GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators were hoping for a better start to the season.
A 3-3 record heading into the bye week is a tough place to be for a Gators team that had high expectations. Especially going into the bye with back-to-back home conference losses.
“It’s been kind of a rough ride,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said.
But the team isn’t giving up on its season just yet. The Gators know they have their main goals — namely a third straight SEC Championship Game appearance — in sight even if it’s a long road ahead.
“I think we kind of missed a few opportunities as the season has gone on, but it’s not over yet, really,” wide receiver Dre Massey said.
Johnson added, “I feel like it’s only gonna get better from here. Coach Mac is doing a good job with us, staying positive, and we just gonna take it step by step from here.”
The next step will be one of the toughest with the Gators facing undefeated Georgia on Oct. 28 in Jacksonville.
A loss to the third-ranked Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) all but guarantees that the Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC) will be eliminated from the SEC East race and will be playing for the future.
Meanwhile, an upset win would keep Florida on pace to stay in the race even though it would need help. In the simplest scenario, the Gators would need to win its final two conference games — road matches at Missouri and South Carolina — and would need Georgia to lose one of its final three SEC games against either South Carolina, Auburn or Kentucky to lock up Florida’s return trip to Atlanta.
“We can still turn some heads [and] I think these next couple weeks can really show that,” Massey said. “Georgia, that’s a big test, but as far as the East goes we’re still in it.”
It’s a spot Florida has been in before under coach Jim McElwain. Namely, last season.
The Gators were 4-2 in conference play with two SEC games left to play after a humbling 31-10 road loss at Arkansas. To close out the conference, Florida needed to pull out wins against South Carolina at home and LSU on the road.
The Gators won both matchups, defeating the Gamecocks 20-7 and upsetting the Tigers 16-10 to clinch the SEC East.
“We just have to keep playing our game,” sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner said.
But overall, it hasn’t been a smooth road. After opening the season 3-1 with late wins over Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Gators’ magic ran out. They lost to LSU on Oct. 14, 17-16, after falling behind by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. A potential game-tying extra-point attempt by Eddy Pineiro sailed left. Florida failed to move the ball on its final three drives, ultimately resulting in the loss.
One week later, Florida lost 19-17 to Texas A&M despite taking a 7-point lead early in the fourth quarter. The Aggies came back to kick field goals on three consecutive drives and Florida’s offense finished with just 37 yards in the quarter to blow the game.
Despite the late struggles, the players said the fourth-quarter collapses were more a result of failed execution than talent or personnel issue.
“A lot of guys always say, ‘Oh, you didn’t do this or that,’ ” Gardner said. “But I think that those games we lost, those close games, everybody played. Everybody did their job. It just didn’t fall our way. Like I’ve said, we didn’t lose the game because they were the better team.
“We just beat ourselves and we just didn’t execute.”
Florida can’t afford to beat itself anymore if it wants to make a late-season push back into college football relevance.
“The guys that are here, they play really hard and they’ve been playing hard,” McElwain said. “That’s all good and dandy, but at the end of the day you’ve got to win. We’ve got to come out with getting better with those guys this week and then put the plan together moving forward.”