The Florida Gators are 4-0, ranked for the first time in two years, and set for a primetime showdown Saturday with No. 3 Ole Miss.
Fresh off a thrilling comeback win against a division rival, enthusiasm and hope are back in Gainesville.
“That’s what this is all about,” UF coach Jim McElwain said.
“Let’s go to work to get a little bit better and go play a team that I’m sure is going to come in here and figure that they should beat the heck out of us.”
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The Gators have won three games — including last Saturday’s stunner over Tennessee — by seven points or less, so McElwain continues to play the long game with expectations.
No. 25 Florida is ranked for the first time in two years — the school’s longest absence from the national polls since the program’s nadir in 1977-1980 (a 32-week drought). The Gators will host a Top 25 matchup in The Swamp for the first time since Oct. 21, 2012 — a 44-11 drubbing of No. 9 South Carolina.
“We’re the Florida Gators. That’s what we’re supposed to be,” wideout Brandon Powell said.
Although UF has already equaled last season’s win total at home (three), Ole Miss presents a totally different challenge.
The Rebels, who won at Alabama two weeks ago, are as talented as any team in the country, touting legit NFL prospects at multiple positions.
“You can obviously see what they’re doing in recruiting is paying huge dividends,” McElwain said.
“These [are] guys that are top draft picks and were top players coming out of high school.”
Still, the Gators are confident after upsetting Tennessee and the good vibrations have fashioned a renewed atmosphere on campus.
“We’re getting a little bit more love,” defensive end Alex McCalister said.
“It’s supposed to be like this. We’ve got to get back to that dominance. We’ve got to get back to how it used to be.”
McElwain is curious to see how his team responds to the spotlight and increased expectations, though.
“How do you handle adversity and how do you handle success?,” he said.
“This will be interesting. It’s always a learning experience. Part of it is really going back and explaining the why and maybe how you’ve had some success, and maybe not putting Saturday before what we need to do now. What we try to do in everything that we go through is explain the why. … I want them to feel good. We’ve won four games. OK. That’s where we should be. That’s got to be the thought and not get caught up. The game itself should really handle the excitement and want to. It will be interesting to see how we prepare.”
Florida faced a similar situation in 2011 — Will Muschamp’s first season on the job.
The Gators were 4-0 with wins over Kentucky and Tennessee and were inexplicably ranked No. 12 in the country before a marquee matchup with No. 3 Alabama.
The Crimson Tide came to town and took Florida to the woodshed, winning 48-10 and immediately dampening Muschamp’s early good will. Over the next month, Florida would lose at No. 2 LSU, at Auburn and versus No. 19 Georgia.
Now, McElwain’s team faces a similar gauntlet — No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 9 LSU and No. 7 Georgia lay ahead on the schedule — so the Gators’ confidence and position in the polls could be short-lived.
“This is going to tell us a lot about where we’re at,” McElwain said.
“But as soon as you fall down, they're going to say, ‘Oh.’ The consistency in how you handle it and how you understand how you got there, and not thinking that you’ve arrived, it’s a psychological part that everybody in this room deals with at times. It’ll be interesting to see. The guys should be excited about it.”