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How we got to Atlanta: Florida

The Gators needed help after a 38-28 loss to Tennessee in September... and they got it.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn’t supposed to be Florida’s year.

After a surprise trip to Atlanta in Jim McElwain’s first year as Florida’s head coach, the Gators were supposed to cede the spotlight to a resurgent Tennessee team in 2016. And the Gators’ first game of the 2016 season — a lethargic 24-7 win over an awful UMass team — suggested that an offense that finished 100th in the country in points per game in 2015 hadn’t really been fixed with Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio at quarterback.

But the defense, which carried the team in 2015, got even better. The Gators only surrendered a single garbage-time touchdown in a 45-7 shellacking over Kentucky (Who actually turned out to be a 7-5 team, but we didn’t know at the time that the Wildcats were any good) and then shut out North Texas 32-0 in Week 3. But the offense, never firing on all cylinders to begin with, lost Del Rio and had to go with Purdue transfer Austin Appleby going into a Week 4 showdown with Tennessee that was supposed to decide the East.

Florida went into Knoxville as a four-point underdog, and yet the Gators went into halftime with a 21-3 lead and Tennessee fans booing their own team. But Tennessee rallied in the second half and put together a 38-28 win that put the Volunteers in the driver’s seat in the East.

With Del Rio out again in Week 5, the Gators’ offense sputtered, but the defense held for a 13-6 win over Vanderbilt (who, like Kentucky, turned out to be a better team than we thought they were at the time.) But Tennessee pulled out a miracle 34-31 win over Georgia the same day, putting the Volunteers at 5-0 and 2-0 in the East.

And then things got weird.

In Week 6, Florida was scheduled to play LSU at home... only, Hurricane Matthew had different ideas. Even with a hurricane bearing down on the state of Florida, Florida insisted that the game could be played in Gainesville on Saturday. We’ll not rehash the details of that, but LSU and Florida did not play in Week 6, and initially it looked like the game might not be rescheduled at all.

Tennessee, which took an overtime loss in College Station in Week 6 and had Alabama coming to town the next week, cried foul. Had the Volunteers lost to Alabama and the Florida-LSU game not been made up, the Gators could conceivably win the East at 6-1 ahead of the 6-2 Volunteers. There was a built-in assumption that if the game were played, LSU would win (more on that in a minute), and also a concern that the Gators could win out otherwise to create this scenario. Of course, that scenario would also require Tennessee to win out, and, well...

After an unexpected week off, the Gators thumped Missouri 40-14 to get to 5-1, 3-1 in conference play, and the LSU game was rescheduled to November 19, requiring both teams to cancel guarantee games that had been scheduled for that week. After another week off, Florida survived the Cocktail Party 24-10 to improve to 6-1.

Meanwhile, Florida got help in the East race. After a somewhat-expected thumping at the hands of Alabama, Tennessee unexpectedly dropped a game to South Carolina, falling to 2-3 in conference play and two games behind the Gators in the loss column. Florida gave one game back though with a Week 10 thumping at the hands of Arkansas in Fayetteville, but recovered to shut down South Carolina 20-7. That improved the Gators’ record to 7-2, 5-2 in SEC play going into the rescheduled LSU showdown, now in Baton Rouge. Tennessee, at 7-3, 3-3, still held out hope that the Gators could fall on the Bayou and the Vols would head to Atlanta.

Of course... Florida did beat LSU by a score of 16-10, but it turned out not to matter: the Gators would have gone to Atlanta either way since Tennessee couldn’t take care of its own business in a 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt on Thanksgiving weekend. Florida’s season ended on a sour note with a 31-13 loss to Florida State, but it turned out that a three-loss team was good enough to win the East in 2016.

And that wasn’t something that anybody predicted in October, when it seemed like a safe bet that Tennessee would handle their business against the East’s supposed bottom-feeders.

Only they didn’t, and Florida got a surprise trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.