GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) No. 24 Florida is trying to avoid another significant setback under coach Jim McElwain.
Two weeks after losing a season opener for the first time in 28 years, the Gators are facing the possibility of starting 0-2 for the first time since 1971. Sure, Hurricane Irma wiped out a likely victory against overmatched Northern Colorado of the Football Championship Subdivision . But what will become a footnote does little to diminish the importance of Saturday’s home and Southeastern Conference opener against 23rd-ranked Tennessee (2-0).
It’s likely the most important game in McElwain’s three seasons, a chance to erase lingering feelings from that humbling loss to Michigan in the opener or create the kind of early season hole no Florida team has seen in nearly five decades.
”This is a big game, huge game,” Gators linebacker David Reese said. ”You could look at this game as almost like a do-or-die type of game. It’s like a real big point, a fork in the road.”
Florida is 3-8 against Top-25 teams under McElwain, with six of those losses coming against three of the nation’s top programs: Alabama, Florida State and Michigan. Losing to rival Tennessee for the second straight year and at home – the Volunteers haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003 – and McElwain surely will start feeling some heat.
”One of the great lessons you learn in athletics and especially the game of football is sometimes you get knocked down,” McElwain said. ”The measure of a true man is how he gets back up, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
McElwain was talking about rebounding from Irma. He easily could have been talking about the opener.
The Gators were handled on both lines of scrimmage, failed to score an offensive touchdown and benched quarterback Feleipe Franks in the third quarter for Malik Zaire, who was even less effective.
Florida looked more lost than usual offensively, showing no clear identity, no sense of urgency and no plan to fix it.
McElwain subtlety pointed a finger at his team’s strength and conditioning program, suggested offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier needs to find ways to get the ball in the hands of playmakers and then said his guys have to win more one-on-one matchups.
How the Gators respond against Tennessee will say even more.
”It’s very critical,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. ”Just knowing that we’re down, we just have to prove ourselves and that we can accomplish anything we want to accomplish if we just play together, have that mindset and get both sides of the ball running.”
The Volunteers are looking to start 3-0 in consecutive years for the first time since 2003-04.
They eked out a double-overtime win against Georgia Tech in the opener and dominated Indiana State last week. Beating Florida again would make Tennessee the early favorite in the wide-open SEC East.
”The big thing is belief in going on the road and winning football games,” Vols coach Butch Jones said. ”I do think that’s a byproduct of now being 17-4 in our last 21. Our players expect to win.”
Some other things to know about the 47th meeting in the series:
KEY INJURIES: Tennessee will be without linebacker Austin Smith for the third consecutive game. Two backups, cornerback Baylen Buchanan and tight end Eli Wolf, also won’t play at Florida. The Gators will be without linebacker Kylan Johnson because of a hamstring injury that has plagued him since the beginning of fall camp. Johnson had four tackles in Florida’s opener.
ANOTHER COMEBACK? In each of the last three meetings, the Florida-Tennessee winner has trailed by at least nine points in the second half. Florida scored the final 10 points in 2014 to win 10-9 and erased a 27-14 deficit to win 28-27 in 2015. The Vols won 38-28 last year after trailing 21-0.
SUSPENSIONS CONTINUE: Florida will be without nine players suspended indefinitely, including standout receiver Antonio Callaway and starting running back Jordan Scarlett. The nine are being investigated for alleged credit card fraud.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: The team that fixes its shaky defense could have a huge advantage Saturday. Tennessee yielded a team-record 535 yards on the ground to Georgia Tech and has allowed 400 or more yards rushing in four of its last seven games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Gators, who rode their stout defense to consecutive East titles, surrendered 215 yards rushing and 218 yards passing against Michigan.
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