It starts Saturday, with Florida’s return to The Swamp to face SEC East rival Tennessee.
In less than a year, the Florida Gators have lost three home games to hurricanes, been forced to play a home game in Baton Rouge, gone through one of the storms where many of their families were impacted and come out of it wondering if another game was in jeopardy.
In the words of Jim McElwain, there is no normal now, especially when it comes to this Florida football season.
But, of course, there is a path back to normal. It’s all about getting back into a routine, back on the field, and, as hard as it may seem to do given all that has happened in the last week, rerouting the focus to football.
It starts Saturday, with Florida’s return to The Swamp to face SEC East rival Tennessee in perhaps one of the most pivotal games of the McElwain era coming off the season-opening loss to Michigan.
Can you imagine the Gators getting off to an 0-2 start?
That would seem motivation enough to put the hurricane in the rearview mirror and get moving forward.
That’s what the Gators plan to do.
“Now that the Hurricane is out of the way we’ve been focusing more on football,” senior cornerback Duke Dawson said. “At first we were more focused on ourselves, needing to make sure everyone is safe. So, now it’s back to football, 24/7, so the preparation is there.
“I can say now everyone is bought in or locked in since the hurricane is passed. Everyone was worried about their families. That’s out of the way. Now we can focus on ball more.”
It’s been a difficult week for Florida on many fronts.
The Gators saw last week’s home-opener against Northern Colorado canceled, then had to anxiously await and see what Hurricane Irma would do. The storm, of course, impacted almost the entire state, including Gainesville, and put the families of about 60 players in peril. All players and families are safe, McElwain said, but some families have been displaced.
Once the storm passed and everyone was accounted for, the question was whether Saturday’s game would be played in The Swamp, or somewhere else, or at all.
The Gators, who did not practice Monday due to the storm, did not find out until Tuesday that the game would go on as scheduled.
It’s been a pretty abrupt turnaround — from sitting through a damaging storm Sunday night and Monday morning to putting the pads back on Tuesday to start getting ready for probably one of the biggest games of the season.
UF, of course, has experience with this sort of thing, having dealt with the presence of Hurricane Matthew last season, which led to the Oct. 8 game against LSU getting postponed and eventually leading to the Nov. 19 game against Presbyterian being canceled. The Gators will get that lost home game to LSU back this season.
“This is a (coaching) staff that’s gone through some of this,” McElwain said. “Experience. … there is no replacing experience, and we’ve had guys on our staff who have been through some of this stuff. We obviously leaned on what we did a little bit last year, going through it. And having gone through that, I think the plan piece was really good.”
With no practice Monday, McElwain said it’s almost as if the Gators were getting ready for a Thursday night game and cramming a lot of preparation in over a short week.
“Cramming it in is probably a good way to put it,” he said. “No matter how hard you focused on what was about to come up, as the battery power lasted on our computers or whatever, you’ve got to rely on your offseason breakdowns as well.
“Our guys are going to go play hard. We are going to put a good thing together to give them an opportunity to play fast and release some of their energies and pent-up frustrations as well.
“And as we come out in The Swamp, I think our thoughts in this game go a lot farther than the selfish reasons you play a game, but more so the big-picture reasons you play a game and hopefully give some relief to some people whose lives have been changed forever.”
Who: No. 23 Tennessee (2-0) vs. No. 24 Florida (0-1)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
When you look at the big, muddled picture to the start of this season for the Gators, it’s obvious this is a team that almost desperately needs to get back on the field and forget.
Sophomore wide receiver Josh Hammond said Saturday’s game will be good therapy for everybody — players, fans, family.
“When the hurricane hit, guys were ready to just go practice, just get things off their mind, just tired of hearing about all the hurricane and devastation,” he said. “When you’re at practice, you just kind of forget about everything and you’re just feeling like you’re in another world. So, I think this game of football really allows people to kind of clear their mind and just let things go a little bit.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.