In a season of one dominant team and a bunch of disappointments in the SEC East, resilient South Carolina figured out another way to win, overcoming four turnovers to beat Florida 28-20 on Saturday and reach heights the Gamecocks have rarely achieved.
South Carolina (7-3, 5-3 Southeastern) can't win what would have been only been its second SEC East title. But the Gamecocks will finish with only its eighth winning SEC record in 26 seasons in the league.
Second year coach Will Muschamp has his Gamecocks embracing what he calls a "So What? Now what?" philosophy, and his quarterback Jake Bentley personified it, shaking off three interceptions to throw for 249 yards and run for two touchdowns .
"At the end of the day, we won," the sophomore said. "It's better to learn from something with a W."
A Florida team in disarray with a fired coach and no wins since September couldn't take advantage of the help. The Gators (3-6, 3-5) will finish with a losing SEC record for only the third time since 1992.
Interim coach Randy Shannon said he was proud his team kept fighting after a 35-point loss against Georgia led to the firing of Jim McElwain two weeks ago, and Shannon's debut was a 29-point loss to Missouri. But he understands it still isn't enough as Florida will miss a bowl game for only the third time in 31 seasons.
"Is this up to the expectations of this program? No. We wanted to win. There are no moral victories," Shannon said.
A.J. Turner ran 22 times for 136 yards and Mon Denson rushed for the first two touchdowns of his career as South Carolina had its best offensive game of the season with 469 yards.
In a common theme this season, the Gamecocks defense also came through. The Gators converted as many fourth downs (2 for 2) as third downs (2 for 15). And the defense ended Florida's last chance when defensive back Jamyest Williams picked off a tipped pass near midfield with just over a minute to go.
"Two years ago, we're a 3-9 football team. The investment you've made to get to this point, I'm damn proud of you," Muschamp told his team in the locker room after the win.
Florida: Florida has lost five in a row, their longest losing streak since finishing the 2013 season with seven straight losses amid the firing of Muschamp, now South Carolina's second-year coach ... Several Florida players found Muschamp after the game to shake his hand and hug him. Muschamp was fired at Florida in 2014 and is still being paid a buyout by the school.
South Carolina: Bentley, a sophomore, has 13 interceptions in his 17-game college career. Five of them have come in the past two games ... South Carolina's do-everything tight end Hayden Hurst caught five passes for 59 yards, ran once for 11 yards and forced a key fumble at the 1 as Florida defensive back CJ Henderson was a yard away from a touchdown on Bentley's first interception.
Florida has at least 25 of its 85 scholarship plays out either with injuries or suspensions.
Starting quarterback Malik Zaire may be added to the list. The graduate transfer from Notre Dame hurt his leg is the second quarter, left for a play, then crumpled to the ground as he tried to run. Shannon said he was medically cleared to go back in.
Zaire wanted to go back in the game at halftime and "just started crying" when he was held out, Shannon said.
Freshman Feleipe Franks, who started six of Florida's nine games this season, went 10 of 25 for 174 yards.
Shannon said he doesn't know the extent of Zaire's injury. But if he can't play, he may have wide receiver Dre Massey, who played quarterback in high school and has lined up in the wildcat in college, be Franks' backup.
THAT CRAZY PLAY
One play might have summed up the seasons at South Carolina and Florida.
Bentley threw an interception right into the arms of Henderson with the Gamecocks up 7-0 early in the first quarter. Henderson looked like he had a pick six, but Hurst caught him at the 1-yard-line and forced a fumble. Turner scooped the ball up in the end zone and ran it back to the South Carolina 24, giving the Gamecocks a first down.
"It was tough," Shannon said. "He was trying to make something happen."
Florida: The Gators host UAB next Saturday.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks host FCS Wofford next Saturday.col