GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain won’t say it. Coaches never do, not in Week 3.
But No. 24 Florida’s SEC opener Saturday with No. 23 Tennessee might well shape the Gators’ entire season. It might well prove to be the most pivotal and important game on the schedule.
“Every game is critical,” McElwain said Wednesday.
Sure, every Saturday is important when the expectations are what they are for Florida. No loss sits easy with a demanding and increasingly impatient fan base. But it would sure seem like the outcome of this particular game with the rival Vols has the chance to dramatically dictate the direction and mood moving forward.
Do the Gators prove they are the team many expected in the preseason — well, minus suspended star running back Jordan Scarlett and top wide receiver Antonio Callaway — or do they show they are closer to the team that crumbled against Michigan in the opener?
Does maligned offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier justify McElwain’s confidence and loyalty and deliver a creative and dynamic game plan that finds a way to get Florida’s key playmakers significantly involved — again, the playmakers that are actually active and with the team — or does the frustration of the fan base grow louder in its call for change, and its plea for production?
Do the Gators handle at home a Tennessee program they’ve beaten 11 of the last 12 meetings — a Vols team that has a shiny 2-0 record but has yet to prove it’s better than a middle-of-the-pack SEC team — and show they are again a legit contender in the SEC East, or do they fall behind in that race from the start?
Does Florida show that it has recruited enough capable playmakers on offense to offset the loss of its two primary focal points — the duo that has been suspended from all team activities, along with seven other teammates, since the preseason — or does their off-the-field wrongdoing become the story of the 2017 season, more so than it already has been?
Does redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks show the poise and precision of his great potential this week and remove all questions at quarterback, or does he struggle and leave the position unsettled still?
“Yeah, you could look at this game as almost like a do-or-die type of game,” Gators linebacker David Reese said. “It’s like a real big point, a fork in the road.”
Indeed, it is.
McElwain won’t say it, can’t say it and, to be fair, shouldn’t say it. It’s not his job to magnify the aforementioned questions, to put even more pressure on his players. Quite the opposite, actually.
But the Gators know what’s at stake Saturday in The Swamp, and it goes both ways.
Everything is still before them. Their SEC goals are wholly intact. All of their goals are intact, for that matter. Fans may be frustrated, but nothing has been determined yet.
A win over the Vols goes a long way to painting that debacle in Dallas as an anomaly. A productive offensive performance silences at least some of the critics at least somewhat. A strong showing Saturday and suddenly the Gators are again the team many expected in the preseason, with renewed optimism and momentum and the chance to really get on a roll these next couple weeks leading into their much-anticipated showdown with LSU on Oct. 7.
The alternative is also in play. While momentum is tough to build, a season can start rolling downhill quickly, especially with the extra push of lingering disciplinary distractions.
Entering the season, this Tennessee game would not have been the obvious choice to circle as the Gators’ most important game, but it suddenly feels that way.
“I know where we’re going,” McElwain said. “I know the things we’re building. I’m excited about that, I’m excited about the direction. I’m excited about the young guys that we’re playing. We’ll just keep moving forward.”
A win Saturday would be a much-needed step in that direction.