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Florida 9, Vanderbilt 7: The beautiful struggle

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In withering heat, the Gators didn't wilt. The offensive meltdown will still leave many fans steamed.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, in near-record heat, Florida's offense melted down like it only very rarely has before. But the Gators' defense didn't wilt. And when Florida needed Austin Hardin more than ever, he coolly delivered.

This 9-7 win that clinched the SEC East for the Gators for the first time since 2009 wasn't pretty, not in the slightest. But not every Picasso — or Pollock — was a masterpiece, either, and you don't have to sell the bad ones.

Florida began the game about as strongly as it could, with a sensational kick return from Brandon Powell bringing the Gators deep into Vanderbilt territory. A (rightly) reversed call cost the Gators a touchdown pass from Treon Harris to Brandon Powell, however, and a failed fourth-down try left Florida without points from that first drive.

The Gators would get them on their second possession, but only six. An excellent punt return from Antonio Callaway got Florida another possession beginning on the better side of the 50, and Harris led the Gators to a goal-to-go series before Kelvin Taylor punched in his 11th rushing touchdown of the season.

From there? Things got uglier than that Bubba Sparkxxx song.

Walk-on kicker Neil MacInnes missed the extra point after that touchdown. Florida's next two drives ended with fumbles — one on a fake field goal, and by defensive end CeCe Jefferson. The Gators would cross midfield just twice more before the fourth quarter, and both of those drives ended on turnovers — but Florida started an amazing seven drives in Vanderbilt territory on the day (one of them just an end-of-game drive of kneeldowns), and scored on just two of those series. Florida wouldn't score again until its penultimate possession, in fact, and managed to lose 21 yards and fumble away a potential red zone trip on the two possessions immediately before it.

And with Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb hitting paydirt on a 74-yard touchdown run that the Gainesville High product capped with a taunting Gator Chomp just before halftime, the Gators played most of the second half down a point.

But Florida's defense played phenomenal football for much of the day. Webb's long run provided more than half of Vanderbilt's rushing yardage, and the Commodores averaged fewer than two yards per carry on their other 47 runs. Johnny McCrary only rarely passed, but Florida's superb secondary limited him to three completions on 14 attempts — and 22 of his 30 passing yards came on a throw short of the sticks on the final drive.

Hardin's 42-yard field goal was about as unlikely as any in Florida history, given that he had missed four of his last five field goals in 2015 — but it was also all the Gators' defense seemingly needed.

And that unit, so proud and so used to having to ball out to bail out, made it stand up.

For that reason, Florida's headed to Atlanta. And while the Gators will need to be leaps and bounds better, especially on offense, to threaten the SEC West champion in the Georgia Dome, it would be foolish to lose sight of that fact.

When the SEC title is ultimately on the line, Florida will vie for it.

No matter how the Gators struggled to make that happen, it's beautiful that it will.