Image Credit: UAA
The energy was high as the week began for the Florida Gators, which are believing in themselves once again after a dominant victory in a rivalry game over Georgia. Three days after that game, Florida was christened with No. 11 next to its name as it was placed just outside the top 10 in the first College Football Playoff Rankings for 2016.
Whether the Gators are underrated or overrated — the national consensus is the latter — is besides the point. Aside from a two-quarter slip-up at Tennessee, Florida has taken care of the business laid out in front of it this season.
But that screw up for the Gators came in the toughest environment they played in this season. In fact, you could now say Florida is 0-2 in the most raucous true road environments it has played at under head coach Jim McElwain after falling 35-28 at LSU on Oct. 17, 2015. That’s not a fact that’s lost on McElwain, who is preparing the Gators not just for this game but a very difficult stretch to end the season.
“It doesn’t matter where you play in this league, the environments are awesome. I mean, that’s why it is the SEC,” he explained.
“To be considered [to] be relevant, you’ve got to be able to go [win] on someone else’s turf. And you have to go play well. You can’t let the things that are going to happen to you on the road affect your performance.”
According to McElwain, Tuesday’s practice was quite underwhelming. Florida performed better later in the week, he noted, but the team’s overall youth and inexperience will almost certainly play a role on Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The question is whether the Gators’ talent and preparedness can overcome it.
“I don’t know how we’re going to react,” he said. “… We’ve got so many young guys who I think are infectious with some of the older guys, you know. They kind of get that energy, and the thing you do when you’re playing on the road is you play off the fact everybody hates you. I mean, that’s kind of fun, you know. And the louder the stadium gets, the more excited you should get. Now, we’ll see what happens Saturday.”
Something the Gators are planning for is a juiced-up Razorbacks squad fresh off a bye week and still salty after being absolutely dismantled 56-3 by Auburn on Oct. 22.
McElwain thinks Arkansas has so much pride in its program that it will bounce back and prove that game was an aberration, and he expects the Hogs to do it in typical Bret Bielema style.
“They’re physical. They understand what they want to do and how to do it. They’re very sound on both sides of the football. And for us, we’ve got to be right,” he said.
Florida will look to combat that by putting its top-ranked passing defense up against 28th most efficient passing offense in the nation. Though the Gators did not pile up sack numbers last week against Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, Florida was exceedingly effective in moving him out of the pocket and making him uncomfortable. McElwain hopes that works in a similar manner on Saturday against Arkansas QB Austin Allen.
“It’s our responsibility — and again, it isn’t the sack numbers — it’s making sure that when they do throw, maybe [knock them] off a little rhythm, have them just adjust a little bit and take some of the accuracy off the ball,” he explained. “We’ve got to be able to do that. They can pass protect up front. They’ve got some really good O-linemen, some big guys. … We’ve got our work cut out for us up front.”
On the opposite side of the ball, the Gators’ much-maligned offense — 67th in scoring and 75th in total yardage — will look to continue its incremental progression toward respectability.
Sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett, who toted the rock 26 times against Georgia and became the second Florida player in the last 12 years to score a touchdown in six straight games, has emerged as the leader of the Gators’ four-man rushing committee. But more important than Scarlett’s skill is what appears to be an improving offensive line that is opening holes in the running game and protecting redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio better than before.
“They are starting to see the importance of playing with a sense of urgency, a pad level and a finish. That’s where we’re trying to get it and that’s where we will get. I think them seeing themselves do it really helps,” McElwain said.
That improvement is one big reason why the Gators can tout their success on third down this season. Florida is actually ranked sixth nationally by converting 50.4 percent of their third down tries (58 of 115). It should be no surprise that the Gators defense is fifth nationally stopping such conversions, only allowing teams to continue drives 27.8 percent of the time.
But just as few know that statistic, it’s rare to find someone who believes Florida can go out and win a game with its offense. The Gators remain disrespected nationally — whether fairly or unfairly will be determined soon — and McElwain is not surprised one bit.
“I think that’s natural because I don’t think going into [the season] anybody thought much of us anyway. And as I told our guys, it’s just a matter of going out and proving it each week,” he said. “You know if you take care of business on Saturdays people are going to take notice, and that’s really what we have to do.”
Florida’s first chance to prove it belongs begins at 3:30 p.m. ET at Razorback Stadium.
» McElwain on whether Florida will let the polls get to its collective head: “That’s a human nature question. I think it’s not just the way the Florida Gators are. … That’s why I think this is a great opportunity to define kinda what we’re all about.”
» In an interesting coaching twist, current Gators co-coordinator Randy Shannon worked for the Hogs before McElwain hired him away, while current Arkansas linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves is obviously the father of Vernon Hargreaves III. The elder Hargreaves said earlier this week that he told Bielema to be concerned about Florida’s secondary because it has four guys just as good as his son waiting for Arkansas this week.
» McElwain said senior wide receiver Chris Thompson will remain the Gators’ primary kick returner and explained how it transpired that he finally took over that role last week. “Chris is another guy that has been banged up and hasn’t been at full speed. The one thing he has is speed. Obviously with where we were at with that position and Chris being 100 percent, what he did in that game to step up and he’ll continue to be that kickoff return guy. … In fact, going into that Wednesday in practice, I actually went to a couple of our guys — Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson — guys that are in that back end. I said, ‘What do you think, is Chris ready?’ Both of them said, ‘Yeah, it’s time to put him in there.’ That’s how much I trust our team. Those guys know and, sure enough, both of them came up to me and said, ‘Coach, you made the right choice.’”
» McElwain on redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend: “This guy I don’t think gets the credit. Not only that, but his operation time. [He] gets the ball off. They did some overload things and he didn’t flinch. His operation time was really good. … He’s been pinning guys inside the 10 time and time again. He really works out at it. The guy is going to be a next-level punter. He can do everything.”
» While McElwain was pleased with how Scarlett and freshman RB Lamichal Perine handled additional carries last week, he did get on Perine for getting “winded” after running hard three times. “We got to get the guy in shape a little more,” he said. That’s certainly not uncommon to hear about a freshman, though it is later in the season and he has been in the workout program for quite some time.
» A full set of injury updates will be available in the OnlyGators.com gameday preview.