GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain’s chief task this week was getting his Florida players to move forward from what happened last Saturday at Tennessee while making sure they didn’t dwell on that deflating defeat for too long.
As he found out, though, he needed a little help in that regard himself.
“I think one of the things that really hit me as I looked at it, we took this loss very, very hard. That actually shows something — it shows the care, it shows the reflection. And I was guilty of it,” McElwain said during his weekly appearance on “Gator Talk” on Thursday night. “It was not easy to bounce back, and I kind of talked to our guys about tearing off the rearview mirror and moving forward and one of those guys even reminded me on Tuesday, ‘Coach, it’s time you move forward.’
“And that was good. That was a great sign. I’m pretty fired up. I got after their tail pretty good (Wednesday and Thursday) so they knew I was back.”
He’ll hope to see a similar indication from his No. 23-ranked Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) on Saturday as they visit Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-1) in Nashville.
Florida has won 24 of the last 25 meetings with the Commodores, though it needed a late field goal last year in Gainesville to eke out a 9-7 win.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, needed overtime to slip past Western Kentucky last weekend and avoid a 1-3 start after already losing to a rebuilding South Carolina team (13-10) and getting rolled over by Georgia Tech (38-7).
The Commodores are not without talent, though.
Redshirt-junior running back Ralph Webb leads the SEC and ranks ninth nationally with 472 rushing yards. The Gainesville native ran for 118 yards against Florida last year, including a 74-yard touchdown scamper.
Sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur is coming off a career-best passing performance after throwing for 279 yards in that 31-30 win against Western Kentucky.
And on the other side of the ball, McElwain has raved about Vanderbilt redshirt-junior linebacker Zach Cunningham, calling him the most underrated player in the SEC.
All of that said, Vanderbilt is just 9-19 overall now in coach Derek Mason’s third season.
Mason put a positive spin on that, sounding like Nick Saban-light in emphasizing the process the program has undergone.
“Teaching somebody how to win is tough because if they don’t have it in them, sometimes it’s hard to pull it out. But I have to give these kids credit, I’ve got to give our coaches credit and I’ve got to give our strength and conditioning staff credit,” Mason said this week. “Everything that we’ve tried to do in this program has been built around being relentless, tough and intelligent and being committed and trained. And that’s not an overnight process.
“What I mean by that is, we don’t ask our military just to go to war. We actually put them through training, we try to make sure we harden their abilities, sharpen their skills and give them the best chance for success. Well, it’s been almost 28 months in the making, but we’re getting closer and closer to that.”
And while that’s all well and good, the reality is Mason inherited a program that was coming off back-to-back 9-4 seasons under former coach James Franklin before he left for Penn State.
The Commodores’ defense — which is Mason’s area of expertise — is ranked 102nd nationally through four games, giving up 452.5 yards per game. That is after finishing last season ranked 28th in total defense at 350.5 yards per game allowed.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied, but I think when you look at the reality of it, 2-2 is what we deserve to be,” he said. “You sort of get what you earn and right now this football team feels that they let an opportunity or two slip away, but they don’t want to make the same mistake. … So right now I think this (team) is definitely moving in the right direction.”
There’s a reason Florida has won 24 of the last 25 meetings in the series with the lone exception coming during a forgettable 4-8 season in 2013 under former coach Will Muschamp. The two programs reside on different ends of the SEC spectrum.
So this is a take-care-of-business kind of game for the Gators, who need to be able to handle an opponent like Vanderbilt comfortably if they are going to be the team they hope to be — and if they are going to rebuild some momentum after blowing that 21-0 lead and surrendering 38 straight points at Tennessee last week.
McElwain and everyone else will find out Saturday just how the Gators have processed and learned from that setback.
“One of the things that you kind of have to learn as you go through whatever you do in life, not everything is going to go your way,” McElwain said. “And (it’s about) understanding how you can stop, step back, look, evaluate and now let’s go ahead and learn from it and move forward. You know, our guys played hard, there’s no doubt about it. …
“We’re a good football team and we’ve got a lot to play for and a lot of football left, and we’re excited to go get after it.”