The Florida Gators arrived in Orlando on Sunday for their final “business trip” of the 2015 season.
The cliché is way overused in sports, but UF coach Jim McElwain doesn’t care. He’s taking the moniker to heart.
After two blowout losses in a row to end the regular season, Florida is eager to cap the year on a high note in the Citrus Bowl against No. 14 Michigan on New Year’s Day (1 p.m., ABC). The Gators’ focus is on the Wolverines and not on Mickey Mouse & Co.
“[Our] guys deserve it because they’ve done a heck of a job for us here,” McElwain said. “But what we try to do is understand, ‘Look, we’re here to win a ballgame. We aren’t here to just go on rides.’
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“People come from around the world to visit this place, so we’re excited about our players having that opportunity in Orlando. And yet you know when it’s time to work, it’s time to work.”
Six weeks ago, Florida appeared among the nation’s elite. The No. 19 Gators started the season 10-1 with big wins over Tennessee, Ole Miss and Georgia. They had a new coach, a quarterback and a suffocating defense.
But then suddenly they didn’t.
Starting quarterback Will Grier’s Oct. 12 performance-enhancing drug suspension became Florida’s leaky tire. The Gators survived initially, but they slowly lost air before eventually falling completely flat.
In the past month, Florida (10-3) needed late heroics to knock off lowly South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. Then UF got shelled in consecutive weeks, scoring just a single touchdown against Florida State and Alabama.
“We just got a little lax late in the season,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “We just thought we’re already there with a few games to play.”
They were not.
The Gators’ rebuilding project is only in its initial stages, so McElwain actually spent the first few bowl practices preparing for 2016. He allowed veterans to rest, while grooming potential leaders and contributors for next season.
But now all hands are on deck and Florida is preparing for a Michigan program on the rise, too.
The Gators practiced at Dr. Phillips High in Orlando on Monday before taking a trip to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
“We got to go out with a bang,” Tabor said. “We don’t want to go out with another ‘L’ going into next season.”
▪ A pair of graduate transfers were ruled academically ineligible for the Citrus Bowl. UF’s starting right tackle Mason Halter and little used linebacker Anthony Harrell will both miss Friday’s game.
Halter, a 6-6, 295-pound swing-tackle from Fordham, started all 13 games this season. Freshman Fred Johnson, a Royal Palm Beach product, will likely get the nod in Halter’s absence.
Meanwhile, backup tailback Jordan Scarlett, a St. Thomas Aquinas grad, did not make the trip to Orlando after being cited for misdemeanor marijuana possession on Dec. 19.