Florida’s football program continues to make headlines for what happens off the field rather than on it, and the lead-up to facing Georgia has been no different.
With coach Jim McElwain’s comments Monday seemingly implying the third-year UF coach had received death threats, followed by an awkwardly worded statement from a UAA spokesman that only cast further doubt on McElwain’s allegations, the Gators once again found themselves in the news for non-football issues.
But with the midway point of the season in the rearview mirror, the Gators have attempted to block out all outside noise as the team prepares to face No. 3 Georgia (7-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Whether it’s the suspended players, quarterback competition or rumors surrounding McElwain’s imminent departure, the Gators have become accustomed to filtering out any distractions that may derail their preparation.
“I guess they want us to feed into it. I mean, we don’t care, we’re playing football,” defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr. said. “You can say all those things you want about his family, about this team, we’re playing football, we’re not worried about outside (noise). That’s not going to win you a ball game, so we’re not focused on that. We’re going to do what we got to do to win football games.”
Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Brett Heggie echoed Gardner’s sentiments, saying the Gators are focused and the mood at practice has been anything but somber.
“Positive. A lot of energy. Preparing well for a good opponent. We’re preparing to go win a game,” Heggie said. “We don’t worry about (distractions), we don’t worry about it. We just play ball. You know, that’s what we came here to do is go to school and play football. The rest, it doesn’t mean anything to us. So you know, just come out and prepare again every day to go play a big football game and that’s all we’re focused on.”
And any idea that the events of the season, both on and off the field, have thrust the Gators into an underdog role is pure nonsense in Gardner’s mind.
“I feel like we’ve been the underdog for the past 10 years. Everybody wants to see us lose every game,” Gardner said. “We’ve been the underdog since the first game of the season, whole season (it’s been) ‘can these guys get back to Atlanta?’ We’ve been shocking everybody wrong, proving everybody wrong, but we’re not, like I said, this underdog role, that’s just a word to us. Especially for me, I just want to go out there and play football. And if you’re better than us, prove it. If you’re not, just keep it pushing.”
While some admitted the trials of the past eight weeks had taken a toll, many Gators didn’t seem fazed by McElwain’s comments and the implications. Just like McElwain hasn’t wavered in supporting the players, the Gators aren’t looking to turn their backs on their head coach.
“It’s been, you know, kind of frustrating. But at the end of the day, we’ve just got to just keep moving forward,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said of the season. “We’re not really worried about (outside noise). We’re just going to keep moving forward. We’ve got Coach Mac’s back. We’re just going to continue to be positive moving forward.”
But Johnson didn’t mince words when stressing the positive effects that could come from downing Georgia, and he didn’t attempt to minimize the gravity of the game. Because no amount of positivity will matter if Florida falls to the Bulldogs, essentially eliminating the Gators from SEC East contention.
“It’s a must-win game. We’re going to give our all,” Johnson said. “We’re going to go out there and give our all and come out on top.”
Who: Florida (3-3, 3-2 SEC) vs. No. 3 Georgia (7-0, 4-0)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850