GAINESVILLE, Fla. — What a week it has been for the Florida football program.
The Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC) have been preparing for their game against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) on Saturday, a rivalry game on a neutral site with season-impacting implications for both teams.
For Florida, a win keeps alive their slim hopes in the SEC East. A loss means fighting for pride and a bowl game.
For Georgia, a win keeps them perfect and on a clear path to the SEC Championship Game. A loss virtually eliminates any hopes of a run to the College Football Playoff.
But in Gainesville, football became a secondary topic once again for a few days after coach Jim McElwain on Monday announced, unprompted, that people associated with his program had received death threats but provided little clarity on the situation. On Wednesday, McElwain clarified his statements a bit, saying he let one or two anonymous messages that “happened in the past” get to him.
Regardless of how the situation turns out, this isn’t the first time this season — or in recent years — that the program has gone through its share of vitriol.
In fact, one would have to go back to 2012 to find the last relatively calm year surrounding the Gators program. Florida went 11-1 in the regular season, earned a Sugar Bowl berth and was ranked as high as No. 3 during Will Muschamp’s second season.
Over the next five years, well, there have been some rough times, some football related, some involving off-the-field issues that took the focus from the game.
Before the season began, Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison was arrested twice within a five-week span, with the latter being for barking at a police dog.
According to a police report, Morrison said the dog barked first.
The Gators started the season 4-1 before the wheels fell off. Florida dropped its final seven games of the season — including a 26-20 loss to then-FCS Georgia Southern. Florida had 14 players suffer major injuries — 11 that were season-ending — throughout the year and were down to third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg by the end of the season.
Despite the worst season of Florida football since 1979, then-athletics director Jeremy Foley released a statement on the school’s website saying, “I’m a thousand percent convinced that Will Muschamp is the guy to lead this football program. Nothing has changed in what we feel about Will Muschamp from the day we hired him.”
Muschamp remained the coach after the season ended.
Florida again got off to a strong start in 2014. The Gators were 3-1 — their lone loss on the road to Alabama — and were coming off a 10-9 come-from-behind road win against Tennessee sparked by freshman quarterback Treon Harris, who replaced Jeff Driskel late in the third quarter.
Maybe, just maybe, Florida had found its quarterback.
The Monday after the game, Harris was under investigation by the University of Florida Police Department for an alleged sexual assault. He was suspended from the program during the investigation. Two days later, UFPD released 175 pages of documentation — including witness testimony and an interview between Harris and a detective. The complainant ultimately dropped her case and Harris was reinstated to the team.
The Gators dropped their next two home games, to LSU and Missouri, putting Muschamp firmly on the hot season.
An upset win over Georgia and a narrow road win over Vanderbilt — before which defensive lineman Leon Orr abruptly boarded a Greyhound bus from Nashville and left the team — preceded a loss at home to a Steve Spurrier-led South Carolina team on Nov. 15. Muschamp was fired the next day and would leave the post following Florida’s regular-season finale against Florida State.
In April, Florida defensive back J.C. Jackson was arrested for reportedly being part of an armed robbery at a Gainesville apartment complex. He was cleared of the charges in November and ultimately transferred to Maryland.
The Gators opened the Jim McElwain era 6-0 and seemed to have found their quarterback in Will Grier, a deep-threat passer who had led the team to a perfect record that included an upset win over No. 3 Ole Miss.
And then, on Oct. 12, Grier was suspended for 12 months by the NCAA for violating its substance-abuse policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
“I really hope that people can learn from this, learn from my mistake,” Grier said that day, his voice breaking as he stood in front of reporters. “Really sorry to everyone. Just really sorry.”
The Gators went on to win the SEC East for the first time since 2009, but the season ended on a three-game losing skid to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan.
Also, the quarterback woes that have persisted since 2009 once again continued.
Grier ultimately transferred to West Virginia. After sitting out the 2016 season, he is fourth nationally in passing yards per game this season (352.4) and has a nation-best 26 touchdown passes.
UF suspended wide receiver Antonio Callaway and quarterback Treon Harris on Jan. 27 for violating student code of conduct policy. During that time, they were barred from campus and were unable to take in-person classes or participate in football activities.
Callaway was allowed to return to campus in June and began practicing with the team on the Gators’ first day of summer camp.
Harris, Florida’s lone quarterback on the roster at the time who had played game snaps for the Gators, transferred in July.
It was later revealed during the summer that the suspensions were related to an sexual assault accusation. The complainant boycotted the Title IX hearing for the case because a Florida football booster was appointed to rule on the case.
Callaway was ultimately ruled not responsible, in part, according to the hearing decision, because he said he was “so stoned I had no interest in having sex with anyone.”
Callaway played the entire 2016 season.
That wasn’t the only off-the-field issue, though. In October, the Gators indefinitely suspended cornerback Deiondre Porter after he was arrested for allegedly firing a handgun in the direction of his pregnant girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Florida’s uncertainty at quarterback continued. The Gators named their ninth and 10th starting quarterbacks since Tim Tebow in Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby. Del Rio went 5-1 as a starter before season-ending injuries. Appleby went 1-1 in his initial sting as starter — a road loss to Tennessee and road win at Vanderbilt — and went 3-2 to close out the season.
Callaway had another run-in with the law in May after being cited for marijuana possession while riding in a car with a 40-year-old man with a lengthy rap sheet. McElwain said he was “really disappointed” in Callaway’s actions but didn’t indicate any disciplinary action.
After a relatively quiet summer, the Gators endured more off-the-field issues when nine players — including Callaway and starting running back Jordan Scarlett — were suspended ahead of the marquee season opener against Michigan for alleged credit card fraud. The University of Florida Police Department recommended felony charges for all nine players on Sept. 25.
The State Attorney’s Office on Thursday offered seven of the nine players pre-trial interventions. If the players meet the requirements set by a judge at their diversion hearings, the felony charges will be expunged from their record.
And then McElwain’s claims of death threats surfaced Monday, adding yet another piece to this puzzle.
On the field, the Gators are 3-3 and still looking to resolve the long-standing problem at quarterback. Feleipe Franks is 2-3 as a starter and is ranked 99th nationally in passing yards per game (133.3).