GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Non-conference payout opponents are supposed to be cakewalks for the Power 5 schools who cut the check.
Florida, however, has been at risk of slipping up in these “guarantee games” as of late. One of them even resulted in the worst loss in school history.
“From a historical standpoint, this is something that’s been a little bit of an Achilles heel for Florida football,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
Of course, McElwain is referring to recent history, which we’ll revisit. But once upon a time, this wasn’t a story or talking point in Gainesville.
The Gators used to consistently clobber the smaller colleges they paid to play, and a 35-0 halftime score was money well spent. Teams under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer always cruised to victory and usually won big — 62-3 twice in 2009, 82-6 in 1997.
But in the last five years, including 2016, Florida has failed to cover the spread eight times, scored in the 20s in seven of those games and won three of them by only one score. Last season UF needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic and had an “embarrassing” win over East Carolina that made McElwain irate on the field, on the sideline and at the podium.
In 2012, the No. 6 Gators found themselves tied with Louisiana Lafayette with 13 seconds left in the game. They avoided overtime with a game-winning punt block.
And who can forget 2013, when Florida went 4-8 and suffered a $550,000 loss to Georgia Southern in a game where the Eagles didn’t complete a pass and only attempted three.
Florida’s inability to route cash-strapped schools on a regular basis under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain (so far) is glaring problem for the program. McElwain highlighted it all week.
“I look at it a little bit overall in just the history of this program,” he said. “More so, that mindset of understanding great teams learn how to prepare and be proud of how they play and realize you’re only given so many opportunities to go do this. And for us, I think we really need to focus on that.”
Tennessee looms large for UF next week, but North Texas is not a trap game. That entails a team capable of winning, and the Mean Green are 36-point underdogs. Last year’s road trip to Missouri in between Ole Miss and LSU was an actual trap game for the Gators.
What they’re facing Saturday night is a potential letdown against an inferior opponent. It already happened in the season opener with a sloppy 24-7 win over UMass, which received $1.25 million to play Florida.
“Being honest, I don’t think they’re real proud with what they did. They played just OK in that first game,” McElwain said. “You can’t just go out and be OK and think that that’s a good thing. And I thought they took that to heart and really played well this last game.”
The Gators rebounded last Saturday with a dominant 45-7 win over Kentucky. McElwain scoffed at the notion that his players raised their level of play for an SEC matchup.
If so, that suggests North Texas won’t be taken seriously and then they’ll lock in for the Tennessee game. McElwain wants his team always focusing on themselves, not the opponent.
“I don’t know how you can ever do anything and not go out and do your best,” McElwain said. “And yet, that doesn’t mean you’re ever going to be perfect. No one’s ever perfect. But the energy and the way you prepare to go out against anybody, it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter if it’s football or if it’s Tiddlywinks or if it’s going to the ice cream truck really fast; you want to go do it the best way you can.”
UF was at its best against Kentucky, setting several team and individual statistical highs in what McElwain called “as complete a performance as I think we’ve ever played with.” That’s a step in the right direction, but now it has to become the norm from week to week.
“What you learn when you play well like we did (last) Saturday is it really doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” quarterback Luke Del Rio said. “It matters how you execute the game plan and the intensity and enthusiasm for which you play with. If you’re worried about who you’re playing and not about your own job, then you’re not going to play well.”
Maybe that’s why Florida has struggled with mediocre teams recently. The players just don’t get psyched for these games and make mental mistakes. McElwain is trying to change that mindset.
“If you look historically, it sometimes has let that creep up and enter the psyche,” McElwain said. “It’s not something you coach them to do. But let’s face facts. I’m pretty blunt when I talk to them, ‘This is what it is, and it’s your choice.’ That’s the beautiful thing is it’s a choice.
“So I stressed to our guys this is an opportunity to create your own identity and be different. You know, we’ll see on Saturday.”