With East secured, Gators are ready for more

Dec 6, 2020 | 0 comments

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At Florida, the first goal every year is to win the SEC East. Without doing so, the rest of their goals – winning the SEC, making the College Football Playoff and winning a national championship – are unattainable.

Despite winning 10 games and New Year’s Six bowls in each of Dan Mullen’s first two seasons as head coach, the Gators fell short of that goal.

On Saturday afternoon, the No. 6 Gators officially got over the hump with their 31-19 defeat of Tennessee (2-6). The win secured the program’s first division title since 2016 and their 13th berth in the SEC Championship Game. They’ll face No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta on Dec. 19. Though the Gators (8-1) still have one regular-season game left against LSU and plenty of things to clean up, they made sure to celebrate the accomplishment on Saturday night.

“This is where we want to be,” Mullen said. “We want to be playing in Atlanta in early December. This year [it] happens to be mid-to-late December. That’s the goal, and that’s the Gator Standard. That’s what it’s about. I’m excited to get back. We’ve had two great trips there as an assistant coach, and it’s an awesome game, a special game, and it will be again this year. We’ll enjoy that tonight.”

Added receiver Trevon Grimes: “Knowing that we accomplished our goal at the beginning of the season, to win the SEC East, is very phenomenal. Knowing that we're getting on the flight home victorious is something that we only can dream about, and dreams come true, so now we just have to go out and win the SEC Championship.”

Winning a division title in the most competitive and talent-rich conference in the country is always something to be proud of, but this one felt extra special. None of the previous 12 UF teams that made the SEC Championship Game had to deal with COVID-19 testing, a three-week layoff in the middle of the season, a lack of spring practice or a 10-game conference schedule. This was an accomplishment that may never be matched. Mullen is proud of the way his team fought through all of the adversity and found a way to be the last team standing in the East.

“Overall, pretty pleased with how we played for the day,” Mullen said. “Some mistakes, things we've got to get cleaned up, but winning the SEC East championship in this year, the hardest year in the history of this league where you're going to play 10 conference games, regular-season conference games, to win our division is pretty special and shows a lot of what the team is at and what the coaches and the whole program is at.”

While the end result was exactly what they were looking for, the Tennessee game itself was anything but that. For the third week in a row, the Gators looked sluggish and made a plethora of mistakes on both sides of the ball. The defense gave up touchdown drives of 96, 94 and 96 yards and allowed the Volunteers to convert three of four fourth-down attempts to control time-of-possession.

“We got to keep doing what our coaches tell us to do,” safety Trey Dean said. “Go hard, fast, physical, run to the ball. When we make the big plays, we all run to the ball. When somebody messes up, it covers up for it. When we play with energy and effort, we end up playing real good.”

The right side of the offensive line was a disaster, paving the way for just 19 rushing yards and giving up a pair of sacks. The receivers had some drops, and quarterback Kyle Trask made a couple of poor reads and misfired on some throws. They committed eight penalties for 85 yards as a team.

“There were definitely times when we were out of rhythm,” Trask said. “Obviously, there were times when we were doing great while we were in rhythm. You could tell how methodically we were getting downfield, but I just think we got to continue to just work very hard cleaning up our game and just cleaning up the little things as we move forward.”

Trask overthrew tight end Kyle Pitts on a corner route in the end zone on their first possession of the game and forced them to settle for a field goal. An unnecessary offensive pass interference penalty by Xzavier Henderson wiped out a 46-yard touchdown on their second possession. Trask didn’t see Jacob Copeland running down the left seam for an easy score and took a sack on a third-down play midway through the second quarter. Evan McPherson then pushed a 53-yard field goal attempt wide right. Rather than kicking a field goal, UF failed on a fourth-down attempt in the third quarter. A false start and a negative rushing play forced them out of field goal range in the fourth quarter.

That’s at least 24 points that they left out on the field. Those 24 points will be their demise against Alabama if they don’t play a lot cleaner.

“We’ve got to be better running the ball,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to be more physical upfront. We’ve got to do a better job of running the football and establishing the run. I wish we could score at will. I don’t know if there’s a game this year we left more points on the field than we did tonight. Really disappointed that we left all those points on the field offensively. I’m looking at this: to score 31 points, that was disappointing for me with the opportunities that we had to go score a lot more points during this game.”

It wasn’t all bad by the offense, however. Not by a long shot. They rolled up 452 yards, averaged 6.8 yards per play, converted six of 13 third downs and scored four touchdowns in five trips to the red zone. Trask became the first player in UF history to record three games of 400 or more passing yards in a season. Kadarius Toney and Pitts both eclipsed 100 receiving yards, with Pitts breaking the school record for career 100-yard games for a tight end with his third. Grimes, who caught his seventh and eighth touchdowns of the season against the Volunteers, said the fact that this game felt disappointing shows just how far the offense has come.

“Coach Mullen has very high standards for this offense as well, so does every other player on this team,” he said. “So, when we have games where it’s not up to standards, of course anybody’s going to feel like we didn’t play up to our standard. But overall, it’s a very good thing because our standard is set so high for this offense that when we do have a game where Kyle throws four touchdowns, and I think he threw 400 yards, he’s kind of down because we just expect to play better. We had a game like we had today, we messed up a little bit, but we came out victorious, and that’s all we can ask for.”

The Gators have a lot of things they need to work on next week in practice, but they’ll do so with smiles on their faces and a new title next to their name: SEC East champions.

“I truly believe our destiny’s in our own hands,” Mullen said. “We’ve got the opportunity to go undefeated at home next week. We have the opportunity to be SEC Champions. You do that, I imagine, we’re going to have an opportunity of going on and playing even bigger games.”

One goal down, more to go.

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