Florida faces Georgia with a different mindset from last year

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Georgia linebacker Reggie Carter (45) hits Florida Gators wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) hard on a screen pass during last year's game in Jacksonville. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

At this time a year ago, there were no big games in Florida’s foreseeable future.

The Gators were a 3-3 team in turmoil, coming off back-to-back heartbreaking SEC losses, about to lose their head coach, who had made unsubstantiated claims that he and his family had received death threats.

There was no real reason to think better times — and a big, important game — were on the way any time soon.

But, well, they are here. Better times. A big game on the national stage.

A year after all the mess, the Gators are in the top 10 nationally, getting ready to play another top 10 team (Georgia) in a game with championship ramifications that is drawing ESPN’s “GameDay” and the SEC Network’s version of it to Jacksonville this weekend.

“It’s really exciting, especially after last year, turning this thing around and getting back what Florida’s known for,” sophomore safety Donovan Stiner said Monday. “So, we’re really excited and we’ve worked really hard for it.

“(Last year) was pretty difficult. It was emotional. We’re just glad to be back. We’ve worked really hard to get where we are now. We’re really excited and looking forward to this game.”

Led by new head coach Dan Mullen and his staff, the Gators have put themselves in this position by winning five consecutive games since losing to Kentucky on the second Saturday in September.

Since that humbling loss in The Swamp, Florida has won four straight SEC games, including two on the road (Tennessee and Mississippi State) and one at home against the No. 5 team in the nation (LSU).

So, here the Gators are, back in the top 10, back in a really big game.

“It’s going to be unreal,” junior linebacker Rayshad Jackson said. “It’s going to be a great game. It’ll be a fist-fight the whole time.”
Last year’s game was a fist-fight, too, but the Bulldogs were the only ones throwing and landing punches. The Gators seemed lifeless, their minds in a different place.

And it’s understandable.

Earlier in the week, then coach Jim McElwain made his claim about death threats, which triggered the athletic department to meet with McElwain and investigate the alleged threats.

By the end of the week, it was clear McElwain’s job was in jeopardy.

By Saturday morning, the reports started coming out that McElwain’s agent and the University Athletic Association were negotiating a buyout that would terminate McElwain’s job.

The UF players were well-aware of all of it.

“Guys in the hotel for pre-game meal were on their phones seeing all the commotion saying Coach Mac was going to be fired,” junior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “It definitely was bringing up some confusion and guys were kind of looking around wondering like, ‘What’s really going on? Is he really getting fired? Is he not?’

“He broke us up pre-game meal and let us know that he hadn’t heard anything yet and to block everything out. But, still, as a kid, 20, 19, 21-year-olds, just seeing that stuff on Twitter about your coach being fired is a little awkward. It kind of just throws your mind a little bit.

“It was big for us mentally just kind of taking our focus off of the game. Things were kind of weird from that point forward.”

Weird — and one-sided.

Less than midway through the first quarter, the Gators were already down 21-0. The final eventually turned out to be 42-7. McElwain and UF parted ways the following day.

“It was pretty weird knowing that Coach Mac was going to get fired after this game,” Jackson said. “His whole mindset, his whole demeanor was different. And it just felt like we weren’t going to play well because his demeanor wasn’t right.

“We all came to the game like, ‘Man, our coach about to get fired and we can’t do nothing about it.’ ”

Playing in a big game again did not seem in sight back then.

But with a new coach and a new season, it is here.

The Gators, obviously, are excited about this opportunity, and the changes that have brought them to this point.

“Last year wasn’t so fun for our team, but just coming from then to this year, our records a lot different,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “We went through a coaching change which turned out for the better for us. Just a bunch of different things have changed. Our guys, obviously we love it and you know we’re excited for the challenge and we’re going to prepare our tails off for the challenge this Saturday.”

 

17 COMMENTS

  1. This is what college football journalists are saying about this week’s Cocktail Party showdown on the banks of the St Johns River. “Georgia is the better team” “Dawgs are seven point favorites over the Gators” “Kirby in year 3 is a better coach than Mullen in year one” “Is Florida a pretender or are they a contender” “Georgia is more physical than Florida” “Georgia’s quarterback is better than Franks” “Georgia’s Holyfield is better than Florida’s QB’s combined” Football analysists talked about how every team in the AP poll had a shot at the CFP. Barely a word about Florida’s chances … NO RESPECT FOR THE GATORS!

