Florida football: Gators' SEC grind begins Saturday at Kentucky. Are they ready?
The SEC is a grind.
You’ve heard the phrase enough by now it’s become cliché.
But the funny thing about clichés is sometimes they are true.
The SEC is a grind. It’s 2 months of heat and hostile environments and physical football and pressure and outside noise and then, if you’re a little lucky and really good, a championship game the whole football universe watches in December.
The SEC is a grind even when Tennessee is a shell of the mighty program it once was and loses at home in consecutive weeks to Georgia State and Brigham Young. Every conference has a bad football team. Most have a few. The SEC is a grind even when other teams in the SEC East lose a stunner at Wyoming or blow a double-digit 2nd half lead against North Carolina. What happened on a Saturday in August rarely makes much difference in a hostile environment come October or November. It’s still hard to win football games, especially on the road.
If the SEC weren’t a tough conference, it wouldn’t lead the NFL in draft picks over the past decade. It wouldn’t feature the highest number of blue-chip recruits on active rosters of any conference in college football. It wouldn’t be the home of 4 programs that have won national championships in the past 14 years. It wouldn’t feature some of college football’s most storied venues: The Swamp, Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Sanford Stadium, Kyle Field, among others.
In conference play, the games are tighter, the teams are more familiar with one another. The passions run deeper. The crowds are bigger and louder. The coaches know each other and opposing weaknesses are known and targeted with the ruthlessness that accompanies that familiarity.
It’s a grind.
For Florida, after a strange beginning, it’s back to the grind Saturday night when the Gators visit Kentucky and a sold-out Kroger Field.
“For the veterans, we’re just preaching that it’s going to be a special environment, a loud environment. It’s SEC play now. You have to bring focus and like Coach Mullen says, crank up the energy every day,” Van Jefferson said following Saturday night’s win at Tennessee-Martin.
Fellow senior Josh Hammond agreed with Jefferson that conference football just feels different.
“I think in SEC play the attention to detail has to be that much better, execution has to be that more exact. It starts in practice, finishing blocks in practice, how you do a rep in practice, starting with how a scout team player finishes or cuts in practice. You focus on doing that the proper way, focus on attention to detail and the little things to execute quickly and properly.”
Control the controllables.
That’s how you manage the SEC grind, especially if you are a team like Florida where the high-end talent is there to accomplish the goals you set for yourself but in truth, the margin for error is still small.
The Gators learned that a season ago when Kentucky waltzed into Gainesville and pushed the Gators all around The Swamp. By the time the night ended, a proud Gators defense had surrendered 303 yards rushing, Florida’s 31-game winning streak over Kentucky was no more, and before the calendar even flipped to October, Florida’s margin for error to reach Atlanta had basically evaporated.
The Gators know that last year was no fluke.
Some of them probably even remember the last trip to Kroger Field, when Florida was outplayed most the evening in an electric environment only to capitalize on Kentucky mistakes to steal a win down the stretch.
But the Gators are saying the right things, downplaying the revenge element.
“(Losing last season) will definitely be an energy booster for the guys that were here last year and went through that loss in The Swamp,” Hammond said Monday. “But I don’t think you need that motivation for this team. You shouldn’t. This is the first time these two teams have played against each other. So I think we need to focus on us.”
Florida has to focus on itself, largely because their margin for error isn’t big enough to do otherwise.
As of yet, they don’t run block well enough to dominate a salty SEC defense on the road.
They get after the quarterback (leading in the country in both sacks and tackles for loss), but they’ve only produced one turnover, and turnovers win road football games.
And Florida’s starting quarterback, for all his measurable improvements, turned the ball over 3 times in his only game this season against FBS competition.
There’s a whole lot of teams in the country that can win games with talent and when they are motivated to play.
The great teams understand their weaknesses. They focus on attention to detail, on limiting the impact of those weaknesses, on powering through the inevitable moments of adversity that strike on Saturdays in conference play.
“When I talked about the margin of error, if you want to be really special and have a great team, attention to detail is one of those things that we constantly talk about,” Dan Mullen told the media Monday. “A little mistake here, a little mistake there. Those things don’t cost you (against Tennessee-Martin). But they will on an SEC Saturday.”
It’s just different. It — to use another line you might have heard — just means more.
And yet these are precisely the types of games the Gators need to win to show their growth as a program. Florida is favored for a reason. Kentucky isn’t quite the team it was a year ago — at least on paper — and it certainly is grappling with adversity of its own after the unfortunate, season-ending injury to starting quarterback Terry Wilson. If Florida executes, it should win.
But it won’t be easy. This program isn’t there yet.
Last season, Florida won 4 SEC games that were 1-score games in the 4th quarter: LSU, at Miss State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt. Any one of those wins could have gone the other way. Further, while all 3 of Florida’s losses came by double digits, 2 (Georgia, Kentucky) came in competitive games, 1-score football games in the 4th quarter. The other team made winning plays when the Gators didn’t.
This SEC season is likely to be more of the same for the Gators.
Florida isn’t Alabama right now. The Gators aren’t Georgia.
They can’t just roll the ball out and win by 20 most Saturdays.
SEC football for Florida is going to involve a large number of close games decided by a play here or a play there.
Can the Gators find a way to keep winning close games?
For the most part, that will come down to attention to detail and execution. Will they practice like every rep matters, as if their championship goals depended on it? Will they tackle well enough? Will they be able to establish the run? Will they force turnovers? These things aren’t cliché — they are part of what goes into winning when your margin for error isn’t immense. They are mandatory if Florida wants to take the next step.
Is Florida ready for the next step — or is this year just another building block for Mullen’s long-term foundation for winning?
We begin to get answers to those questions about the Gators this Saturday night.