GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While many Florida fans have turned the page to 2018 and visions of what the next head coach — whoever that ends up being — can do in setting a new direction for the program, the players are left wrapping up a season with minimal stakes remaining.
They continue to insist, though, that these final two games mean plenty to them, and they hope they aren’t alone in that.
“Just looking forward and trying to finish strong for these seniors, trying to go 2-0 for those guys. Also our future. I feel like we have a young team and I feel like there’s better things coming in the future,” linebacker David Reese said. “I just want everyone to support us in our last two games in The Swamp. We’re happy to be playing back in The Swamp.”
Said running back Mark Thompson: “I just want to see people in The Swamp still supporting us. At the end of the day, they’re fans of the Gators. We’re the Gators. We’re going to play for them and hope they cheer for us. Hope it will be a good atmosphere. Go out there and have some fun.”
Florida hosts UAB on Saturday in its first home game since Oct. 14 before closing against rival Florida State next week.
The Gators (3-6) will be looking to snap a 5-game losing streak when they host the Blazers (7-3), who are members of Conference USA and are in their first season back after a two-year hiatus.
I would love to see the stadium filled these last 2 games, I know our seniors would very much appreciate it 💯
— Chauncey Gardner Jr (@CGJXXIII) November 14, 2017
The university administration decided to cut football after the 2014 season only to reverse course. Coach Bill Clark stayed through the interim and has done a commendable job restarting the Blazers with immediate success.
There are those who think UAB is a prime upset candidate this week against the Gators. That would be yet another disappointment in a season full of them for Florida, and the players at least seem resolute about not letting that happen.
“We know we’re probably going to get their best game. We don’t want that to happen in The Swamp,” Reese said. “Definitely, how things have been going now, it’s going to be a relief to finally get a win. So, you know, we’re going to be happy. We’re going to play our hardest.”
Said linebacker Cristian Garcia: “Regardless of what’s happened, we’re still going to try and win these next two games. Because it means a lot to us and it means a lot to our fans. … We’re coming out here to win and we’re not taking this team lightly at all because they’re 7-3 and we’re 3-6.”
Here are the keys for the Gators on Saturday:
1. Actions speak louder than words
Even this Florida team, depleted by injuries on both sides of the ball and beaten down by a disappointing season, should be able to take care of business against UAB.
What the Blazers have done is impressive, but the reality remains that they didn’t even field a team the last two years while the Gators were winning back-to-back SEC East titles.
Building a program that can stun a team from a larger conference takes time, and Clark may well get the Blazers to that point, but it shouldn’t be Saturday.
Reese, who was the vocal critic of his team’s effort and buy-in after the loss at Missouri two weeks ago, felt the Gators responded from a motivation level standpoint last week in a 28-20 loss at South Carolina. They just didn’t play well enough to end their slide.
“We came together, especially as a defense. Nobody quit,” he said. “They barely scored any points in the second half. In the first half, it was little things, mental errors, but we kept playing. That was the main thing.”
And that will be the main thing Saturday against UAB. If the Gators truly come to play, this is not a game they should lose … even in their current incarnation.
“Play for yourself, play for your pride, play for the name on your back, play for the name on the front of the jersey,” Thompson said. “We came here to play football, so just cause our season isn’t going the way we thought it would go doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue to play hard.”
2. Box in Brown
UAB averages 32.0 points per game, led by the strength of its rushing attack. Spencer Brown has rushed for 1,177 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
This should be Florida’s biggest concern Saturday given how poorly the Gators have stopped the run during this losing streak.
South Carolina rushed for 220 yards on 4.7 YPC last week against Florida, Missouri had 227 yards on 4.9 per carry and Georgia racked up 292 rushing yards on 8.3 per carry.
Brown, a 6-foot, 235-pound freshman, ranks second in Conference USA in rushing and could very well cause the Gators problems if they don’t bring a better performance.
3. One more audition for Franks
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks returns to the starting quarterback role this week because of Malik Zaire’s knee injury last week.
This is the second time the Gators have replaced Franks at quarterback only to quickly turn back to him following an injury. He should view this latest opportunity as an audition for the next head coach, a chance to put something on film better than what he’s shown to this point in a frustrating debut season.
Franks finished 10-of-25 passing for 174 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception last week after replacing Zaire in the second quarter.
He’s completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,102 yards, 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions over nine games and needs to show more as he hopes to convince the next head coach that he should be an option in 2018.
4. That goes for everybody else too
There’s not much more to say about the game itself.
Florida will return a lot of young players next season, giving the next regime a foundation of talent from which to start the rebuild. There are good building blocks already in place, really.
Whatever positives the young defensive backs, defensive linemen like Jachai Polite and T.J. Slaton, Reese at linebacker, wide receivers like Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney, etc., can finish with will only benefit them heading into the offseason.
Florida isn’t going to have the benefit of bowl practices this year so these final two games will help the evaluation as the new coaching staff takes over and assesses what it has inherited.
5. Set the stage for the finale
Beating UAB won’t mean anything to Florida fans, but a win next week over rival Florida State might.
Even in a down year for both programs. The Gators have lost four straight to the Seminoles and figure to have a chance to snap that streak with Florida State also off to a 3-6 start.
But it’s hard to imagine that happening if the Gators do get upset by UAB this weekend. They need at least some momentum, they need at least some reason to believe they can win.
A 6-game losing streak and a new low, with a loss to a start-up Blazers program, would not engender much belief.
A win Saturday might.