The Gators have been in the running to win the Southeastern Conference early in the last two seasons, even finishing in second place back in 2012. However, Saturday’s win meant that there isn’t a player on this year’s Florida roster that has been in this position.
Handling success as the SEC East champion is something no Florida player has ever had to do. It’s a challenge that all teams handle differently. Some enjoy the challenge of the newfound success. Others can get caught up in not blowing it and play too tight.
First-year Florida coach Jim McElwain knows he’ll learn a lot about his team this Saturday. They spoke to the team in the beginning of the week about handling their success the right way and still playing loose. Even though this success is new for the players, it’s not new for the Florida coaching staff. McElwain and many of his assistants have been a part of teams that played in championship environments.
“They’re truly in unchartered waters,” McElwain said about his players. “The good thing is some of us have been in these waters, which helps. There’s certain things you go about from the psychological standpoint to be able to handle the unchartered waters. Part of that is you can’t be afraid. You can’t be afraid. Once you’re afraid, if you have a fear of failure, you’re going to go into a cocoon and never come out.
“A lot of problems that a lot of people have is that the fear of the unknown makes you horrible. [It] makes you worthless. The excitement and enjoyment of the journey moving forward is what we’re trying to explain.”
There’s still unknown with the Florida players and how they will handle it, simply because they’ve never shown it before. This week, it can be a question of motivation. The Gators have the SEC East locked up after playing every league game this season with hopes of making it to Atlanta.
The motivation is internal this week. The Florida players want to prove that they can win the right way and keep rolling into the end of the regular season.
But McElwain admitted that he won’t be able to know until Saturday.
“There’s no magic wand,” McElwain said. “There’s no wizard behind the curtain over there. It’s in each one of us. It’s a choice within each one of us as to how we’re going to go through those waters and are we going to take a step back and are we going to go out and see what we can do. That’s the excitement about this and that’s really the fun.”
Florida defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard (arm) is “highly questionable” for Saturday. He dressed and took some reps during Wednesday’s practice but is uncertain to play. With defensive tackle Joey Ivie (leg) out for a couple weeks, the Gators could be down to three scholarship defensive tackles that aren’t redshirting in Caleb Brantley, Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark.
Left tackle David Sharpe (foot) “should” be able to play in Columbia. He worked with the first team offensive line all week in practice.
Safety Keanu Neal (ankle) is also expected to play.