GAINESVILLE, Fla. — One of Florida coach Jim McElwain’s talking points last week leading up to the Gators’ trip to Lexington, Ky., was to say that he felt Kentucky was in the driver’s seat in the SEC East.
His rationale: The Wildcats had won a road game already in the conference, and it takes stealing some on the road to ultimately finish at the top of the standings.
He was asked then if that meant that a Florida win at Kentucky would in turn put the Gators in the so-called driver’s seat.
“That was a nice try trying to catch it and twist it. That was pretty good,” McElwain said, making sure he didn’t trap himself into any proclamations he wasn’t yet ready to make.
Well, his Gators managed to escape Kentucky with a come-from-behind 28-27 win Saturday night to move to 2-0 in SEC play, earning a considerable boost to their hopes for a third straight SEC East title. But, no, it’s still not time for any proclamations.
Not as long as Georgia keeps rolling along as impressively as it is. Until further notice, the preseason favorites in the East remain the present favorites in the East.
The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) opened conference play over the weekend with a commanding 31-3 win over a hot Mississippi State team.
It’s the kind of statement win Florida still lacks, having narrowly edged a seemingly free-falling Tennessee team at home on a last-second touchdown before needing 14 unanswered points to slip past Kentucky.
“It’s a good East win. Those kind of count like two because the SEC win and the East. Saw Georgia beat Mississippi State pretty bad, so the East is better than people think,” Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio said Saturday night.
No, probably not, and that’s a good thing for Florida.
The Gators might be the only true challenger to Georgia at this point, setting up a potential SEC East championship showdown when they meet Oct. 28 in Jacksonville.
Maybe that’s premature, but here’s how the next three weeks set up for both teams.
Georgia plays at Tennessee and Vanderbilt and then hosts Missouri. The Vols, who barely beat UMass last week, look to be careening toward the end of a cliff, while Vanderbilt whiffed big-time in its opportunity to show it was ready to be a legitimate obstacle in the SEC, getting obliterated 59-0 at home against Alabama over the weekend. And Missouri (1-3) is clearly the worst team in the conference.
So the Bulldogs should cruise into Jacksonville as the team to beat in the East.
That leaves it to the Gators to do their part. Florida has three straight home games ahead, but here’s where it gets tricky.
After hosting Vanderbilt this week, the Gators take on LSU and Texas A&M. Both have looked vulnerable, but the two SEC West foes still represent the toughest challenges outside of Georgia on Florida’s remaining conference slate.
Given everything that transpired last season, given how that game in Baton Rouge, La., ended, Florida’s showdown with LSU has been circled on the calendar since the preseason. Beating the Tigers last year helped legitimize the Gators, and if they get past Vanderbilt this week, then the same opportunity will be waiting again.
Texas A&M, meanwhile, has looked very flawed to this point, but the Aggies at least score points. At least 44 in three of their four games so far. Florida isn’t yet equipped to get in a shootout with anybody, so that looks to be another dicey matchup.
If the Gators can get through these next three weeks with only one loss, though, they will have a shot to seize control of the East against a Georgia team they’ve beaten three straight years now.
That’s a lot of if’s and projecting, but for the Gators to be in that “driver’s seat,” that’s what has to happen.
For the East race to hold any intrigue, that’s probably what has to happen as well. Because it’s hard to see Vanderbilt, a decent Kentucky team already down a potential tiebreaker against Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina without injured star receiver Deebo Samuel, or Missouri making a run at this point.
So far the Gators have simply taken care of business — nothing flashy, with plenty of concerns remaining — but if they can continue to do that, they’ll at least get their shot at taking control of the race a month from now.
“I actually wouldn’t necessarily say we’re in the driver’s seat (because) Mac does a good job of not letting us get big headed,” Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “We have a target on our backs, we’re the Florida Gators. Everybody wants to beat the Florida Gators. We just play every game like it’s our last.”
As they should, because even at 2-0 their path to the top of the East remains ever tenuous.