|Florida's Dominique Easley celebrates with the Gator faithful after whipping the Noles. (US Presswire)|
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- After shedding last year's "soft" label and defeating four national top-12 teams, the Gators positioned themselves for a BCS title run.
"At the end of the day you want to be in the conversation," said Florida coach Will Muschamp shortly after the Gators' 37-26 win at Florida State. "We're in the conversation.”
That conversation was over by the time the Gators got back to Gainesville late Saturday night. Surely the Gators were following Notre Dame's 22-13 win over USC to lock up a national title shot. Every glance at the score update in a player's cell phone must have been painful.
An undefeated team and an SEC champion will play in the championship game. Florida is neither, even if it could make a "strength of schedule" case to be involved. In two years, an 11-1 season with wins over LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida State would make a four-team playoff.
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For now, the Gators must remember that curious six-turnover night in Jacksonville 28 days ago. Like Oregon, they'll will be haunted by one off game.
Florida has atoned for the 17-9 loss against the Bulldogs. The performance in Tallahassee on Saturday embodied everything Florida's about -- the power I on offense and powerful shoulders on defense.
The Seminoles had all the momentum early in the fourth until defensive end Lerentee McCray snatched Manuel's ankles while linebacker Antonio Morrison bulleted into Manuel's upper body, leaving the Seminoles quarterback shaken up and possibly concussed.
Defensive tackle Dominique Easley recovered Manuel's fumble on the play, and running back Mike Gillislee countered with an up-the-middle touchdown dash for 37 yards on the next play to make the score 23-16.
The defense is opportunistic, while the offense does just enough.
FSU entered the game as the nation's best total defense at 236.3 yards allowed per game. The Gators eclipsed that total on the ground (244 yards) while holding the ball for more than 36 minutes. Gillislee, UF's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2003, plowed through the Seminoles' front for 140 yards behind an offensive line that's finally healthy.
But apparently these Gators had to be good enough for 12 weeks. And if it was going to lose, SEC East rival Georgia was the wrong opponent.
"Our resume speaks for itself," Muschamp said. "You guys have covered the Southeast. You've covered the SEC. You've seen where we've played, who we've played and the quality of football teams we've beaten. We'll play anyone, anywhere."
That will likely be the Sugar Bowl. And if Georgia loses to Alabama in the SEC title game, Florida could consider the Jacksonville game an aberration and claim higher positioning than the Bulldogs in the final BCS standings.
But it won't get the chance to match the glory of the 2006 and 2008 Gators title teams. Both had one loss and both got late-season help.
Feeling like they belong among the country's best, the Gators must rely on pride now.
"We know how to finish," Gillislee said. "We play all four quarters."