That was ugly.
But what did you expect? The No. 18 Gators entered as 17 1/2-point underdogs and played like it, falling to No. 2 Alabama 29-15 on Saturday in the SEC Championship game held in the Georgia Dome. Now, Florida will have about a month to regroup before its bowl game.
1. Citrus Bowl bound?: Well, the Sugar Bowl is out of the question. With Alabama expected to be in the College Football Playoff, the next SEC team ranked highest in the final College Football Playoff poll plays in the Sugar Bowl and that should be No. 13 Ole Miss, which is already ranked ahead of Florida. So where does that leave the Gators? After the Sugar Bowl, the Citrus Bowl gets the first choice of available SEC teams. The Gators are expected to be that first choice as SEC East champions. Who would they play? The bowl pits an SEC team against a Big Ten team. A lot of the projections have Florida taking on Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. That would be an interesting matchup between a pair of star first-year coaches — Jim McElwain versus Jim Harbaugh. The Citrus Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2016 at 1 p.m. in Orlando, Fla. Official bowl pairings will be announced Sunday.
2. Antonio Callaway continues to impress: Just when you think the freshman wide receiver is done wowing you, Antonio Callaway makes another special play. On Saturday, Callaway was one of the few bright spots. The Miami native took a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give Florida a brief 7-2 lead in the second quarter. He now has 435 punt return yards this season, which is the second-most in a single season in program history behind Brandon James (510 yards in 2008). Also, with Callaway’s 46-yard catch against Alabama, he has now been the recipient of five of the Gators’ seven longest passing plays this season.
“He’s a great player,” McElwain said of Callaway. “I’ll tell you what, I’m so happy that he’s here. He’s a guy that truly lights up a room with his smile, the warmth of his heart. He’s a guy I love to be around. He’s one that affects the people around him, including the coaches, in a positive way. This guy’s got a couple of really good years left for the Gators.”
3. NFL decisions still to be made: One Gators player is 100 percent sure about his decision. Linebacker Jarrad Davis said he will return for his senior season. But cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson are still mulling over their futures at Florida. Hargreaves is leaning toward entering the NFL draft. Robinson didn’t give an indication which way he’s leaning.
Here’s what Hargreaves had to say after the SEC Championship: “We’ve been talking about it. It’s not something we’ve been trying to hide. I most likely am going to declare for the NFL and see where it goes from there.”
That’s not a surprise, considering Hargreaves is projected to be a top-10 pick in most mock drafts. If Hargreaves does decide to leave as expected, Florida is still in pretty good shape with cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson returning along with four cornerbacks already verbally committed to its incoming recruiting class.
Here’s what Robinson had to say after the SEC Championship: “I haven’t (thought about my future). I’ll probably talk to my coaches and my uncle about the decision.”
Even though Robinson didn’t give much with his answer, the expectation is that he will forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft after his rocky season under head coach Jim McElwain.
As for Davis, his return is big. With senior linebacker Antonio Morrison already leaving, Florida couldn’t afford to lose both of its starting linebackers. Now, the Gators should be able to start Davis alongside Alex Anzalone, who began the year as the starter before suffering a shoulder injury that’s kept him out since the East Carolina game on Sept. 12. That’s a pretty formidable duo.
“I felt something I never felt before out there in the championship game,” Davis said. “I feel like we can make another run at this thing next year. I’m coming back for sure.”
4. Not the second best team in SEC: Florida may have represented the SEC East in the conference championship, but the Gators are not the second best team in the SEC right now. That title belongs to LSU, Ole Miss or even Tennessee. Sure, Florida beat two of those teams, but this isn’t the same squad from earlier this season. The Gators have been outscored 91-70 over their past five games, which includes games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FAU. Florida finished ranked 12th in the conference in total offense and 10th in points per game. That’s definitely not the resume of a top team.
5. Recruiting is about to heat up: Just minutes after losing in the SEC Championship, McElwain was already thinking about the recruiting he’s going to do this week. With some down time before the bowl game, Florida coaches will hit the recruiting trail right away — as in Sunday.
“The future’s bright,” McElwain said. “Got a lot of good recruiting to do, a lot of good players are coming and going to want to come. I’m excited about it. And as we get out tomorrow, there’s a lot to celebrate. There’s a lot of momentum. And as I go back, what these players have done to band together and do what they did for the Gators, it’s pretty darn cool now.”
Florida’s 2016 class already has 25 commits, but there are a few more prospects that coaches are looking to nab. Five-star Carver (Ala.) outside linebacker Lyndell “Mack” Wilson, 5-star Bradenton-IMG Academy defensive end Shavar Manuel and 4-star Tampa Catholic wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers are a few of the guys Gators coaches have their eyes on. The current contact period goes until Dec. 14, which then starts a dead period that runs through Jan. 14. That gives Florida coaches a little more than a week to get some recruiting in before their bowl game.