When Michael McNeely reached the end zone on that frigid October afternoon in Jacksonville, he found a chorus of Florida fans waiting. He basked in the chilled sunlight of the moment. A moment he never thought would come.
“If you would have told me growing up that I would play for the Florida Gators and that I would score a touchdown in Jacksonville against the Georgia Bulldogs,” the former walk-on reciever said, “I don’t think I would’ve fully believed you.”
McNeely’s rise to that moment was slow and steady, and it came at the ideal time. The unranked Gators were heavy underdogs against No. 9 Georgia back then in 2014, and McNeely’s score on a fake field goal early in the game tied it at 7. The Gators dominated from there, shocking the Bulldogs 38-20.
This year, the Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) are ranked No. 3 and are undefeated. So the biggest similarity to 2014 is that for the Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC) to win and stay in contention for the SEC eastern division title, they’ll need to do something shocking. That started with McNeely in 2014.
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Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor combined for 389 rushing yards in that game. But McNeely and his 21-yard scamper started it all.
The play originated earlier that week. McNeely was walking to practice when defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson approached him.
“The good news is they put a special play in for you,” he told him. “The bad news is you’re gonna have to change your number.”
McNeely didn’t believe him at first. He learned it was true in that day’s special teams meeting, along with the rest of his teammates. Then-Florida coach Will Muschamp noticed something about the way Georgia was defending field goals, so he constructed McNeely’s play. The plan was to call it on Florida’s first field goal attempt from the hash marks. That’s exactly what happened.
McNeely knelt down and called for the ball, Florida’s line set up the blocks and he rose and darted through them, finding the end zone while losing his shoe.
“Everything was very still,” he remembers of the moments that followed.
The score immortalized him in Florida football lore. After all, here he is, three years later, still answering questions about it. But another defining moment for McNeely came two weeks earlier and also contributed to his rise to stardom. He found out he’d been accepted to the University of Florida’s school of medicine.
“That was a great moment,” he said. “It represented the next step on my journey. The next phase in my life.”
That’s where he is now, three years later: Rotating through different wards and specialties, trying to figure out what type of medicine he wants to focus on for the next phase of his life. He’ll spend his first years post-graduation in the Air Force no matter what he chooses, though. That branch of the U.S. military is paying for McNeely’s studies through its Health Professions Scholarship Program, which is also offered by the Army and Navy.
Will a new Michael McNeely emerge this Saturday afternoon when the Gators renew their rivalry with the Bulldogs at 3:30? Will a familiar face lead Florida over 13 ½-point favorite Georgia instead? Or will UGA extinguish UF’s slim hopes of retaining the SEC’s eastern division by beating it for the first time since 2013? The answer will be revealed at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field.
A win for Florida still wouldn’t guarantee anything as far as a potential division title. The Gators would also have to win their two remaining conference games and Georgia would have to lose one more of its own for Florida to reach Atlanta. A loss, however, would mean mathematical elimination for the Gators.
Florida is trying to draw on that 2014 game for inspiration. Current seniors like Brandon Powell, Duke Dawson and DeAndre Goolsby were all freshmen back then. They’ve never lost to Georgia.
“So I think that mentality that they bring, being that they’ve never lost to Georgia, that brings a lot of confidence to us,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “They might be the [No. 3] team in the country, but they can’t beat Florida. That’s our mentality going forward, and we’ll come out and be ready to play.”
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; EverBank Field,, Jacksonville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Georgia by 13 1/2
Records: Florida 3-3 (3-2 SEC); Georgia 7-0 (4-0 SEC).
Series: Georgia leads 49-43-2
Florida injuries: Probable -- WR Tyrie Cleveland (ankle); ATH Kadarius Toney (shoulder); DE Jabari Zuniga (ankle); Questionable -- WR Josh Hammond (back); DB CJ McWilliams (hamstring) Out -- S Marcell Harris (ACL); WR James Robinson (heart); QB Luke Del Rio (shoulder); DE Jordan Sherit (hip)
Georgia injuries: Probable -- DE David Marshall (concussion); DL Trenton Thompson (knee) Out -- DL Daquan Hawkins-Muckle (undisclosed)