COLUMBIA, S.C. — Over the course of this dysfunctional Florida football season, the Gators’ preseason goals have been flying off the board at a lightning pace.
Make it to the College Football Playoff.
Go undefeated at home.
Win the SEC East.
Win the SEC Championship Game.
Gone, all gone. Except one. Call it the last goal standing: become bowl eligible.
“That’s the goal,” junior kicker Eddy Pineiro said.
“We’ve been talking about it in practice. Just right now, we had a little meeting and everyone’s fired up. You want to do it for the coaches and do it for the seniors. That’s important. We want to go out on a good note, a bang, hopefully, and make a bowl game. That would be cool.”
Before the start of the season, it seemed a given that Florida would be playing in the postseason. Maybe not in the CFP, but certainly in a bowl game somewhere. This was a confident team that was talking about getting to Atlanta for a third straight season under coach Jim McElwain and taking it a step further by actually winning the SEC Championship Game.
In retrospect, given how this season is playing out, those grand preseason goals now seem somewhat delusional on the Gators’ part. Even this final goal — getting to a bowl game — seems almost unattainable.
To become bowl eligible, the Gators would have to sweep the three teams remaining on their schedule — South Carolina, UAB and Florida State.
That may be asking too much for a depleted team that went through a coaching change two weeks ago, is riding a four-game losing streak and is coming off back-to-back blowout losses to Georgia and Missouri.
It’s a longshot, but the Gators say they’re going to try their best. Other than pride, what else is there to play for?
“A bowl game is a reward for the season and with all the stuff that we’ve gone through this season, a reward would be nice,” junior offensive guard Tyler Jordan said. “It’s been a crazy season. I think the silver lining is win out, get to a bowl and that’s going to be that silver lining. We’ve had a hell of a year. It’s been crazy, but if we can pull it out, we can get to a bowl game.”
Going to a bowl game, of course, is more than just a reward for a successful season.
It’s an opportunity to get in 15 more practices and another game, something that could be huge for a young team like Florida, which is playing multiple true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores.
It’s also an opportunity for the returning players to show their future coach what they’re all about by practicing hard, playing hard and putting positive things on tape.
“It’s big,” Jordan said. “Coach (Brad) Davis was talking about it, put something good on film every day. We still have a bowl game in mind. We still want to get to a bowl game and we have to win.”
Winning out would give the Gators more time to be together as a team, more time to heal and more time to start working on the future.
“You only get three guaranteed opportunities,” junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan said. “These young guys, it’s really important to get those extra reps and really play as much ball as you can play. The more you can play, the better you’re going to get, so a bowl game is crucial for them.
“You get those extra couple of weeks of practice, film, those kind of things, you stay in shape better. If you have the whole December off, you kind of slack a little bit. It’ll definitely be a good thing if we hit a bowl game.”
Under normal circumstances, the idea of Florida winning out should not seem all that improbable.
South Carolina, like Florida, is offensively challenged. UAB is UAB. Florida State is 3-5 and struggling to get bowl eligible also.
But when you look at UF’s recent performances and the overall state of the program with so many injured and suspended players missing, winning one of the final three games would be considered an accomplishment.
The Gators were barely competitive in their last two losses — 42-7 to Georgia and 45-16 to Missouri.
After the Missouri route, sophomore linebacker David Reese called his teammates out, saying they needed to play with more effort and play together as one.
Interim head coach Randy Shannon expressed his approval of Reese’s comments earlier this week, and some of his teammates said his comments hit home with the players and will have a unifying effect.
The question now is do the Gators have enough talent and will left to chase down their only remaining goal?
“I can tell you it’s going to be a challenge,” Shannon said.
“The challenge is for us at the University of Florida, these football players on this team, to challenge themselves to be the best they can be. And we’ll see what happens.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.