And the sixth-ranked Gators made a strong case for consideration Saturday by crushing archrival Florida State.
Mike Gillislee ran for two touchdowns and Florida scored 24 consecutive points in a span of less than nine minutes in the fourth quarter to keep its national title hopes alive at the time with a 37-26 win over the 10th-ranked Seminoles.
“We have a really tough football team,” Muschamp said he left the field for Florida’s locker room. “We should be playing for the national championship.”
Florida (11-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) came into the game fourth in the BCS standings, and could have found itself in position to earn a spot in the national championship game if No. 1 Notre Dame had lost to Southern California on Saturday night. Instead, Irish won 22-13.
The Gators lone loss was in late October to third-ranked Georgia, and it will keep them out of the SEC title game.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Florida is one of the elite teams.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage up front,” Fisher said. “They have a very good team. They did a great job.”
The game matching two of the nation’s best defenses went back and forth with the Seminoles (10-2, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) scoring 20 unanswered points to take a 20-13 lead late in the third quarter.
They wouldn’t score again until the final play of the game and victory out of reach.
“Our guys understand that it’s about all 60 minutes,” Muschamp said. “We just really needed to be patient and wear them down.”
Florida regained the lead for keeps at 23-20 on Gillislee’s 37-yard run with 11:01 left in the final period on the first play after Florida State’s EJ Manuel fumbled, his fourth turnover of the game.
Gillislee finished with 140 yards rushing, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the game.
Florida State was hurt by five turnovers in the game. The Seminoles will play Georgia Tech next week in the ACC title game.
Florida State was hoping to keep its own long shot national title hopes alive with a third straight win over the Gators, but couldn’t.
The Seminoles had been so dominant at home, outscoring opponents 324-54 in six previous games here with Clemson doing the most damage when Florida State prevailed in a 49-37 shootout in September.
Florida, not known for its offense, rushed for 244 of its 394 yards against the nation’s top-ranked defense, which has benefited from a comparatively weak schedule.
And it was that schedule and a 17-16 loss at North Carolina State last month that has provoked questions about how good the Seminoles were. They couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
“We’re better than them,” Florida nose guard Omar Hunter said. “You have to finish the game. The fourth quarter, that’s the most important quarter.”
Florida salted its victory away on Driskel’s 14-yard touchdown throw to Quinton Dunbar with seven minutes left and Matt Jones’ 32-yard run with 2:33 left for a 37-20 lead.
Caleb Sturgis kicked three field goals for the Gators. Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins had field goals of 50 and 53 yards to tie former Georgia kicker Billy Bennett’s NCAA record of 87 career field goals.
Florida State scored 20 straight points to wipe out an early 13-0 deficit. Manuel threw a 6-yard TD pass to Nick O’Leary and the quarterback bootlegged in from a yard out with 8:30 remaining. When Dustin Hopkins kicked a 53-yard field goal with 4:24 left in the third, the Seminoles looked as if they were on their way.
But Florida dominated the fourth quarter.
Gillislee’s go-ahead TD run came the first play after Florida’s Dominque Easley recovered the fumble by Manuel, who coughed up the ball after being nailed by Antonio Morrison. Manuel had to leave the game for a series, but was unable to rally the Seminoles after returning.
It was a tough game for Manuel for the second straight year against the Gators. He threw for only 65 yards in a 21-7 win at Florida last season and was intercepted three times Saturday in addition to the costly fourth quarter fumble. It was only the second time he was intercepted three times in a game in his career.
Florida dominated the first half, building a 13-0 lead before Florida State scored on the final play of the half when Hopkins kicked a 50-yard field goal into the wind.
Sturgis hit field goals of 39 and 45 yards and Gillislee scored on a 9-yard run moments after the Gators recovered a fumble on the kickoff by Florida State’s Karlos Williams at the Seminoles 21.
The Gators, who missed a golden scoring opportunity near the end of the first quarter when Trey Burton underthrew a wide open Clay Burton at about the Florida State 10, ran 25 plays in the opening quarter to eight for the Seminoles.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, Florida State seemed to wear down and Florida rolled right into the middle of the national championship conversation.