If the No. 10 Florida Gators are actually going to go to Atlanta and play in the SEC Championship Game, well, they still need one more victory. That can come Saturday afternoon against a Vanderbilt Commodores team that may not have a winning record but is certainly playing better football – especially defensively – than it is given credit for playing.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain is well aware of that, which is why his message to his team this week is all about concentrating on Vanderbilt and not worrying how things are going to play out after that.
“We’ve got a lot ahead of us. No, we aren’t looking towards Atlanta, because if we do, we won’t get there,” the coach explained. “What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to look forward to today. Now, whether we do it or not? I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re mature enough. I don’t know if we understand the position we put ourselves in.”
McElwain said that the way the Gators handle themselves in the week leading up to this game – particularly with additional distractions in the form of their playoff ranking and homecoming festivities – will tell him a lot about the team. “To me, this is an opportunity to see how far we’ve come as an organization,” he said. “We’ve got an opportunity to go win a ballgame and solidify us being in Atlanta. That’s the way it should be. That’s why you come to the University of Florida.”
The coach pointed out that the team’s upperclassmen lost to this Vanderbilt team on homecoming a couple years ago, ending an extended winning streak and enduring a serious feeling of embarrassment. As such, UF has plenty of motivation entering a game Saturday against an opponent ranked in the top 25 in total defense and scoring defense nationally, one that according to McElwain has held six of seven opponents to season-lows in offensive production. He hopes those same upperclassmen take pride in turning the tide back to their program in the annual battle with VU.
“I just can’t tell you how proud I am of them and what they’ve done to invest not only in themselves but in this football team and to this university. I think that’s a credit to those guys. I think the seniors, they’re the ones that we should take our hats off to because those guys are playing really hard,” he said. “I think it’s about their opportunity to leave a legacy to restore some order. The reason they came here was to play in games that mean something in November – and they’re doing that.”
But it can’t be all about those upperclassmen – or even the players on the field – according to McElwain, who decided to challenge the Gators’ crowd to really be on top of its game for Saturday’s noon kickoff, a time in which Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has not been filled in recent years with a late-arriving crowd that often lacked enthusiasm early in contests.
“The Swamp has been electric, and it’s been awesome, but now let’s make sure we stumble on into that stadium and be ready for when we’re hustling out of the tunnel because we need all the support we can,” he began. “Believe me, I think they will. This has been a great place to play. It seems like the last time we played here was last year some time. I know we’re really looking forward to playing at home.”
All in all, McElwain just hopes Florida is able to cut the “clutter” and “white noise” out so it can focus on the task at hand. “There’s a lot of stuff that means absolutely nothing,” he said. One way or another, the Gators will learn something from Saturday’s game – either they’re not prepared for the pressure of a big stage, or they’ll be headed to Atlanta to play for a league title for the first time since 2009.
Florida checked in at No. 10 in the initial College Football Playoff Rankings of the 2015 season, sliding into the rankings as the third-highest one-loss team.
Three undefeateds – Clemson (8-0), LSU (7-0) and Ohio State (8-0) – opened the rankings 1-3 with Alabama (7-1) closing out the top four and Notre Dame (7-1) slotting in as the first team out of the playoff. Baylor (7-0), Michigan State (8-0), TCU (8-0) and Iowa (8-0) also slotted ahead of Florida (7-1).
Though CFP chairman Jeff Long said the CFP Selection Committee’s evaluation of the Crimson Tide and Gators was “close,” his explanation that Alabama had one additional quality win compared to Florida – which supposedly explained the Tide being in the playoff while the Gators were nowhere near the top four – did not hold water in the eyes of most.
UF is 3-0 against common opponents of Ole Miss, Georgia and Tennessee, while UA is 2-1 against those teams; the Gators demolished the Rebels 38-10, the same team to hand the Tide their only loss of the season 43-37. Florida outscored UGA and UT by a combined 55-30, while the Alabama won those games 57-24. Consider then that UF’s only loss is to a CFP-ranked No. 2 LSU team, which earned a projected touchdown victory with a fake field goal in a home night game.
So while the CFP’s decision to rank Alabama ahead of Florida was questionable, the fact that the Gators are so far below the Tide – which are “in” the playoff – makes even less sense. Alas, the rankings do not matter much at this point, and Alabama hosting LSU this weekend should allow that situation to shake out right away.
Rounding out the rest of the CFP Rankings are, in order (11-25): Stanford, Utah, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Florida State, Michigan, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Temple, UCLA, Toledo and Houston.