Florida Gators begin decisive SEC stretch

South Carolina coming off upset win over Georgia

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida handled its last loss to a top-10 team poorly.

The Gators followed a 19-point setback to then-No. 7 Georgia last year with a 21-point drubbing against Missouri. It was a humbling, two-week stretch that threatened to derail coach Dan Mullen’s first season in Gainesville.

Mullen and the ninth-ranked Gators (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) don’t want to experience it again.

Florida, coming off a 14-point loss at LSU , hopes to regroup and rebound at South Carolina (3-3, 2-2). It’s the first of four consecutive games against Eastern Division foes that will determine the Gators’ season. Win them all and Florida would advance to the SEC championship game in Atlanta for the third time in the last five years and have a shot at making the College Football Playoff.

The decisive stretch starts against the Gamecocks, who stunned Georgia last week. Mullen isn’t sure how the Gators will deal with this bounce-back opportunity.

“We’re going to find out,” Mullen said.

It was a huge part of the conversation when Mullen gathered his players together Monday. He reminded them that they allowed one loss to snowball into two by failing to move on quickly enough.

“We let one loss affect our season,” safety Shawn Davis said. “That’s something we’re not doing. Everybody’s just like, ‘Move past it. Leave that game in that past and just move on. Win this game and win out.’”

Sounds easy enough. But South Carolina could be viewed as a trap game for the Gators.

Florida played consecutive top-10 opponents, Auburn and LSU, and have a bye week on the horizon as well before what’s shaping up to be an East showdown with the 10th-ranked Bulldogs in Jacksonville.

“This is our path,” safety Donovan Stiner said. “This is another step in our direction of where we want to get. ... We know we have to use this loss to get it together and win out.”

Get it together on defense primarily.

The Gators allowed 511 yards and 42 points against LSU — both the most surrendered during Mullen’s two seasons. They failed to stop the run or pressure quarterback Joe Burrow.

It didn’t help that Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, the team’s top pass-rushers, left the game with ankle injuries and didn’t return. Neither is expected to play at South Carolina.

Players painfully watched replays of the performance this week.

“It’s kind of disgusting,” defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “We know we’re better than that. We know there were a lot of mistakes. We really didn’t get out-physicaled. Just stupid things. So you got to be hard on yourself at first, but it’s out the window now.”

It has to be or else it will carry into Columbia and lead to another two-game losing streak.

“The biggest game of the year for us right now,” Mullen said. “The last two weeks, top-10 matchups, were big games, but they weren’t against SEC East teams. So huge game for us right now and a good challenge for our team.”

Added Stiner: “It makes us hungrier after a performance like that. We didn’t like how we played, clearly. We want to get out there and prove that’s not what it will be.”