Jim McElwain likes being hated by opposing fans. He enjoys the hissing, heckling and insult-hurling that comes from playing away from Gainesville.
“I’m kinda wired different,” he said. “I love it.”
But so far this season, his team’s own fans have booed Florida’s third-year coach in both of UF’s games.
Following a season-opening loss to Michigan, a handful jeered as he trudged into the tunnel at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And last week, as the clock ticked to nine seconds against Tennessee while McElwain waited to call one of two remaining time outs, boos echoed through the bleachers of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. (After the game, he said he thought the clock had stopped on a first down.)
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This Saturday, he’ll finally be in an environment where boos are expected. Facing Kentucky at Lexington’s Kroger Field at 7:30 p.m., the Wildcats’ fan base is expected to show up en masse. The game is UK’s first sellout at its 67,606-capacity stadium in more than two years. And McElwain knows how important it is.
He said if the No. 20 Gators (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) win, they’ll be in the “driver’s seat in the SEC East. But heading into the game, he said Kentucky is unquestionably in the driver’s seat.
The Wildcats (3-0, 1-0 SEC) are undefeated and, coming off a 23-13 win over South Carolina, some analysts like their chances. Three of six “USA Today” staffers picked UK to upset the Gators, who are favored by 1 ½ per oddsshark.com.
An upset would mean the end of a 30-year winning streak for the Gators over the Wildcats. Last time UK won, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Soviet Union was still intact and the Florida Panthers, Miami Heat and Miami Marlins didn’t exist.
Florida tight ends coach Greg Nord remembers that game well. He was coaching with Kentucky at the time. He said back then, there wasn’t a big gap between the two programs. He called them “just competitors. “But now, 30 winless years later?
“We're one of the elite programs in the country,” he said, “and they're not. So it probably means more to them than it does to us as far as the streak."
Florida wideout Freddie Swain shared similar sentiments.
“That’s probably their Super Bowl,” the sophomore said. “If I lost to a team that long I’d try to win too.”
Many of Florida’s players, meanwhile, insist the streak means nothing.
Safety Nick Washington said it’s just another game, and Swain, defensive tackle Luke Ancrum and linebacker Jeremiah Moon didn’t know the streak existed.
Instead, they’re using last week’s game rather than the winning streak for motivation. With nine players still suspended and starting cornerback Duke Dawson possibly out with a concussion, McElwain said the last-second flick from quarterback Feleipe Franks to receiver Tyrie Cleveland was the lift his team needed to get on track.
But he added the Wildcats and mobile quarterback Stephen Johnson will make it difficult for his team to carry that momentum over. And even if it does -- even if the Gators kick Kentucky out of the driver’s seat -- he knows that needs to be the first step of many since his team’s resume is already blemished with a loss.
“Now,” he asked, “what does the driver’s seat mean? It means you’ve got to go the next one.”
Saturday: No. 20 Florida at Kentucky
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.; Kroger Field, Lexington.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 2 1/2.
Records: Florida 1-1 (1-0 SEC); Kentucky 3-0 (1-0 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 50-17.
Florida injuries: Questionable — TE DeAndre Goolsby (leg); DB Duke Dawson (head); DB Quincy Lenton (hamstring); Kemore Gamble (foot). Doubtful — LB Kylan Johnson (leg). Out —WR James Robinson (heart); QB Kyle Trask (foot); DB Marcell Harris (achilles).
Kentucky injuries: Doubtful — LB Jordan Jones (shoulder). Out —WR Dorian Baker (ankle); T Cole Mosier (ACL).