ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s rise up college football polls and to the top of the SEC East in 2015 seemed like a distant memory on New Year’s Day.
The No. 19 Gators were outplayed and physically outmatched in Friday’s Citrus Bowl, a 41-7 loss to 14th-ranked Michigan. The UF offense produced one score for only the second time this season, and the defense gave up a season-worst in points and yards (503).
“Call it the way it is, they out-physicaled us guys. No doubt about it,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said after the game. “They really took it to us on both sides of the ball.”
Since November, that’s been a reoccurring theme for the Gators, who started the season 7-1 and bounced back from a close loss at LSU with a 27-3 win over UGA on Oct. 31.
“After that Georgia game, it just went downhill from there,” UF cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “9-7 against Vandy, that’s not supposed to happen. 14-20 overtime against FAU, that’s not supposed to happen. Get blown out at home against FSU, that’s not supposed to happen.”
The Florida State game was the first of three-consecutive losses for the Gators to end the season. Though FSU, Alabama and Michigan all appeared to have more overall talent than Florida, McElwain was bothered by his team’s mindset after SEC play concluded.
“You can never take your foot off the gas pedal,” McElwain said. “We had some guys satisfied when we first won the East. I think they’ve gotten a taste now of what you really have to do in personal preparation moving forward.”
The Gators clinched their division in the first week of November against Vanderbilt, but that ugly 9-7 win was a sign of things to come. Offensive lineman Trip Thurman said the team already had its sights set on the conference title game in Atlanta before playing the Commodores.
“We weren’t worried about beating Vanderbilt, we were worried about what was going to happen after we beat Vanderbilt,” Thurman said. “We’ve never been there before. I think it’s obvious some of the guys on the team, some of the younger guys who haven’t been there don’t know how to succeed. We got a little complacent.”
While McElwain is disappointed with the finish to this season, he still views his first year at Florida as a success.
“I thought it was,” he said. “Maybe that’s my fault about being upbeat. Yeah, I’m disappointed. We’re all disappointed. But you’ve also got to learn from disappointment, and we will.”
“We’ve got a ways to go, as I’ve said from the start. And yet, we’re on our way to building something special. I’m really looking forward to hitting the offseason and really getting a full year behind us as we now know the expectations. There’s a lot we can learn from that (bowl) game.”
Tabor said the 2016 team will draw on the experiences and — more importantly — the failures of 2015, just as this year’s group used 2014 for motivation.
“Coming off the (2014) season we had, 7-5, after we got the SEC East, we felt like we were good,” Tabor said. “Just like we learned from that 7-5 team to get to the SEC championship, we’re going to learn from this team and how we got there but fell off late in the end.
“Had a pretty good year, but got a little lax down the stretch. It’s a learning lesson.”