The game was always going to be big.
It was going to be big because it was so new and fresh, such a departure for Florida football to play away from The Swamp to open a season and against a real, live, ranked football team to boot.
So the buzz permeated the sticky Gainesville air all summer, as Gator fans learned to hate khakis and wonder if maize is really a color.
But before we could get to it, Saturday’s game became big for a different reason.
By the time Feleipe Franks was announced as the first redshirt freshman to start a season at quarterback since Kyle Morris, we were already wondering whether anybody would be accompanying him to Dallas.
The University of Florida is embarrassed or should be. The program is embarrassed. The fans are embarrassed. Everyone connected with UF is embarrassed.
The Gators ― because of the actions of a few ― made themselves an easy target, something that already was there with Jim McElwain. He has developed an us-against-the-world mentality and that usually turns the world against you.
You want to know why the shark non-story stayed viral for so long? People love to hate the Gators. You want to know why there were so many outrageous columns about Florida playing LSU for (gasp) Homecoming? Same deal. Forget researching to find out the truth.
It’s easier to be mean.
That’s why the jokes are flying now that Florida has 10 players suspended for the first game, including a Tweet by my friend ESPN’s Mark Schlabach showing a small two-engine plane and proclaiming it to be the Florida team’s transportation to the game.
Funny. But for Gator fans it stings an open wound.
Hey, you want to be all over ESPN’s Gameday? You got it, Gators. They will have a field day moralizing.
I empathize for the people who spent tons of money to travel to Dallas only to be let down by selfish players, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for anyone with dry clothes and a home today.
Still, all is far from lost for the Gator players who will make the trip. It’s still a good ball club, but it may be one that is more fragile mentally than it is physically.
This is where McElwain ― who has a talent for creating a bunker mentality ― has to be able to circle the wagons and get the Gators feeling the same way they did at Baton Rouge, La., last season.
All of the deafening buzz that was around this Gator program in July as recruits lined up and the head coach oozed confidence now sounds more like the rush of air noise when someone sits on a whoopee cushion.
I know, it’s only one game, but, really, does anyone know if it’s just one game? Who knows how far this thing can go and how crippling it can be for this team?
Florida football has survived worse ― Tank Black, 0-10-1, Lindsay Scott, Georgia Southern, NCAA probation twice in six years.
But this right now is a red-faced program.
Which makes Saturday’s game even bigger than it was before.
Here’s why ― McElwain has to figure a way to make his depleted roster respectable, how to at least have a chance to win. A loss isn’t going to break this season, but a blowout loss might.
The head coach has talked about how much he likes this team throughout the summer. Even after the seven players were suspended and James Robinson joined the list, he talked glowingly about how much the players on this team were in it for the right reasons and how much the game means to them.
Today, those words ring hollow.
Instead of being known for DBU, the Gators are better known for DNP. As in “Did Not Play.”
McElwain’s third team cannot start the season by looking like it doesn’t belong on the field with a Michigan team that is rebuilding. The fickle fan base will be skeptical at the very least as to where this program is heading.
So this may not be as big a game as it was a month ago. It may not be the biggest game McElwain has coached.
But if we’re talking about throwing a stop sign up against negativity, about stemming a tide heading the wrong way, it’s as big as they come.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.