No. 7 Gators close in on SEC East title after 5 lean years

By The Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Gators spent recent Novembers hoping for help in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.

They needed to win out and have Tennessee tumble or Georgia stumble to make the league championship game in Atlanta. It never happened, leaving Florida out of the title game each of the last five years.

This year the seventh-ranked Gators are in position to end the drought. They don’t need any assistance, either.

“That’s a real nice feeling,” linebacker Brandon Siler said. “It’s hard cheering for other teams and hoping that things happen. Even though you’ve got to concentrate on your game, if somebody else loses, then you know your destiny (changes). It’s way different now. I don’t have to watch other teams play.”

Florida (7-1, 5-1) can win the East with victories at Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-4) on Saturday and against South Carolina (5-3, 3-3) the following week. The Gators also would clinch the division with a win Saturday and a loss by Tennessee. The eighth-ranked Volunteers host No. 13 LSU.

“It’s definitely a new feeling,” receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. “We haven’t been this fortunate around here for a while, so we’re trying to make sure we don’t let this opportunity slip away from us. We’ve got to make sure we stay focused, keep playing hard and find a way to win games.”

The Gators beat Georgia 21-14 Saturday to stay on top of the division, ending a brutal four-game stretch against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and the Bulldogs with a 3-1 record.

“That was a big one,” Siler said. “That’s a big lump to get over. Of course, we’ve got to keep playing how we’re playing and win out. But that was a big lump. That was a big stretch we’ve been talking about and the nation’s been talking about. We came out of it with one loss and we’re in control of our own destiny.”

But the schedule doesn’t ease up much.

Although Florida has won 15 in a row against Vandy, four of the last ten meetings have been decided by seven points or less. Last season was the biggest nail-biter. Cornerback Reggie Lewis, picked on most of the night, intercepted Jay Cutler’s first pass in the second overtime to give the Gators a 49-42 victory.

Florida would prefer to clinch the division race in Nashville and not have to rely on beating South Carolina and former coach Steve Spurrier the following week in Gainesville. Spurrier’s teams were 68-5 in 12 years at “The Swamp”, and his Gamecocks upset the Gators last season, preventing them from advancing to the conference title game.

The Gators needed to defeat South Carolina and have Auburn beat Georgia to get to Atlanta. The Tigers did their part, but Florida lost 30-22 in Columbia.

Florida has been in similar spots before, too.

In 2002, the Gators upset Georgia and needed the Bulldogs to lose to either Mississippi or Auburn to get to Atlanta. Georgia won both games.

The following year, after another win over the Bulldogs, Florida needed Tennessee to fall to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt or Kentucky to claim the division crown. It didn’t happen.

The Gators don’t have such worries now.

“It seems like all the hard work in the offseason has paid off,” senior defensive end Ray McDonald said. “It seems like the coaching change has really helped us. ….Coming to Florida wasn’t a waste, now that we finally have a chance to (reach) the SEC championship.”