GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain knows at least somewhat how those in and around the Tennessee program must be feeling after 11 straight losses to the Gators.
More to the point, he knows at least somewhat what Vols coach Butch Jones must be feeling, even in just his fourth year of being involved in what has been a one-sided rivalry for more than a decade now.
Asked if he had ever been on the other end of such a streak, McElwain recalled in vivid detail his own such experience.
“At Montana State now, so there was about a 13-year streak there where we kept muddling around with the (Montana) Grizzlies on the other end,” he said. “That was one of those things where you talk about games that stick to you, we took a two-minute drive down and put it in the end zone and our kicker kicked it out of bounds and gave the ball to them on the 35. They threw a grab post against quarters coverage, the guy catches it, the kicker kicks a game-winner with no time left to push a streak. And that was for the Big Sky championship that year. That’s one of those that always stays with you.”
“You really brought up a bad memory right there, by the way,” he added.
For the record, Montana had a 16-game winning streak over Montana State from 1986-2001, while McElwain was a part of it as a Bobcats assistant coach from 1995-99.
The streak that will be at stake on Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium, meanwhile, is an inescapable story line now leading up to every Florida-Tennessee game — until it’s broken, that is.
Outspoken Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor was even talking about it over the summer, getting his digs in early on the Vols.
And with each additional year it continues, it seems to get more and more painful for Tennessee.
The last two seasons, Florida has come from behind to pull out a pair of 1-point victories.
In their last visit to Neyland Stadium in 2014, the Gators were down 9-0 before scoring all 10 of their points in the fourth quarter for a 10-9 win.
And last year, well, they don’t get much tougher than last year.
Tennessee had the game all but in hand as Florida lined up for a fourth-and-14 play at its own 37 with less than two minutes left in the game.
But Will Grier hit Antonio Callaway on a quick slant, Callaway planted and spun back toward the sideline and raced all the way to the end zone with 1:26 left as his 63-yard touchdown and the ensuing extra point gave Florida a 28-27 lead.
The Vols’ Aaron Medley would later just barely miss a 55-yard field goal try in the final seconds that extended Florida’s streak.
“It means everything. We can’t give up that streak,” said junior cornerback Quincy Wilson, who offered his own quotable comments this week. “We’re definitely going in and giving it all we got.”
As much as it’s out there, though, McElwain says he tries not to make it a thing with his players.
“I can’t speak for what (the Tennessee coaches) do. I know they’ve had this circled and probably whatever since … I get it. That’s just not my gig,” he said when asked how coaches handle such a story line. “To me it’s a huge game, and I tell our guys, ‘This is a huge game. Huge. Because it’s the next game.’ When you become a team that’s able to understand that and keep it in perspective, the juice of the game itself, man, they’re going to be excited. How can you not be excited running out in front of 100,000 that are booing you?
“Man, that is so cool. I mean, where else does that happen, right? So I tell them more, ‘Let’s just go enjoy it because not everybody can ever experience this and just be proud of what you put on film.’ That’s really what it’s all about.”
That is a point McElwain has emphasized over and over this week, in his news conferences, on the SEC teleconference, during his live radio show on Thursday and surely over and over to his team.
More than the streak, he wants his players to appreciate the significance of having such a rivalry as the Gators do with Tennessee and Georgia and Florida State.
“It’s one of the things, even the short time I was in the NFL that I kind of missed,” he said. “There’s something special about the college rivalries. As I’ve said, I’ve been at places where you had to create rivalries because you really didn’t have any. To be at a place that has three of them like that (where there’s) so much that goes into it, man, that’s awesome.”