The Florida Gators walked into the Georgia Dome in early December last year as a wide-eyed group with little expectation about what would surrounded a championship experience.
For the players, it was their first crack at a Southeastern Conference Championship Game, UF’s first appearance since 2009. For Jim McElwain, it was his first as a head coach and a matchup against his former boss and mentor in Alabama’s Nick Saban.
The Gators waltzed into the practice that Friday in the Georgia Dome, an NFL stadium where they would be playing in front of a crowd of more than 75,000 people the next day, excited about the appearance.
They left Atlanta on a sour note, falling 29-15 to the Crimson Tide on Dec. 5 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
But with more than 30 players on the roster who went through the title-game loss, the No. 15 Gators are coming in with a sense of what to expect when they get their rematch with Alabama this weekend.
“Now that they've been there, done that,” McElwain said, “all those little things that kind of go on that surrounds an SEC Championship game now becomes old hat.”
The injury-riddled Florida (8-3) team will need to find a way to avoid every distraction that will be thrown its way this week as they limp into the conference title game.
McElwain on Monday ruled eight players -- including six starters on defense -- as either out or “probably out” for the game against top-ranked Alabama (12-0). The latest addition to the list is redshirt junior defensive lineman Jordan Sherit, who will have surgery after injuring his right knee during UF’s 31-13 loss to Florida State on Saturday.
In addition to the eight who are unable to suit up, McElwain said four players -- offensive lineman Martez Ivey, nickel cornerback Duke Dawson, wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood and linebacker Daniel McMillian -- are day-to-day. All but two of the injured players are upperclassmen.
“One of the things we talked about, whatever you can do to give to your team — even if it’s just one play, even if it’s the availability and energy to help the guys who are out there — that is what it’s going to take,” McElwain said. “I know our guys are looking forward to that.”
Specifically, Florida’s offense is looking to prove it can compete against a top defense.
The Gators have failed to reach the 300-yard mark in four of their past five games and are now ranked 114th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in terms of yards per game. In those five games, UF managed to score just eight touchdowns on offense and converted just 28.1 percent of its third-down attempts.
“The key for us is going to be to the consistency,” quarterback Austin Appleby said. “We can't shoot ourselves in the foot. We can't have negative plays.”
That’ll be a tall task going up against a Crimson Tide defense that ranks first in the country in scoring defense (11.4 points allowed/game) and average yards allowed (246.8/game). Alabama has also only allowed opponents to make it into the red zone 18 times this season.
“It's definitely going to be a great challenge for our offense,” Appleby said. “With that said, our offense is going to be up for the challenge.”
They just need to make sure the stage isn’t too big for them.
“Getting to Atlanta is not easy,” McElwain said. “The next step is going and knocking down that door. That's going to be our mindset.”