GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mercy is not a team rule this week at Florida.

"It's always good to see Tennessee lose," center Cam Dillard said. "Nobody likes Tennessee."

"Obviously watching Tennessee lose is nice," defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr. added.

You've probably noticed they are not shying away here from the ramifications of the Vols' upset loss to South Carolina. The No. 10 Gators are back in the top 10 for the first time in about a year. They went on to end 2015 with a troubling three-game losing streak in which they were outscored a combined 97-24.

Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC) is now comfortably two games ahead of Tennessee -- which was basically grandfathered in the SEC East champs before the season -- with four games to play.

Mostly, it puts the Gators in a position to advance to the SEC title game in back-to-back years for the first time since the Tim Tebow led the team (2008-09).

But any resemblance between those teams and now is strictly coincidental. Those Florida teams were powerhouses. In 2008, the Gators won the East, SEC and the national championship. An East Division champion hasn't won the SEC since.

Besides, these Gators are still trying to fix a troubling imbalance during Jim McElwain's second season. Offensively, these Gators can't even mentioned in the same breath with those teams.

"You see small little strides offensively," McElwain said. "It's like controlling the ball at the end of the game when [we] needed to. That's something you can hang your hat on. You celebrate the little victories."

He is referring to a modest seven-play, 23-yard drive that ran out the final 3:08 during Saturday's 24-10 win over Georgia. Little strides, indeed.

These Gators are so defensively tilted that quarterback Luke Del Rio complained training camp was "miserable." Hey, you try moving the ball against a bunch of projected high draft choices.

Georgia couldn't Saturday in another Groundhog Day loss to Florida. An offense that features Nick Chubb and Sony Michel was held to 19 rushing yards and eight first downs.

"Here's your fine line," McElwain said. "I ain't saying anything about [what it was like] when I got here. We were loaded on that side of the ball. You put your offense continually in those good-on-good [practice] situations and they keep getting beat down.

"Where do you get your confidence?"

So to make it to Atlanta, that derided offense -- 10th in the SEC -- must first get off the practice field intact.

Florida's defensive dominance is real. The Gators head to Arkansas this week second nationally in total defense, second in pass defense and first in limiting opponents' completion percentage (39.3 percent).

The opposition has converted only 27 first downs all season against Florida. Only one Power Five school has allowed fewer (Michigan).

Del Rio says of the talented secondary that torments him in practice, "I'd put them up against anybody, any school I've been at."

That would include Alabama, where he walked on in 2013.

That imbalance carried over from Will Muschamp's time in Gainesville (2011-14) created a problem. That overload on one side of the ball is a big reason why Muschamp got fired and McElwain (a career offensive guy) is here. And that's why McElwain -- 16-5 halfway through Year 2 -- is careful to choose his words about what it was like when he got here.

McElwain's first season was sabotaged -- if that's the word after 10 wins in 2015 -- when quarterback Will Grier, who led Florida to a 6-0 start, was suspended after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug and banned for a calendar year. (He later transferred to West Virginia.)

This season's offense is marginally better -- by 64 total yards and more than six points per game -- but Florida is generally deficient in the "explosives." (The Gators are 113th in amount of 10-plus yard rushing plays.) Del Rio also struggles throwing downfield. (Florida is 97th in amount of 30-plus yard passing plays.)

"We play to our strengths, which is try to make the other team go a long field," McElwain said. "The one game we didn't was the second half against Tennessee."

Yes, that second-half collapse -- a 35-7 run by Tennessee on Sept. 24 -- was epic and damning. Take that away and we're talking about an undefeated Florida going into November.

"Oh boy, I think our youth really had an eye-opening experience," McElwain said, recalling that day. "We've got a lot of young guys playing."

Then catching himself, he said, "That's not my gig. I hear some of these people bitching about having a young team. You kidding me? Look at us. I don't like the excuse piece."

McElwain prefers to dwell on a team with character. Seniors linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive back Marcus Maye are still around because they had mothers who said, "No, you're getting your degree," the coach shared.

McElwain won't say it out loud but there may have been players looking ahead to the NFL last year rather than concentrating on the present.

"The leadership on this team is a little bit different than it was last year," said Cox, a redshirt senior.

A smile creases McElwain face when he talks about Davis, who played through a high ankle sprain on Saturday. Defensive lineman Joey Ivie has his thumb in a cast. Cox is sporting a massive cast on his broken left hand. Somehow, it occurred during warm-ups against Missouri a couple of weeks ago.

All of them are fourth- or fifth-year players. All of them are defenders.

"Whatever they could do to help the team, which tells me our mindset of the program is starting to roll over a little bit," McElwain said.

In particular, Cox made it through 54 plays against Georgia despite pain that he felt during the game.

"I think it's a big deal, just being there for the team," he said. "They see us pushing through our injuries. I'm sitting here still trying to play and fight for my team. That means something."

The coach knows karma can be a witch, especially if the Gators keep celebrating Tennessee's downturn. After Arkansas there are still league games left against South Carolina and LSU before Florida ends its season against Florida State.

If there is a second consecutive trip to Atlanta, McElwain won't take it lightly. Alabama looms in the rearview mirror for a rematch. Florida fought valiantly, in spite of its deficiencies, in a 29-15 loss last December.

It wasn't (offensively) enough.

"We played our ass off," McElwain said. "If we'd have had two plays on offense [things would have changed]. The fact we got there was pretty special.

"Even this year, nobody even gave [us] a snowball's chance to be where we are now."

Not when Tennessee was the prohibitive favorites to win the East. Not when the Crimson Tide, his old team, are steamrolling everyone again. McElwain won two national championships as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator from 2008-11.

Not when there is no mercy at a place that is known first for giving up no more yards than necessary.

"I feel like everybody loves to hate the Florida Gators," Cox said. "They don't ever want to give us our respect or our props."