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.”