oct. 6 in a game loaded with potential SEC ramifications.
Suddenly, the Gators are a hot story. That's what back-to-back road wins in the SEC can do for a program trying to reconnect with is past success.
But first they have the Wildcats to deal with.
"We can't have a letdown,'' said sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel, who made his first two career starts in the road wins.
No they can't, not if they want to parlay this new-found momentum into bigger and better things later in the season. And certainly not if they want to avoid making history of the dubious kind.
The last time Florida lost to Kentucky, Muschamp was in high school in Rome, Ga. Steve Spurrier had yet to become a college head coach. Boston topped the Billboard Top 100 with "Amanda" the week of Nov. 15 1986.
Florida's win streak over Kentucky is at 25-and-counting, the longest active streak among FBS conference opponents.
On paper, of course the Gators should keep the streak alive Saturday afternoon and improve to 4-0. But the Gators have downplayed any such talk.
"They have nothing to lose,'' Florida senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "That's the scary thing about this team. They are going to do anything it takes to get a win."
"None of those wins or losses have anything to do with 12:21 [p.m.] on Saturday,'' Muschamp said. "Zero."
The Gators have talked instead about staying focused and starting fast. They want to build on the momentum they carried off the field in Knoxville a week ago. While Florida has started the past two seasons 4-0, the Gators lost three in a row in 2010. They lost four in a row in Muschamp's first season a year ago.
But this year does seem different. The Gators have played better. They have closed games, outscoring opponents 50-13 in the second half. They are getting solid play from Driskel at quarterback and running back Mike Gillislee leads the SEC in rushing.
Maintaining their momentum has been emphasized all week.
"We just don't want that feeling again, that bad feeling we had last year," offensive lineman Jon Halapio said. "It's real important to keep that confidence up and just keep going, keep winning games. I feel like we've been through too much. We just have too much at stake for the amount of work we have put in for this season."
With two of their three wins on the road, the Gators also want to rebuild The Swamp's reputation as perhaps the nation's most hostile environment for opponents. Florida is 6-2 at home under Muschamp went 4-3 in Urban Meyer's final season in 2010.
The five home losses the past two years match the number of home losses the Gators suffered in 12 seasons under Spurrier from 1990-2001.
"We lost two games at home last year and that's not something we're accustomed to around here,'' Muschamp said. "Playing [well] at home in our league, especially at our place, is critical. You've got to have great success at home in order to win in your league and use home field as an advantage. The Gator Nation here in The Swamp is certainly a huge advantage for us."
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips doesn't have to be told about Florida's dominance of Kentucky. He has faced the Gators 22 times as part of Kentucky's program, 16 times as an assistant coach, four times as a player and the last two years as head coach. Phillips is winless.
In the last four meetings the Gators have outscored the Wildcats 200-36. Phillips stays away from any streak talk when discussing the game with his team.
"We have not mentioned it,'' Phillips said Wednesday. "We've had a couple of streaks we've broken since we have taken it over. We have not mentioned those. It's been our theory, 'Why bring those things up?' There's enough outside here."
Phillips is right. The Wildcats do have recent history to draw upon. In last year's regular-season finale, they snapped a 26-game losing streak against Tennessee with a 10-7 victory and with receiver Matt Roark at quarterback due to injuries.
So, anything can happen once the game starts. That is Phillips' message to the Wildcats. Muschamp has taken a similar tone with the Gators.
"There is no question our players approached the summer the right way and we've gotten the results we needed to this point,'' Muschamp said. "We have prepared well each week. There's a lot that goes into it. I'm certainly proud of what our players have done and certainly we have helped ourselves get a leg up on the competition to this point."
Now the mission is to maintain that leg up.