FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A subdued Jim McElwain sat stunned in his postgame media session Saturday night.
He spoke slowly while at times pausing between thoughts, sounding like a man searching for answers at the same time he was giving them.
He said he had a feeling all the way back in the summer that Florida’s game at Arkansas was going to be telling, and it certainly was.
But surely not in the way he envisioned. The Razorbacks dominated the No. 10 Gators on the way to a 31-10 win. They had a nearly 19-minute advantage in time of possession, demonstrably won the line of scrimmage on both sides and made Florida look feeble on offense.
“This is one of those games from the summer when you looked at the schedule and where it lied, you kind of were like, ‘Hmm, I wonder what is going to happen a little bit,'” McElwain said.
He said earlier in the week that he hoped his Gators could use that trip to Fayetteville to further define themselves.
Now, they have to hope that was indeed not a defining representation of this team or else this season could pivot dramatically from one of surging hopes to one that could again spiral down the stretch like a year ago.
Florida (6-2, 4-2 SEC) hosts South Carolina this Saturday. A few weeks ago, it looked like something of a formality in between the tests at Arkansas and LSU.
Every week is a test the rest of the way now.
The Gators have reportedly lost veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone for the season with a broken arm and could be down several other key starters next Saturday, as well. They face a quarterback quandary after starter Luke Del Rio continued his struggles, and in general they have to regroup mentally after having their College Football Playoff hopes dashed.
The Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4), meanwhile, are showing growth under new head coach Will Muschamp. They are riding a three-game winning streak, including SEC victories over Tennessee and Missouri the last two weeks, and Muschamp would surely love to stick it to his former program after an unceremonious departure from Florida in 2014.
Not even a trap game at this point. It’s suddenly an intriguing matchup and the trip to Baton Rouge, La., the following week is looking plain daunting after LSU hung tough in a 10-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
The Gators still have plenty to play for over the next few weeks. Heck, they still lead the SEC East and control their path to the conference championship game.
Kentucky dropped to 4-3 with a loss this weekend and would lose the tiebreaker to Florida in the event of a tie; Georgia (3-4) can’t catch Florida; South Carolina (3-4) needs to win this week to pose any threat; and Tennessee remains the one to watch while lurking at 2-3. And then there’s an unrealistic but plausible six-way tie scenario in which each team finishes 4-4.
But there’s no point in Florida worrying about SEC championship game scenarios right now if it can’t solve its own more pressing obstacles.
That’s surely what McElwain was consumed with as he finished answering postgame questions Saturday night and headed home to try to find some answers for his team.
“I’m very disappointed. The locker room’s disappointed,” he had said. “But, you know, as you go through and things happen to you along the way, you get a real opportunity to test yourself and see how we’re going to rebound next week at home. And I just feel horrible for the Gator nation. …
“We’ll choose how we come back and how we work and, look, I still like our football team, I like our guys. They understand what we let slip away. But the key is what you learn from it.”
More to the point, the key is not letting this season slip away entirely after a such a deflating setback.
“We’ve still got our heads up,” safety Marcus Maye said. “We’ve still got a bunch of games left. We’ve got a big one next week. I mean, we’re gonna work tomorrow just like we always do. We can’t afford to go in the tank right now because we’ve still got a bunch of games left. We’re all just going to watch the film, make adjustments and get ready for next week.”