GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain has called 2015 a year of discovery.
It wasn’t just about him getting to know the team. Every new coach goes through that. But his players had a lot to learn about themselves as well.
In McElwain’s first season, they bought into his program and got a taste of what they’re capable of. However, like all great things, it took time.
The Gators sleepwalked through East Carolina with embarrassing effort that earned them a Nick Saban-esque “ass chewing” from McElwain. Things didn’t get better at Kentucky in a 14-9 win.
They looked pedestrian again the next week and were at risk of doing what no UF team had since 2004 — lose to the Vols. Trailing 27-14 in the fourth quarter, Florida couldn’t move the ball offensively or stop Tennessee’s run game.
Simply put, the Gators were dead in the water. Then they came alive.
“I think down deep,” McElwain said after the game, “you just don’t lose to Tennessee. And they didn’t.”
Quarterback Will Grier orchestrated a 17-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that featured two fourth-down conversions. After a three-and-out by Florida’s defense, the Gators got the ball back with 2:18 but failed to pick up a first down on their first three plays of the series.
On fourth-and-14 with the game — and streak — on the line, UF made the greatest game-winning scoring play ever in The Swamp.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) September 22, 2016
“Here’s the one thing I think a year ago proved to that football team — just go win the next play,” McElwain said. “Don’t worry about anything. I thought they kept their head down and just played. I think we kind of proved to ourselves a little bit what we were trying to accomplish.”
The 28-27 comeback victory over Tennessee was the springboard to an SEC East championship. The Gators upset No. 3 Ole Miss 38-10 the following week and their 6-0 start moved them into the top 10.
Florida’s season went downhill after that, with Grier’s yearlong PED suspension and Treon Harris’ 4-4 record in his place. But the team did enough in the first half of the year to win their division for the first time since 2009.
If “He’s Going To Score!” doesn’t happen, Tennessee would have been in Atlanta.
“It was a big win for our program,” UF safety Marcus Maye said. “The way it ended was exciting. It’s probably something that’s going to go down in history as one of the great games.
“Just being a part of that was definitely great for our team to experience. It opened our eyes to see what kind of a team we are. We fought back.”
After developing a “woe is me” attitude under former coach Will Muschamp, the Gators figured out what it takes to be successful in that Tennessee game. They overcame a deficit and won when they probably deserved to lose.
That gave them confidence against Ole Miss and beyond, but was also a learning experience.
“That (Tennessee) game definitely opened up our eyes and showed us there’s a certain way we need to play,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “Tennessee took advantage of our mistakes last year. We put ourselves in a lot of bad situations.
“So just based on the work we’ve done this offseason and just looking back at the film from last year, we know we’re a different team. We have a different outfit.”
The Gators are expecting a dogfight Saturday. Players from both teams have trash-talked all offseason, none more than UF cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson.
“You have to strap your chinstraps, lace ’em up and go play ball,” Tabor said. “It’s in Knoxville. We know we’re going to get a crazy atmosphere. It’s going to be a war out there.”
This is must-win game for Tennessee coach Butch Jones. For McElwain, he said it’s not monumental in the development of his program. He knows his team still can win the SEC East without beating the Vols.
But thinking that way would be a losing mentality, and his players have gotten that out of their system. The Gators are no longer discovering if they can win big games like this one.
They expect to.
“We’re going to go out there a whole lot different than last year,” Davis said, “and put ourselves in a position to win and dominate the game.”