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Say what you will about the Florida Gators‘ offense. Criticize redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio for his uneven play. Suggest that Florida is lucky it snuck into the first 10 spots of the latest AP Top 25 poll.
Just don’t tell the Gators to stop believing.
“If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will?” redshirt junior linebacker Alex Anzalone pondered rather rhetorically after Saturday’s 24-10 win over Georgia. He knows the answer is few — if anyone — else.
“I know there’s a lot of belief in that locker room and a lot of guys and a lot of true leaders in there that will help lead us to Atlanta and hopefully beyond that,” he continued. “I think there’s a lot of belief in that locker room, especially after a win like this, that will keep us going.”
Florida has started 6-1 for the second straight year under head coach Jim McElwain. That includes an implosion of a loss to Tennessee that looks worse by the day as the Vols drop out of the top 25 and a blowout victory over Kentucky that is now not getting enough credit despite some fawning over the Wildcats.
The Gators have outscored their last two opponents by a combined 40 points — and that’s even with Florida subbing in its second-team defense against Missouri two weeks ago. Aside from the Tennessee game, UF is outscoring its opponents 178-44.
The problem? They’re all unranked, which is how McElwain has made his bones thus far in Gainesville. The Gators are 15-0 against unranked opponents under McElwain and 1-5 against ranked teams with the sole win coming over a year ago in Florida’s victory over Ole Miss. McElwain has been forced to use his second-string quarterback in those five losses.
But that was then and this is now. The Gators defense is booming, and McElwain is now 15-0 when it holds an opponent to 21 points or fewer. Florida’s running game has steadily improved — despite Georgia selling out to stop it — and McElwain is now 13-0 when outrushing an opponent.
Most important of all, the Gators are no longer entering games wondering whether the offense can stay on the field just long enough so the defense can get a breather. Florida’s offense may have only improved from terrible to lackluster, but just remember UF got all the way to the SEC Championship Game with “terrible” last season.
“Sure. I believe we can [get back to the title game]. We have the ingredients here both offensively, defensively and special teams to make a heck of a run,” McElwain said.
That statement came after McElwain, unprompted, stood up for his entire team … after it stymied the rival Bulldogs for 60 minutes.
“People pick this team apart, this and that. Guys, this is a good football team. The Florida Gators are a good team. I’ll go with these guys against anybody and we’ll figure out a way to get it done,” he said. “That’s the way they are in that locker room. ‘Coach, we’ll figure out a way to get it done and we’ll get it done.’ That’s what I love about their mentality.”
McElwain is not just saying that. It was obvious after the game that the belief is strong throughout the entire team.
“One-hundred percent. I believe it with every bone in my body,” said Del Rio. “We’re getting better every week. … As an offense, we’re doing such a great job of getting in a rhythm during these [long] drives; they tire out and demoralize the defense.”
Senior LB Jarrad Davis, who rehabbed an ankle injury 24/7 over two weeks just to play in the Florida-Georgia game, was poised yet emotional after the victory discussing how far the Gators have come.
“It definitely shows who we are. It gives us a reassurance as to our identity,” he said of the confidence-building performance. “It solidified a lot of things for us [Saturday] and showed us a lot of things that we need to work on. Going back, we have a clear path for what we need to do to prepare ourselves for our next couple of games.”
He continued: “We definitely know we’re a good team and there’s a lot of things we can do to elevate our game. This run that’s coming up, we got to really, really take the time out to put in the extra effort to make ourselves that team that we are, that team that we can be.”
The Gators — sometimes deserved, often times not — have become a bit of a national joke over the last four years. That happens when you’re a major power in college football. People like to see you lose and love to see the struggle that goes along with it. Florida soaked in torturous runs by Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee when the Gators dominated the college football world.
Despite posting good seasons twice in the last four years, Florida has not been thought of as a true contender since 2009. And to be candid, it hasn’t deserved to be considered among the best programs in any of those given years.
But 2016 is another season and this is another Gators team. And if you listen to how McElwain and his players talk about Florida these days, you hear glimpses of the way this team spoke when it was dominating the SEC and the world of college football half a decade ago.
“We’re the Florida Gators. We need to prepare like the Florida Gators,” said Davis. “That name holds a lot of weight, a lot of respect in this country. We need to demand it throughout the week so we can show up on Saturday and really impose our will.”
If Florida is going to complete the rebound from its head-scratcher of a loss in Week 4, that’s exactly how they’re going to need to do it.