    The Gators have won 20 out of the last 27 games. Come Saturday, it time the Gators show them Dawgs who the Big Brother is and who the little brother is. Its time to show college football world that DBU is back, that its time to plant the UGA 1quarterback like a tree in the turf of TIAA Stadium. Its time to shutdown Holyfield and administer an old fashioned, Gator style, butt whippin to our cross border neighbors. It’s time to stap on the helments, time to manhandle the Dawgs and send them back to Athens with loss #2.

  2. Good God man, let the name calling go.

    On the substantive side, I’ve suggested before but will say here directly. Imo, Muschamp’s mindset was/is not well-equipped to be a head coach; and McElwain’s leadership was so poor, it actually would have been impossible (at least for me) to predict.

    Leadership mettle shows itself the most when things get difficult. IMO McElwain just completely let good the rope when things got difficult (I’ll use Mullen’s language because it’s resonates with me). There were clear indications before that, but when things got difficult he was completely exposed.

    Btw, I also think it’s impossible for me to articulate how badly I want the Gators to win Saturday. For Mullen, for the players, for the program, for the fans. I always get scared when it seems like life or frickin’ death. It’s just a football game man, get ahold of yourself Gator1.

    • I want to beat GA too…but keeping things in perspective my goal is to beat Mizzou, USC and FSU…if we do that and end up 10-2 this year will have been amazing and everything will take care of itself. So while beating GA would be HUGE, I’m not sure we are quite there yet, although I’m confident the guys will fight to the end…and if they continue to hang onto the rope anything is possible! Go Gators!

    • we … are … going … to steamroll UGA. There is no Michel, Chubb to bail them out. Their defense has not came around yet. Lost too many players to the draft. 7 point dog ? We should be a 10 point favorite. WE ARE NOT FACING THE SAME TEAM as last year. That team won the conf. This team was EXPOSED by LSU. Calling it now. 35-20 gators…. and they may not even score 20 !

      • Before last weekend I was thinking we roll them also, but in a large part due to overconfidence. Now, after being spanked by the who I think we’ll probably get their bests shot and although they haven’t been playing very well, particularly on offense, there is no question that they are very talented more importantly deep roster wise. Still, I like our chances too and think CDM and his staff are more than an equalizer for any talent deficit that may exist. I feel a win coming and possibly even a steamroll as you suggest Dave Fisher. GO GATORS !

  3. The only thing in this column I have an issue with is Jackson’s statement that they knew McElwain was going to be fired and there wasn’t “nothing” they could do about it. Au contraire, Mr. Jackson, you and the rest of the team could have played with some fire, some pride, with some purpose. You could have played like you cared whether your coach was fired or not. But, you didn’t and your coach was fired.
    Now, as for this year, I don’t know whether the Gators will win Saturday or lose big time like last year but I do know this: The Gators have a coach that knows how to coach. They don’t have a coach that thinks it’s cool to be embarrassed. The Gators in just 1/2 of a season have returned to the point of being relevant. They are again being talked about with respect. This is something that hasn’t been true for several seasons. The cool thing is that it’s just going to get better. GO GATORS!!!! GO COACH MULLEN!!!

    • I think the comments from the players reflect the reality of what was going on. Was McElwain fired because they got crushed by GA or lost at all? I don’t think so. In retrospect, the better option would have been to fire him before the game rather than leaving the team in purgatory. But the players are right: their play in the GA game probably could have done nothing to change McElwain’s fate. This is the first time I’ve read comments about last year’s reaction and it’s gutwrenching to imagine what those young guys were going through.

      That aside, phew! Let’s put that crap away, lock it, burn it, bury it, and focus now on what could end up bring one of the best seasons ever.

  4. LSU exposed Ga.last week. Make Fromm one dimensional:
    Contain their run by flooding the box. Make Fromm throw into the teeth of our pass rush and our DBU.
    Flip the field with our special teams. Make them work twice a s hard as we do.
    Franks knows how to manage the game and hit explosive plays. our RB’s are capable of rushing 150 yards.
    Gators 24-21. On to Atlanta!

  5. Last year was one of those crazy times. negative for us, with the athletic director not wanting coach Mac anymore, but also Georgia was on a lucky streak, playing us with our issues, Tennessee down, South Carolina having Muschamp, the rest of the conference not competitive, and 2 chances at auburn, so they got into the playoff, hardly in convincing fashion imo. last years georgia team has played one quality opponent and lost .im not saying how great we are, all im reminding people is that we arent going up against the 72 dolphins or anything like that.

    • No, they are not the ’72 Dolphins and for that matter neither is Alabama. What both are, are solid Top-10 SEC teams who put their jocks on the same way the rest of the SEC does, and both can be beaten on any given Saturday.