Gators grateful for second chance, aware there's no more room for error

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
After the upset loss at Texas A&M earlier this month, the Florida players know they have to stay on the winning path to reach their goals.

Make no mistake about it: Florida football is grateful for a second chance at finishing its 10-game conference-only season. 

“I think everybody’s really excited, ready to get back after it, ready to get back to football. I think after not playing, I think that is something that is big within the team right now, is that ability to get back out on the field, get back to doing football,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “This year’s been kind of a unique year like no other, with stops and starts, and different schedules, and kind of everything going on. Our guys have handled everything extremely well throughout the year."

But the gratitude comes with a recognition of the unavoidable: there may be second chances, but there won’t be another reprieve for the Gators this season. Seven consecutive weeks — eight if Florida makes the SEC Championship Game — of football are on the horizon with no bye weeks in store, and there’s little, if any, room for error with travel still on the horizon, in addition to an upcoming neutral site contest against Georgia in Jacksonville. 

“We're still trying to look at all the different ways of how it occurred, which you know it occurred during the trip, during playing a road game, which always, we knew that coming into the season was going to be one of your biggest challenges of how you manage all that, so we'll look at that,” Mullen said. “Fortunately for us, we've got a couple of home games. We have two road games, really, left this season. Traditional road games. So we have some time to make sure we try to organize some things and look at some different options for that moving forward. But our protocol for home games will be pretty consistent with what it's been."

Yet the players know all the protocols in the world are meaningless if the individual doesn’t follow them. When it came to self-reporting potential symptoms, Florida found the hard way out firsthand.

Linebacker James Houston, who registered seven tackles against Texas A&M, said it’s “very important” for players to report any possible sign of a COVID-19 infection — which can mean reporting something as vague as the sniffles or a runny nose, two extremely common symptoms in a city like Gainesville full of allergens. 

Florida athletics director Scott Stricklin implied that was the case — players had allergy-like symptoms and kept quiet — for the program’s current outbreak, and Houston saw how the situation spiraled. 

“I think that’s very important. You want to take care of your teammates. One guy can ultimately destroy the whole team. That’s what it is. It’s always been one for all or all for one,” Houston said. “If you are interested in the team and how we do this year, you need to take the right precautions, follow the protocols and do what you’ve got to do so we can have this great season.”

And it’s not as if anyone remains unaware of the risks at hand. While COVID-19 has been a relentless topic in the discussion of college football, it’s seen as a valid point to discuss considering student-athletes aren’t naive to how fickle and tenuous the line between safe and unsafe remains. 

“It’s a little difficult. I guess, almost in a sense, every player at the beginning of the year kind of had to sit down with either themselves or their parents and discuss whether or not they felt like the risk-reward on getting the virus or playing the season and how you felt about that,” Houston said. “Everyone has made their decision, if they’re playing now they’ve made their decision. You’re going to have the risk of getting the virus. It’s going to be difficult to kind of enforce those protocols on the road and on the plane, stuff like that. That’s when your guys have to take care of each other. You have to wear your mask, be as disciplined as possible, and just do the right things. That’s the only way we’ll all get through it.”

For the next two months to go off according to planned — well, the new plan at least — Florida’s players will have to follow their initial commitment to the protocols. 

There’s no middle ground, no leeway — only a competitive disadvantage for not following procedures in place. To reach the lofty goals — albeit ones that came amidst more certain times — the team set previously, the Gators have to, for once, limit the mistakes to the football field. 

“Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to be part of the win, part of the team, so (self-reporting symptoms) is going to be difficult,” Houston said. “You don’t want this type of thing to happen again to the team. If we’re out another two weeks, we probably run the risk of forfeiting our season."

Saturday

Who: Missouri (2-2) vs. No. 9 Florida (2-1)

When: 7:30 p.m. 

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (88,548 - 17,000 reduced)

TV: SEC Network Alternate

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Tickets: floridagators.com

COVID protocols: floridagators.com