The start of the 2017 football season has not played out as planned for the Florida Gators.
There were the 10 player suspensions before the opener, then the criticism coming off the one-sided loss to Michigan last week. Now, it’s a hurricane to contend with.
Due to the impending threat of Hurricane Irma, the school has moved the start of Saturday’s opener against Northern Colorado to noon. Originally, kickoff was set for 7:30 p.m., with the game being televised by the SEC Network. Now, there will be no live television, but the game can be live streamed.
“Obviously we’ve been in this position before a year ago,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “With that, you sit back and you take a breath and you kind of realize the things that are really important in life. And in this case, doing everything we can to help facilitate what we can for what may occur and the preparation, a lot of hard-working people here.”
Last season, UF’s Oct. 8 home game with LSU was postponed due to the threat of Hurricane Matthew. The game was rescheduled and played in Baton Rouge in November.
The decision to go to the early start for Saturday’s game was announced Wednesday by UF after school officials spent part of the last three days discussing the status of the game with city and state officials, along with the SEC office.
“We spent the last couple days having a lot of conversations with the people on campus, local government authorities, emergency personnel,” UF athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “Currently the latest forecast shows that the tropical conditions will probably hit here Sunday morning. There’s a chance they could start hitting here Saturday night, so playing the game at 7:30 obviously wasn’t a smart move. Moving it to noon hopefully will allow those who can travel get here and get back in a safe place before nightfall and before serious conditions hit this particular area.”
The approaching storm and early kick likely mean fewer fans in the stands, so it likely will be a different atmosphere than most home openers. But McElwain said the Gators have prepared well all week and will take the change in stride.
“I think we’re in the right frame of mind,” McElwain said. “Our team, we’ll alter our schedules for the noon kickoff, obviously. Our guys are looking forward to having the opportunity to play a home game, play in The Swamp, which is a special, special place.
“Hopefully those couple hours of that ballgame can give people a chance to take their mind off of what’s real out there in the world. That’s the approach. It’s not a distraction. We’ve had a lot of distractions and that’s an excuse for nothing.”
Even before Wednesday’s announcement, the Gators made a change in their regular routine, giving up their team hotel Friday night to open rooms for those seeking shelter from other parts of the state.
“One of the reasons we thought it was really important to play in the game at noon in addition to not having people travel at night is hopefully freeing up some of the pressure on hotel rooms so people fleeing from other parts of the state evacuating can use those,” Stricklin said. “We’re giving up our team hotel for Friday night. We encourage any fans out there who don’t need those rooms for Friday or Saturday night to cancel those reservations so that they can be needed for more important issues.”
The Gators’ usual routine for home games is to stay in a hotel the night before a game, where the coaches can meet with players and there is a curfew. The players will be on their own Friday night, sleeping in their own beds at their apartment or house.
“Our team hotel being one that handles evacuees, we obviously gave our rooms up, so we’ll alter the way we do our Friday,” McElwain said. “That’s the least you can do when something like this has come up.
“Part of that, too, is they’ve got to prepare for what may happen as our governor has stated for everybody in the state of Florida. Obviously, we’ll have plans. If they need to stay here and sleep on the floor of the weight room or whatever, we’ll do whatever we have to do.”
The Gators are coming off a disappointing 33-17 to Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and are looking forward to opening their home schedule in The Swamp, where they are 11-1 under McElwain.
Even with the earlier kickoff, UF is expecting a large portion of its ticket holders from across the state to stay home this weekend to prepare for the hurricane, which is projected to possibly make landfall in south Florida sometime Sunday.
“We understand there’s a lot of people who normally would come to a Gator game this weekend in parts of the state that just aren’t going to be able to make it,” Stricklin said. “We completely understand that. We ask everyone to consider their own safety first and the safety of others making any kind of plans this weekend because certainly that’s the most important thing.”
Northern Colorado is flying into the state today on a commercial flight, and is scheduled to return on a commercial flight Sunday morning. UF is working with Northern Colorado officials to explore options for arranging an alternate plan to get the Bears home sooner.
“We’re going to try to do everything we can to get them out,” Stricklin said. “They are flying commercially and they have a Sunday morning flight. We are trying to help them find other alternatives, ways for them to get out and get to safety as soon as possible.”