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SEC Eastern Division drama unfolding

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


JACKSONVILLE -- For years, a victory against rival Georgia on the last weekend of October was a signal to Florida fans to start packing for the Southeastern Conference title game.

Not this year.

While No. 6 Florida controls its destiny in the Eastern Division after a 34-23 victory against then-No. 13 Georgia, remaining games at Vanderbilt on Saturday and vs. No. 22 South Carolina on Nov. 11 will require the Gators' full attention.

"We've always found that Vanderbilt's players get excited to play the Gators," Florida coach Steve Spurrier said. "It's a chance to beat a Top 10 team and make a little history. We know we have to be ready to play or they can beat us. They've come close the last couple years. And we have to beat South Carolina to win the East."

In the past, Vanderbilt and South Carolina seemed like mere speed bumps on Florida's road to Atlanta as the schools routinely grappled for last place in the division. This season, there is cause for concern.

While the Commodores (2-6, 0-5) have not beaten Florida since 1988, they nearly derailed the Gators' SEC hopes twice in the past four seasons. Vanderbilt's defense under coach Woody Widenhofer always seems to give Florida fits.

In 1996, senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel barely converted fourth and 1 at midfield to allow the Gators to run out the clock in a 28-21 victory. Last season, Florida was thoroughly outplayed by Vandy, but eked out a 13-6 victory in Gainesville.

Win or lose at Vanderbilt, Florida's homecoming game against South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) will be a winner-take-all showdown for the Eastern Division title. Winless last season and losers of 21 straight coming into 2000, the Gamecocks are college football's turnaround sensations, bowl-eligible in coach Lou Holtz's second season.

South Carolina is idle this weekend.

URGENCY, NOT PANIC: Asked if he was too quick with his hook, Spurrier said the stakes were too high to allow freshman quarterback Rex Grossman to play through his mistakes. Grossman was replaced by senior Jesse Palmer after throwing three first-half interceptions.

"I told Rex, "Hey, I may bring you back in, but you need to settle down and just watch,' " Spurrier said. "We don't have time to let him work his way through to where he throws seven interceptions and we get beat. We don't have time. Florida-Georgia is not an exhibition game."

HELPING HAND: The Florida sideline exploded when safety Marquand Manuel intercepted Quincy Carter late in the third quarter. Not only did the play end a Georgia scoring threat at the Florida 33-yard line, but it was Manuel's first pick of the season.

One long overdue.

Manuel, a junior, has had several would-be interceptions bounce off his hands during his career -- including one each of the past two seasons against Florida State and one in the Gators' last game against Auburn.

"That was a relief," Manuel said of Saturday's interception, which he returned 16 yards. "Everybody was so happy for me. Against Auburn, I didn't get two hands on the ball, so I said, "Let's try and get two hands on it.' And it worked."

ADDED INCENTIVE: In trying to impress upon his players the depth of the Gators' rivalry with Georgia, Spurrier polled his coaching staff and discovered that he, Dwayne Dixon, John Hunt and Jimmy Ray Stephens were a combined 4-19 against the Bulldogs in their UF playing days.

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