It didn’t take long for Jim McElwain to get this week’s psychological message across to his players.
Less than an hour after Florida’s comeback win over Tennessee on Saturday, the first-year Gators coach was already using one of his motivational tactics to lower expectations for his team entering Ole Miss week.
“Now we get a chance to go test ourselves against a great opponent that obviously, probably should beat the heck out of us,” McElwain said of the talented Rebels in his post-game press conference.
The message has been repeated throughout the week.
“Learn from it and let’s go to work today to get a little bit better and go play a team that I’m sure is going to come in here and figure that they should beat the heck out of us,” McElwain said Monday.
Even without McElwain’s psychological games, the No. 25 Gators (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) are still clear underdogs in their matchup against No. 3 Ole Miss (4-0, 2-0 SEC) on Saturday in the Swamp (7 p.m., ESPN).
But it’s just part of McElwain’s makeup as a coach to make sure his players have the right mindset entering games.
“Jim always tries to press the motivational button by trying to empower you when things aren’t going so well,” said former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who played for McElwain from 2008 through 2010 and is now an analyst for the SEC Network. “When things are going well, he tries to bring you down a notch. He does a great job of making you feel even-keeled.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze isn’t allowing McElwain’s tactics to affect his team, though.
“He may use those words to motivate his players, but we certainly have a lot of regard for Florida,” Freeze said to reporters this week. “They are playing extremely well. They are a very confident team and really well coached. They have well-run schemes.”
Despite what McElwain says, Florida is starting to earn some attention.
After winning their first four games, the Gators cracked the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time since October of 2013. Florida comes in at No. 25 on the list.
In addition, Saturday’s game against the Rebels will mark the first contest between ranked opponents held in the Swamp since No. 3 Florida hosted No. 9 South Carolina on Oct. 20, 2012.
“It has been a long time,” Gators redshirt senior wide receiver Valdez Showers said. “It definitely gets us excited. You can feel it in the air. We’ve been sick of not being ranked and not playing top-25 opponents and stuff like that, so we’re definitely not taking this lightly.”
Ole Miss enters the contest as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Rebels feature the second-best scoring offense in the nation with 54.8 points per game and already have a road win over Alabama this season.
Florida’s defense will have its hands full. The Gators secondary led by All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves will have to find a way to shut down a passing game that ranks 12th nationally, producing 344.5 yards per game.
“You can obviously see what they’re doing in recruiting is paying huge dividends because of the players they have on both sides of the ball,” McElwain said of the Rebels. “These guys that are top draft picks and top players and were top players coming out of high school.”
In fact, SB Nation has three Ole Miss players (DT Robert Nkemdiche, OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Laquon Treadwell) within the top 12 of its player rankings for the 2016 NFL Draft.
All of that plus McElwain’s motivational message has Gators players feeling like its them against the world.
“We’re the underdogs,” Showers said. “Of course, we’re Florida so we feel like we should be on top. So we have to show everybody why we should be on top.”