Florida enters the Sunshine Showdown sputtering.
Although the No. 10 Gators have won three in a row and are a surprising 10-1 this season, they’ve regressed in recent weeks, and their résumé could be officially tomahawked Saturday.
“We’re a 10-win football team that’s still got a long ways to go,” first-year coach Jim McElwain said, acknowledging disappointment in UF needing late heroics in three consecutive games against teams a combined 9-24.
“But part of the key is figuring out how to get wins, even through deficiencies. … Our guys have won a bunch of games, whether you say they deserved [them] or not.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But Florida has clearly overachieved in McElwain’s inaugural season, and knocking off in-state rival No. 14 Florida State in The Swamp would be sugar sweet (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
A win over the Seminoles (9-2) would essentially clinch a New Year’s Six Bowl game for Florida, securing a spot in the Sugar Bowl barring an upset over No. 2 Alabama in next weekend’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game.
After nearly a month’s worth of dead fishiness, energy, effort and focus won’t be a problem Saturday night.
“Nothing needs to be said in our locker room,” UF cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “Those guys up the road, we don’t like them, and they don’t like us. We feel like we’re the best team in the state, they feel like they’re the best team in the state. They’re coming in here. They’re coming in The Swamp. They’re going to have to bring everything they’ve got in here.”
We’re a 10-win football team that’s still got a long ways to go.
For just the second time in six seasons, Florida and Florida State are ranked.
The longtime rivals are nearly mirror images of each other this year, as both teams tout porous offensive lines, stifling defenses, South Florida maestros (FSU’s spectacular tailback Dalvin Cook, UF’s dynamic wideout/punt returner Antonio Callaway) and quarterback uncertainties.
Although Sean Maguire will get the nod for the Seminoles, the Gators have no choice but to start struggling quarterback Treon Harris.
The former Booker T. Washington standout has played under a relentless siege in the past month (11 sacks in November), but Harris has left plenty of plays on the field, too.
The sophomore, formally a FSU commit who flipped to UF on National Signing Day in 2014, has six turnovers in the past three games.
“We’ve got to complete passes when guys are open,” McElwain said. “Create some explosive plays and consistency. … Let’s protect up front, and let’s throw it to the open guy.”
Florida has lost four of five to FSU, last winning in Gainesville in 2009 when quarterback Tim Tebow was a senior.
The Gators will honor 16 seniors in a pregame ceremony, including star linebacker Antonio Morrison (UF’s leading tackler), defensive tackle Jon Bullard, who is doubtful with a knee injury, underrated nickel-back Brian Poole and versatile offensive lineman Trip Thurman.
Saturday’s potential slugfest could also be the final home game for juniors such as All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, tailback Kelvin Taylor or safety Keanu Neal.
With the stakes high, Florida hopes and needs to make a statement to keep its slim College Football Playoff hope alive.
“It’s a personal game,” Neal said. “The game speaks for itself. Florida-Florida State. Best in the state, who’s going to take it?
“We’re in The Swamp. We don’t lose in The Swamp. Let’s get it.”
Saturday: No. 14 FSU at No. 10 Florida
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, Gainesville.
TV/radio: ESPN; WINZ 940; WFTL 850.
Favorite: FSU by 2 1/2.
Records: Florida 10-1 (7-1 SEC); FSU 9-2 (6-2 ACC).
Series: Florida leads 34-23-2.
Florida injuries: Questionable — WR Brandon Powell (undisclosed); LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); DL Andrew Ivie (knee); WR C.J. Worton (undisclosed); DL Caleb Brantley (undisclosed); DB Chris Williamson (back); DL Joey Ivie (knee); WR Raphael Andrades (undisclosed). Doubtful — DL Jonathan Bullard (undisclosed). Out — OL Alex McCalister (foot); OL Jordan Sherit (hamstring); DL Taven Bryan (undisclosed); K Jorge Powell (knee).
FSU injuries: Questionable — OL Brock Ruble (groin); OL Cole Minshew (concussion); FB Freddie Stevenson (concussion); TE Jeremy Kerr (concussion); DB Marcus Lewis (concussion); LB Reggie Northrup (arm). Out — OL Derrick Kelly (knee); WR Ja’Vonn Harrison (concussion); DB Trey Marshall (bicep); OL Abdul Bello (knee); TE Jalen Wilkerson (shoulder); RB Mario Pender (lung); DB Tyrell Lyons (ACL); DB Ryan Green (shoulder).