A year ago the Gators were on the wrong side of close games losing five regular season games on the heels of an eight loss season with much of the same. The attitude from the top was just different. It seemed like a constant mode of ‘playing not to lose’ rather than ‘playing to win’ the game.
That is why there wasn’t much sweat from this Florida team after giving up a 17-point lead to South Carolina last Saturday and allowing them to cut it to three. It is just a totally different mindset for this team.
“They came at us late and we survived the storm obviously,” Tabor said shortly after the game. “Last year we didn’t know how to win. You saw us in a lot close games – LSU, Florida State, South Carolina – we just didn’t know how to win the game. That’s all it was last year. And this year, going through that, that’s how we learned how to win the game. We didn’t know how to win last year. So last year was just a good test to what we’re doing this year. You see us closing these games out, finishing these games because we learned from last year. We didn’t know how to win last year and this year we know how to win.”
But more than that, the change in mindset comes from the head coach that has told them from day one, if they do the right things, and they practice the right way, they will be this other team we are seeing today.
“He just presses details, details,” Tabor said of new Florida head coach Jim McElwain. “He knew he had a good team. He knew he had good players. He just wanted to get us focused on the little details to get us so we could go out and win a ballgame. Just the little details really.”
Tabor said more about McElwain’s message.
“Just go play ball. It’s not that hard, just go play ball, you’re trained, we prepared well, just go play ball and everything will take care of itself.”
Tabor has had his issues in school and like any college football player he has his ups and downs in terms of emotions and the grind of being an athlete and going to school. He says McElwain takes it upon himself to mentor these players the way it should be done.
“I’m a prime example,” Tabor said. “He’s more than just an X’s and O’s type of coach. He gets in with his players, he knows his players. He taught me a lot. He taught me how to do stuff the right way and not get too up or get too down, but just doing stuff the right way and it’ll all work out for you.”
Now it is a team of confidence they care for each other, and more than anything they know the importance of working together to play well. The confidence has rubbed off on guys like Tabor who has three interceptions and is just one shy of team leader Vernon Hargreaves of who there is a competition for the team leading honor.
“Yeah. I’m going to catch him,” Tabor said with a grin.
This team has played so well, they are on the verge of the College Football Playoffs. Ranked number eight in the country in basically all of the polls including the CFP poll, Florid has three games left before a final decision is made and playing a top 20 team in Florida State and number two Alabama would give them a legitimate shot to be in the final four if the Gators win out.
This is something that seemed like a pipe dream before the season, yet McElwain scoffed at the media that pressed on about that being a pipe dream in the preseason. The players bought in earlier than most about this possible 15 game season and a chance to play for the national title.
“I feel like we believed it, just because we had so many talented guys,” Tabor said. “We’re deep at every position. We have four corners, three safeties, four linebackers, 20 D-linemen it seems like. We’re just deep at every position. We had two quarterbacks. We always saw the talent. We just didn’t know how to win those games last year. Last year could have been a whole different outcome. Those three games that I talked about, if we had won those games we would have been in the top 10 in the country, only had two losses, but we didn’t know how to win those games. Now we know how to win those games.”
“I think we believed, but after that Tennessee game, after Ole Miss. Those two, we really were like OK we really have something.”
His confidence in his players started back before spring ball when McElwain told them they were better than the records they were producing. That confidence is born out with so many fourth down chances even early in games and in situations you might not expect it.
“Oh yeah, I love when Coach Mac goes for it on fourth down,” Tabor said. “I like going for it on fourth down. That type of confidence, like, OK, OK, if we don’t get it on fourth down we’re just more confident as a defense we get to go play football. We’re going to stop them.”
“I like it. I like it. That’s the way I am. I like it. He feels like I said on those fourth downs, he knows he’s got the best defense in the country, so if we don’t get it we’re going to stop you anyway. I like it, though.”
That confidence mixes with the constant theme from McElwain that they are only going to be as good as they practice and only as good as they are serious about every game left on the schedule.
“We just feel like every game is a playoff game now and we have to play our way into the playoff,” Tabor said. “That’s just the mind-set. We want to go out and win every game no matter how it goes down, as long as we get a ‘W’. From here on out we like our chances.”