GAINESVILLE (CBSMiami/AP) — It’s been a long and tolling week for the state of Florida.
Jim McElwain was somber and solemn Wednesday, mirroring how millions of Floridians felt following Hurricane Irma.
McElwain’s message was clear: “Sometimes third down and 7 is not the most important thing in life.”
The Florida coach’s tone surely resonated across the Sunshine State, which was dealing with displaced families, damaged homes, significant flooding and widespread power loss. He hopes his team’s performance Saturday against 23rd-ranked Tennessee (2-0) will do the same.
“Hopefully play with a little bit of passion and desire for the people of the state of Florida,” McElwain said.
The 24th-ranked Gators are trying to avoid a 0-2 start for the first time since 1971. They had their home opener against Northern Colorado canceled last week because of the impending hurricane and then had to alter practice and meeting schedules in recent days as the massive storm enveloped the state.
Now, McElwain said the team is “cramming” for the Volunteers, who ended an 11-game losing streak in the series last year.
“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.”
Although Florida didn’t play Saturday, it was able to practice both days over the weekend. The Gators took Monday off as Irma passed through the state and were back on the field Tuesday.
“Our guys are going to go play hard,” McElwain said. “We are going to put a good thing together to give them an opportunity to play fast and release some of their energies and pent-up frustrations as well. And as we come out in The Swamp, I think our thoughts in this game go a lot farther than the selfish reasons you play a game, but more so the big-picture reasons you play a game and hopefully give some relief to some people whose lives have been changed forever.”
Equally important for the Gators is erasing the lingering memories of their season opener, a 33-17 loss to Michigan in Arlington, Texas. The Gators failed to score an offensive touchdown and were dominated on both lines of scrimmage.
Losing to Tennessee would essentially knock the Gators out of contention for the College Football Playoff and put them in a hole in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division race. Florida has won consecutive East titles, really the only glowing line on McElwain’s resume since he arrived in Gainesville.
“You could look at this game as almost like a do-or-die type of game,” linebacker David Reese said. “It’s like a real big point, a fork in the road. So we’re excited.”
Players hunkered down in dorm rooms during the hurricane. Some watched tape. Others played board games. All of them wanted to play.
More than 60 players’ families were affected by the hurricane, McElwain said.
The goal now is to regroup and get ready for the Vols.
“You just have to re-shift your focus,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “Definitely devastating to have things like that happen, but it’s out of our control. I think (McElwain) does a good job letting the players know that it’s out of our control but we still have a football game to go play. It’s just re-shifting focus and getting mentally prepared to go play a game in The Swamp this Saturday.”
Notes: McElwain said embattled offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will move from the field to the coaches’ booth so he can see the game “in a sterile environment.” … McElwain said there was no update on the nine players suspended indefinitely while under investigation for credit card fraud, meaning the Gators likely will be without standout WR Antonio Callaway and starting RB Jordan Scarlett again. … Tennessee LB Austin Smith, CB Baylen Buchanan and TE Eli Wolf won’t play against Florida due to injuries. S/KR Evan Berry is questionable for the game.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)