GAINESVILLE — More than a month ago, the Gators football team left Florida Field with a convincing 30-10 win against Arkansas, undefeated in SEC play and hoping big things were ahead.
What followed were losses at LSU and Missouri and to Georgia in Jacksonville. It's not a matter of a clutch play here or there making the difference. The Gators (4-4, 3-3 SEC) didn't perform well enough to win any of those games. At noon today, Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4) visits with little to play for except pride, getting to six wins for a bowl bid and ruining someone else's season.
“It's not what I expected, but it is what it is,'' Gators defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. “We've still got a lot of ball to play left. ... So we just think about the next game Saturday and just play ball.''
The Gators play at South Carolina next Saturday, host Georgia Southern the following week then close out the regular season by hosting Florida State. The Gamecocks and the Seminoles still have tons to play for.
“I think everybody is kind of relaxed now. Obviously, we can't got to the SEC championship,'' Cummings said. “We really don't have much to play for, as in championship-wise, but we still have to play for bowls and whatever or what not. So I think everybody is kind of locked in and focused on that.''
It is a situation Florida has gotten used to in the last several years. The last SEC title was 2008. So what's left? A bunch of injured starters are lost for the season so all they can do is heal. The Gators rank last in the SEC in total offense (334.6 yards a game).
“We're just trying to win, man. Obviously, this is not what we expected,'' linebacker Ronald Powell said. “This is not our standard here. We're just trying to get another 'W.'
“It is what it is. We are where we are. And, you got ... we're mad. We're not OK with it. We're a mad team. We want to win, man. Definitely, definitely not the spot we thought we'd be sitting in. ... When you get to this point, you kind of have to put your arms around each other and play for each other. Play for that common reason you always had and continue to push forward.''
Florida has won 22 straight against the Commodores, whose defense has been shredded for 134 points in their last three outings, but they got their only SEC win against a banged-up Georgia team (31-27) that beat the Gators last week.
The focus will be on Vandy receiver Jordan Matthews, who leads the league with 8.2 receptions per game.
“He's an explosive player, as everybody knows, shifty,'' Powell said. “They take shots down the field with him. Short screens and stuff like that, too. He is definitely somebody we have to put our hands on.''
The Gators are trying to avoid missing a bowl for the first time since 1990, when the program was under NCAA sanctions.
“For us, (the goal is) winning out,'' Powell said. “You've got to win out, because it's going to be closer to a positive season than a negative.''
If Florida is able to finish strong, limiting penalties remains important. It's an issue Florida has battled all season — UF is last in the SEC with 62.1 penalty yards per game. The next worst is Texas A&M at 52. Penalties were killers against Georgia, especially late in the game.
“It's something we talk a bunch about with our guys,'' Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “There's aggressive penalties and then there is not smart penalties. Dumb penalties. We've got to eliminate those ones. The aggressive ones we're always going to have. We're going to play an aggressive style here at all times. That's going to happen in the game.
“The ones that are avoidable, that are senseless, we need to continue to alleviate and get rid of. I think in that (Georgia) game it was back and forth. It was very chippy all the way through on both sides. I think that game always kind of brings some element of that out. We just continue to educate our guys and talk to them about it and know that it doesn't help us win. It's not part of what we need to do or can do because it doesn't help us win.''
Florida lost its third offensive tackle of the season this week when Tyler Moore suffered a broken elbow when he fell of a scooter. Yes, it's been that kind of year. Max Garcia shifts from guard to tackle with Kyle Koehne and Ian Silberman sharing Garcia's guard spot.
While some teams could just give up on a season, Florida coach Will Muschamp points out the Gators were down 23-3 at the half against Georgia but almost pulled the game out at the end.
“Motivation is what you saw in the second half, those guys playing for each other,'' he said. “We've got a close-knit football team, a team that's got character and you wouldn't have seen that in the second half if that wasn't the case. So our guys will play, they'll play hard.''