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Finding Florida: How good are the Gators anyway?

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

The Florida Gators are bearing down on their second straight SEC Championship Game appearance. That’s a pretty good sign for second-year Gators coach Jim McElwain, right?

Um … yeah … kinda.

“Did we win? I just want to make sure,’’ McElwain said after Saturday’s 24-10 win against the Georgia Bulldogs. By defensive standards, it was a tour de force. The Gators held Georgia to 21 yards rushing — 21! — the smallest total in the history of the rivalry. The Dawgs slinked away, tails between their legs.

The Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) are winning, but they aren’t winning pretty. It looks like the offensive woes from last season haven’t gone away. The Gators are brilliant on one side of the ball, deeply flawed on the other. It seems like everyone is waiting for the other cleat to drop.

“People pick this team apart quite a bit,’’ McElwain said. “Guys, this is a good football team.’’

Good enough.

Not close to great.

The Gators could sweep their final four regular-season games and head to Atlanta as a 10-1 team (one game was lost to Hurricane Matthew) and a probable rematch with the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

Here’s a thought: If the Gators win out, then beat Alabama to win the SEC title, they’re in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Here’s another thought, maybe a bit more realistic: There could be some bumps in the road.
The Gators go to Arkansas (5-3, 1-3) on Saturday afternoon. There’s a home game against South Carolina (4-4, 2-4), a make-up road game at LSU (5-2, 3-1) and the traditional regular-season finale at rival Florida State (5-3).

But even if the Gators are saddled with another SEC defeat, it’s not a crisis. Essentially, the Gators have a two-game lead in the SEC East.

And that’s the real story.

The SEC East.

It is not a good division. It hasn’t been consistently good in a long while.

The SEC East has lost seven straight times in the league’s championship game.

Tennessee has imploded with three straight defeats after what now looks like a very deceptive 5-0 start.

Georgia, after an impressive opening victory against North Carolina, has dropped four of its last five games in Coach Kirby Smart’s first season.

Kentucky has beaten up on the lower half.

South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri are a combined 3-11 in SEC games.

Somebody has to win the SEC East. But the disparity against the SEC West has never been greater, so that provides some perspective.

The Gators are getting better, but they are hardly a championship-level team.

They do have an elite defense (we’re going to count Tennessee’s 35-point second half as a hiccup). Nationally, I’d take Alabama’s defense, then probably Michigan. After that, Florida is there. Its resume is solid.

Now let’s see if the Gators can take another step.

Last season, the Gators had 10 victories. But down the stretch, they were offensively challenged (to be charitable). They were outscored 97-24 in the final three games against FSU, Alabama and Michigan.

You never want to diminish an SEC East title — and Florida is on the verge of that.

But UF is a long way from being considered champions.

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