Florida players embracing underdog role heading into Georgia game
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida safety Chauncey Gardner didn’t mince words Monday.
The 3-3 Gators are prepared for arguably their toughest matchup of the season against the undefeated and third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. To the outside world, Florida is a heavy underdog — Georgia is favored by 14 points.
It’s a role Gardner has seen the Gators placed in far too many times this season for his liking.
So, he spoke his mind.
“Everybody wants to see us lose every game,” Gardner said. “Oh Florida this, Florida that. We’ve been the underdog since the first game of the season. The whole season [has been] ‘Can these guys get back to Atlanta?'”
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It’s understandable why.
Between injuries and suspensions, the Gators are playing without more than 15 scholarship players. Add in the continued struggles at quarterback, and Florida barely pulled itself to .500 before the bye week.
Two of its wins were based on last-second plays — a 63-yard touchdown from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland against Tennessee and a missed 57-yard field goal by Kentucky.
Its last two losses — home defeats to LSU and Texas A&M — have been by a combined 3 points.
Not exactly the smoothest road for the back-to-back SEC East champions.
“We’re not satisfied,” Gardner said. “We know what we’ve been doing. We know what we’ve got to do. We haven’t been blown out. We’ve been playing tough games. We just couldn’t make plays when things were going wrong so I mean, a lot of people look at us down as an underdog but if you think about it we’ve been playing tough all year.”
Gardner then took it a step further.
He was asked about playing against Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who leads the SEC and is sixth nationally with a pass efficiency rating of 170.4.
Gardner wasn’t impressed.
“You say they have a great quarterback — I get it. He’s throwing simple passes — I get it. Anybody can throw a slant — I get it,” Gardner said. “But I mean, we’re just playing football. If you call him the best quarterback, so be it, but he has to play Saturday. We’re going to see what his best attribute is.
“If he can beat us with his arm, whoopty do.”
And now they have to play against a College Football Playoff contender in Georgia with their season essentially on the line. An upset win against Georgia puts Florida back into consideration for the SEC East. From there, the Gators would need to run the table in the conference and Georgia would need to lose at least one more SEC game for Florida to clinch the division.
A loss, however, means the Gators are playing for pride and merely fighting to become bowl eligible.
“It’s a must-win game,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said. “We’re going to give our all. We’re going to go out there and go out and give our all and come out on top.”
This isn’t the first time the Gators have been the underdog against the Bulldogs and came away with the win.
Just look back to 2014.
Just like this season, the Gators were 3-3 heading into a matchup against a top-10 Georgia team.
But when the Gators made their way over the Hart Bridge and into Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., a team with a seemingly newfound life surfaced. Florida rushed for 418 yards, scored 31 unanswered points at one point and walked away with a 38-20 victory that brought morale back if only for a couple weeks.
Florida is hoping for a similar result on Saturday.
“This game feels like a championship game to us,” Gardner said. “If they’re the best team, so be it, but they have to play Saturday. We’re gonna see them Saturday.”
Gardner isn’t alone.
Wide receiver Josh Hammond quickly pointed to the fact that Florida has won three straight against the Bulldogs — including that 2014 win. That, he said, is more than enough reason to not count Florida out.
“That brings a lot of confidence to us, just knowing that Georgia isn’t a team that we lose to,” Hammond said. “So I think that’s the message in the locker room right now: They might be the No.  team in the country, but they can’t beat Florida. That’s our mentality going forward and we’ll come out and be ready to play.”
Even if no one expects them to do it.
“For me I just want to go out there and play football,” Gardner said, “and if you’re better than us, prove it.
“If you’re not, just keep it pushing.”