GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Fresh off another thorough takedown of rival Georgia on Saturday, some of the Florida players naturally tuned in to see the end of another rival’s misfortunes that evening.
With Tennessee stumbling to a 24-21 upset loss at South Carolina, the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) now have a two-game lead on the Vols (5-3, 2-3) in the SEC East standings.
That essentially means they could absorb one loss and still finish ahead of their top challenger. If the teams were to tie, Tennessee would own the tiebreaker from its head-to-head win in September.
A surprising surge actually has Kentucky (5-3, 4-2) second in the eastern division at this point, though Florida owns the tiebreaker if needed if the Wildcats manage to sustain their surprising run.
Either way, the Tennessee loss was certainly big for the Gators.
“It’s awesome to be able to see South Carolina take care of them,” center Cam Dillard said Monday. “You know, it’s always good to see Tennessee lose. No one likes Tennessee.”
Added defensive end Bryan Cox Jr.: “I watched most of the game. Obviously whenever Tennessee loses it’s nice. But it definitely helped us, but we’re focusing on what we have to do. All we have to do is take it week by week and do our thing, and we’ll be in a good position.”
That was more or less the message — or the challenge — coach Jim McElwain wanted to deliver to his team as well.
When Florida stumbled in the second half at Tennessee on Sept. 24, squandering a 21-point lead at one point on the way to a 38-28 loss, the prevailing thought was that the Gators would have to win out and hope for some help to have a chance to repeat as SEC East champs.
Well, they’ve done their part so far — including that 24-10 win over Georgia on Saturday in Jacksonville — while the Vols have dropped three straight games at Texas A&M, home to Alabama and at South Carolina.
The first two of those weren’t that surprising, but the loss to the Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4) was a stunner.
Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio said it doesn’t change anything for his team, though — at least in terms of mindset.
“I didn’t watch it. I saw the highlights. But, you know, it’s an SEC team, an SEC game. We’re kind of focused on ourselves,” Del Rio said. “We knew it was — you know, we have to win out. It’s not like, ‘OK, now we have breathing room.’ You know? We don’t really care. We’re not going to go into a game and be like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t really matter if we lose.’ It never enters our mind. Ever. I don’t really think you’re a championship-type team if you think that way.”
Florida does still has some challenges on tap with a trip to Arkansas this week, a home game with South Carolina and its conference finale at LSU left to play.
McElwain was asked if that was something he would have to address with the players.
“That’s a human nature question,” he said. “I think it’s not just the way the Florida Gators are and where we’re at, but more so anytime you become comfortable and/or you start to look ahead and not take care of the now that’s when you get in trouble. That’s why I think this is a great opportunity to define kind of what we’re all about. …
“I just like where this team’s at, and yet, here’s this next step that we need to take to kind of solidify where our program is a little bit and we’ll find out.”