Florida is one of 10 SEC teams playing in a bowl game, but the Gators find themselves in unique company.
They’re the only underdog of the bunch.
No. 14 Michigan is a four-point favorite in Friday’s Citrus Bowl (1 p.m., ABC), and that makes Gators senior offensive lineman Trip Thurman a tad perturbed.
“We need to prove stuff to other people because a lot of people don’t expect us to win this game, which is unfortunate because we’re SEC East champs and we play in the best conference in the nation,” Thurman said.
“For people not to pick us to win this game is ridiculous, but I can understand with the way we’ve played offensively the past two games.”
That’s a big part of it.
Florida was outscored a combined 56-17 against Florida State and Alabama to end the regular season. The Gators managed just a single offensive touchdown in the consecutive blowout losses.
With an offense not only struggling to generate points but first downs, UF’s salty defense tired late in the year, too. The Gators rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring and total defense, but they allowed 377 total rushing yards against FSU and ’Bama.
Even Florida’s vaunted secondary was sliced for big plays in the final month of the season, and it doesn’t get any easier against the Wolverines’ efficient passing attack led by senior quarterback Jake Rudock (228.3 yards per game, 17 touchdowns).
“It’s a big challenge,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said.
“We (the defense) got to put a complete game together. This is our last time together, and we done built up such a reputation and this is our last game together.”
The Gators never lack aplomb, but after exceeding expectations early in the year, they suddenly look a lot like the team that was the preseason pick to finish fifth in the SEC East.
Worse, there’s a lingering 2012 Sugar Bowl feeling around the team.
Three years ago, Florida stunned the nation, winning 11 games and nearly playing for a national championship. But after narrowly missing the opportunity for a chance at a title, UF didn’t show up against Louisville and lost 33-23.
Now, Florida faces similar motivational questions. Less than a month ago, the Gators were in the thick of the College Football Playoff. Several players have already declared for the NFL Draft while others are suspended.
First-year coach Jim McElwain has preached ownership and choices all season, so UF’s leaders have made sure that message has resonated this week — especially considering the past.
“It’s a big game for the Florida Gators,” Thurman said.
“We want to finish this 10-win season with a win. Our last two games are unacceptable with how we’ve played on offense, and we want to show the nation, the country and [future recruits], we’re going to win this game and show what the Florida Gators are about.”
Tabor concurred, adding, “We got the choice to come out here and lay an egg or we got a choice to dominate and play how we play. That’s all on the inner you. When you get on the field, it should be a certain way, no matter where you’re at, the time you’re playing, anything. If you’re on the field, there should be a certain way you play.”