GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain was far more upbeat Thursday night during his weekly appearance on “Gator Talk” than he was a day earlier in meeting with local reporters.
He praised the way his team performed in practice earlier in the day and expressed confidence for how he expects the No. 24 Gators to bounce back Saturday in their SEC opener against No. 23 Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
And, he made sure to remind everybody that his team is still the two-time reigning SEC East champs.
“Defending SEC East champs. It goes through here and it goes through Gainesville,” McElwain said during the live radio show at Piesanos Pints & Pies. “And, you know, we’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I know our guys are excited to get back in The Swamp and have an opportunity to play and more than that be able to play an SEC, conference game.
“I really got that feeling today in practice. Our guys are ready to play, and I think they’re just ready to go out and kind of get after it. There was just a sense of, man, all the things that have kind of happened, they’re just ready to play and that was really good to see today in practice.”
A lot of things have happened to the Gators already this season.
They continue to be without nine suspended players, who have been kept away from team activities and games while a University of Florida Police Department investigation remains ongoing. They took a 33-17 drubbing from Michigan in their season opener that didn’t seem as close as the final score might suggest. And the Gators then had to cancel their Week 2 tune-up game with FCS foe Northern Colorado due to Hurricane Irma.
Now, they dive right into the start of SEC play.
“It’s time to go play,” McElwain said. “It would have been great to play a week ago, there’s no doubt about it, and yet (there is) the understanding of why. Now, OK, let’s move ahead and go get ready for this one.”
McElwain was asked about Florida’s offensive struggles and how he expected the unit to respond after mustering only 3 offensive points and 192 yards against the Wolverines.
The Gators will have to deliver answers on the field Saturday, but McElwain reiterated he was encouraged by the attitude he’s seen from the team in practice.
“It’s one of those deals where obviously they were disappointed in what kind of transpired a couple weeks ago. I know how excited they were to get out last week, and (then) it was almost like, ‘Darn, we’ve got to wait another week,'” he said. “So like I said, I got that feeling in practice today that they’re ready to get out and play, show what they’re all about, and more than anything to get in The Swamp. It’s something we come here for is to go play a game there.”
Fans will be coming to The Swamp hoping that offense can prove the season-opening stumbles were not reflective of what to expect the rest of the season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks is one source of optimism as he makes his second collegiate start after playing a little more than two quarters in that loss to Michigan.
The Northern Colorado game figured to be a prime opportunity for Franks to build confidence against an overmatched FCS foe. Instead, he’ll have to show his growth under the spotlight of a pivotal SEC rivalry game.
“Sometime you might say a new guy, hasn’t played much, you’d like to maybe have one of those, not gimme games but you know what I’m talking about,” McElwain said. “But you don’t come and play at Florida thinking about it. You come to think about playing on a national stage and this will be back-to-back national stages for him.”
Another point of anticipation for Florida and its fans Saturday is the opportunity to get another shot at the rival Vols after Tennessee scored 38 straight points in the teams’ meeting last year while rallying for a 38-28 win.
That snapped Florida’s 11-game winning streak in the series, and while the Gators are intent on returning to a more familiar outcome, McElwain reiterated that this game means just as much to the Vols.
“A wise little bird told me that this is that game that Tennessee has circled,” he said. “They know that for them to get to where they want to go they have to come to The Swamp and take it from the Gators.”