This time a year ago, Eddy Pineiro was torn.
A student at ASA College in Miami ready to jump onto the college football scene, the top-rated junior college kicker who had never attempted a field goal in a live game had his options narrowed down to two schools: Alabama and Florida, a duo that was about to face off in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
The Crimson Tide won the game 29-15, but the Gators ultimately won the kicker.
Fast forward 12 months, and Pineiro will now be in the middle of another battle between Florida and Alabama.
This time, though, he won’t be at home waiting to make a decision.
When Saturday’s conference title game between the 15th-ranked Gators (8-3) and the top-ranked Crimson Tide (12-0) kicks off from inside the Georgia Dome at 4 p.m., Pineiro will be helping Florida in its attempt to win its first conference crown since 2008.
And he’ll be doing it against the team he almost ended up playing for.
“Who doesn’t want to play the best team in the country?” Pineiro said. “I mean, it’s indoors, there’s no wind, so it’s good kicking conditions. It should be good.”
All it took was one visit from UF coach Jim McElwain to sway the kicker to come to Gainesville instead of the top team in the country.
Fresh off the loss to Alabama last year, McElwain made a trip to Miami and knocked on Pineiro’s door. The coach visited with the kicker’s family, listened to jokes from Pineiro’s grandmother and enjoyed some homemade Cuban food.
“I think that was where I knew I wanted to come to Florida,” said Pineiro, who flipped his commitment to the Gators two days later. “Instead of coming to a quarterback’s house or a running back’s house, he was at my house at 8 o’clock the next morning after he lost the SEC Championship and I’m like, ‘This guy really wants me to be here.’ ”
McElwain didn’t just want Pineiro. He needed him.
Last season, UF finished with the second-worst field-goal percentage in the country, ahead of only Wyoming (25 percent).
Austin Hardin, the Gators’ main kicker last season, made an SEC-worst 35.7 percent of his field goals, clearing just five of his 14 attempts.
Hardin’s lone attempt in the SEC Championship Game was from 40 yards away. It was blocked.
“We’ll get working on this kicking thing,” McElwain said after last year’s SEC title game loss, “and somebody will get it up over the line far enough that maybe somebody doesn’t block it with their armpit.”
Pineiro has been that guy. With an inconsistent offense beginning to derail again as the season nears its conclusion, Pineiro has been able to salvage drives with his powerful right leg.
On the season, Pineiro has made 18 of his 22 field-goal attempts. Half of his makes have been from at least 40 yards.
“I just love how effortless he is in his ability to get the ball up,” McElwain said.
The redshirt sophomore has converted his past nine attempts, three of which were from farther than 40 yards out. The consecutive field goal streak has come over the span of the past five games, a set of games where UF has managed just six offensive touchdowns.
“I feel like I’m hitting the ball well,” said Pineiro, who is six field goals away from tying Caleb Sturgis’ single-season UF record of 24. “It’s just a learning process. I think it’s just repetition. I feel good.”
The fans feel good when he steps on the field, too. Each time he lines up for a field goal in The Swamp, taking two steps back and three to the left before waving his hand in the air and rocketing a ball through the uprights, the crowd chants his name.
“Ed-dy. Ed-dy. Ed-dy.”
“Everybody loves him,” offensive lineman Tyler Jordan said. “He’s a bright spot in our locker room.”
And when Pineiro looks back at his short time at UF, he has no regrets.
“I made the best decision of my life,” Pineiro said.