FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Florida’s College Football Playoff hopes lived for just four days.
UF debuted at No. 11 in the first rankings Tuesday, and ESPN analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Greg McElroy said the Gators had an outside chance at becoming one of the four teams in the playoffs.
But that dream died less than three minutes into the Arkansas game Saturday, which was effectively over after Luke Del Rio’s pick-6. Florida’s inept offense managed just 3 points in the 31-10 loss to the Razorbacks.
Gators coach Jim McElwain and his team looked mentally defeated in post-game interviews. By then, reality had set in.
“Obviously, we’re out of the playoffs,” defensive tackle Caleb Brantley said.
As unrealistic as it seems now, that was Florida’s goal in 2016. The players made that clear following their second-half collapse at Tennessee, saying no UF team had won a national championship without one loss.
The hope was that Del Rio’s return to the starting lineup would get the offense back on track. Instead, the unit has regressed along with Del Rio, and Florida’s defense has now been exposed twice this year.
But one Gators player tried to lift their spirits after the Arkansas loss.
“CeCe (Jefferson) told us in the locker room, it’s not over,” Del Rio said. “Our season’s not over. It’s not like we’re 2-7 here. We didn’t play well Saturday, but we’re a good team.”
And it’s a team that can still win the SEC East. Even if the Gators lose one more game, a division title could happen if they get some help. Florida won’t go to Atlanta with the top-10 ranking it wanted, but the trip isn’t out of reach.
“CeCe just told the guys to keep their heads up,” offensive tackle David Sharpe said. “We’ve still got a lot to play for. It showed a lot of character that the guys hated to lose more than they love to win.”
Sharpe called Jefferson one of the team leaders, who now face the challenge of trying to galvanize this group. Not only did Florida’s confidence take a shot Saturday, but there’s not a lot positives to help the Gators regain it.
But UF safety Marcus Maye said Jefferson did his best to keep morale high.
“It was big,” Maye said. “He just basically told us we’ve still got to keep working. We can’t fall apart. We’ve got to stick together.
“He said we’ve got a bunch of ball left and he wouldn’t go out on a Saturday with anybody else. So, it was definitely a good message.”
McElwain delivered a similar message to the team, but he’s not focused on winning the division later this month. He’s more concerned with film review Sunday and practice Monday.
“The East is a long way away,” McElwain said. “We’ve got to take care of things, so we’ve got a long road ahead of us. We’ll get started tomorrow.”
But the players will move forward with Jefferson’s message on their mind.
“We still have a SEC championship to play for,” Brantley said. “That’s motivation.”