Will Gators take next step toward greatness?

Perhaps it was easy to dismiss those first statements about chasing greatness as just young guys excited that they’re doing well, but as the Florida Gators (27-2, 16-0) have marched their way through all but two games on an 18-game grind of a Southeastern Conference schedule, the words are beginning to resonate. The next step on the road to greatness is Columbia where the Gators will face a South Carolina (11-18, 4-12 SEC team) that isn’t afraid of anyone.

Billy Donovan knows the Gamecocks aren’t going to back down, particularly after their crew of no-names knocked off Kentucky and it’s slew of McDonald’s All-Americans last Saturday night. The Gators have already clinched the SEC championship and they’re ranked #1 nationally. Human nature says it’s time to celebrate and put it in cruise control until the tournaments begin next week.

Donovan wants the Gators to avoid the trap of human nature when they face the Gamecocks tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU). South Carolina will use Florida’s #1 ranking and SEC championship as incentive to play at a peak level. Donovan hopes the Gators’ incentive will be some of the goals that remain within reach:

1. Becoming the fourth team in SEC history to win 17 conference games.
2. Keeping alive the dream of becoming the first team in SEC history to go through an 18-game league schedule unbeaten.
3. Finishing the season unbeaten on the road in league play (9-0).
4. Adding to the school record winning streak, which is now 21 games.
5. Adding to the school record number of regular season wins, which now stands at 27.

“There’s still things out there in front of our team,” Donovan said Monday morning. “There’s still things out there. I think going into this last game against LSU, these guys putting their footprints on our program is a good thing. They’ve been a part of three out of four SEC championships, these seniors (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather). This group of guys has won more regular-season games than any team in the history of this program, and there’s been some good teams here … There’s things out there for these guys to achieve. I think those guys would like to take on those challenges and certainly for us the biggest challenge and all that stuff doesn’t make a difference if we don’t play well against South Carolina tomorrow night.”

Besides knocking off the #1 team in the nation and the SEC regular season champions, the Gamecocks have the incentive of trying to stay out of the SEC cellar. Currently, they are one game ahead of last place Mississippi State.

Understanding that South Carolina will be highly motivated should be incentive for the Gators to play well, also.

“I don’t care who you play against or where you play, there’s a focus and intensity that you need and if you don’t come with that intensity and focus you’re putting yourself in a position to lose,” Donovan said. “A lot of times some of the things that you say, ‘Florida is an older team, an experienced team … they have a lot of guys that have done this before.’ All that’s good, provided you play extremely hard and provided you play together and provided you execute.

“If you don’t do those things, whether you’re a young team, old team it doesn’t make a difference. You have to be able to do those things. We’ve had some success on the road, but like I always say that’s in the past right now. We’ll find out what kind of success we have on the road tomorrow going on the road to play South Carolina.”

Success on the road in Columbia will be one more step toward greatness.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.