The Gators had a chance to clinch their first division title in three years but squandered that — and their No. 2 spot in the BCS — in a 17-9 loss to Georgia on Saturday. To get back on top, they need help in the next two weeks.
“This is not the end of everything,” said linebacker Jon Bostic, from Palm Beach Central High School. “We’ve got a lot of corrections we can make. We’ve got to accept the loss, but we’ve got to stick together.”
Florida can improve its slim hopes of staying in the division race by beating Missouri on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (noon, ESPN2). This is the Gators’ final SEC game, and they go into it ranked No. 8 in the country after the loss to Georgia caused them to slip five spots in the Associated Press poll. They also dropped to No. 7 in the BCS.
There are various scenarios that can play out in the SEC East, but the bottom line for Florida (7-1, 6-1 SEC) is that it needs to finish one game ahead of the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1).
If the Gators knock down Missouri, they can retake control of the division if No. 7 Georgia loses at least once. The Bulldogs finish with Ole Miss (4-4, 2-2) this week and go to Auburn (1-7, 0-5) next week.
A loss to Missouri would put Florida in the vulnerable position of needing Georgia to lose twice and No. 11 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) to fall to Arkansas in its SEC finale.
The Gamecocks can still claim the division if all three contending teams finish 6-2.
If the Gators win this week and fall short in the SEC East, it will be the fourth time in history a 7-1 record was not good enough to win it. Tennessee went 7-1 in 1993, ’95 and ’96 and finished behind UF each of those years.
Florida should not have trouble with Missouri, a program that seems far from competing in the SEC. The Tigers (4-4, 1-4) joined the conference this year and lost their first four SEC games. They finally emerged with a win over hapless Kentucky on Saturday but still will struggle to reach bowl eligibility.
The biggest challenge for the Gators might be regrouping after letting a mistake-laden loss to Georgia undercut their sparkling seven straight wins to open the season.
“It hurts and it’s hard, but we’ve worked so hard this season and one game is not gonna determine the season,” defensive tackle Omar Hunter said.
Florida also is playing for postseason positioning and has its greatest leverage since the Tim Tebow era. The Gators can finish the regular season 11-1 if they get through Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State and a road game against No. 9 Florida State.
With 10 or 11 wins, they would be attractive to some of the best SEC-connected bowls. Even the Sugar Bowl would not be out of the question.
The Capital One Bowl in Orlando is the conference’s best postseason game outside of the BCS and gets the third pick among SEC schools. At worst, the Gators should not drop below the Outback Bowl, which is in line to pick fourth in the SEC. Both of those bowls would stick UF against one of the top three eligible teams from the Big Ten.
Florida was in a precarious place after finishing the regular season 7-5 in 2010 and 6-6 last year. In Urban Meyer’s final season, the Outback Bowl passed over a pair of ranked SEC teams to pick the Gators. The Gator Bowl had several viable choices from the conference last year but saw a chance to pit Florida against Ohio State and saved UF from sliding to a marginally relevant game like the Music City Bowl or Liberty Bowl.
The BCS rankings could play a role. Alabama held firm at No. 1, followed by No. 2 Kansas State, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 4 Oregon and No. 5 LSU. Florida State is two spots behind the Gators at No. 9.
A week after a pair of unimpressive losses, Georgia Tech regained a bit of its footing. The Yellow Jackets delivered an emphatic 87-57 thrashing of East Tennessee State on Saturday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion to head into their final exam week on an up note.