University of Florida coach Jim McElwain still remembers walking off the field following the Gators’ Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan to close out his first season in Gainesville.
An unexpected inaugural year for McElwain — one that saw the Gators earn 10 wins and return to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the first time since 2009 — quickly faded down the stretch with three consecutive losses, capped by the 41-7 bludgeoning by the Wolverines.
The Gators walked off the field and into the offseason after falling in their most lopsided defeat of the season.
“I’m still hurting. That’s all I can say,” McElwain said this week. “That was miserable.”
Come Saturday night, when No. 25 Florida opens the 2016 season against UMass, McElwain and the Gators will have their first chance to redeem themselves from the downward spiral that brought the momentum of McElwain’s first season to a screeching halt.
When they run out of the tunnel ahead of the 7:30 p.m. kickoff, last season means nothing.
All that matters is what lies ahead.
“Light their hair on fire, go out there and have a good time,” McElwain said.
A more than five-touchdown underdog, the Minutemen are just 8-40 since making the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision and have yet to defeat a Power 5 conference opponent.
Leading their offense is sophomore running back Marquis Young, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season.
Young’s breakout game came during UMass’ 62-27 loss to Notre Dame, during which he ran for 103 yards and a touchdown against the Fighting Irish.
“He’s a physical guy,” UF safety Marcus Maye said. “He can run. He can do a lot. They try to give him the ball as much as they can out of the backfield. We’ve just got to rally around him and tackle him.”
The Gators will counter with a top-15 defense and an offense that has the potential to do some damage in the SEC this year.
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio will start at quarterback, as many as five running backs could get playing time and a trio of versatile wide receivers in Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell and Dre Massey could leave the Minutemen’s defense dizzy.
“When you’re playing Florida and that kind of game, there’s a sense of urgency with your players and your staff,” said UMass coach Mark Whipple, who previously served as Randy Shannon’s offensive coordinator at Miami from 2009-2010. “There’s an excitement that you might not get when you’re playing a lesser foe.”
And although UMass is considered a lesser foe for the Gators, McElwain certainly isn’t looking at it that way, especially after last season.
The Gators barely slipped by a lowly Florida Atlantic team with a 20-14 overtime win last year, needing a pair of pass deflections in the end zone to leave The Swamp with a win.
It was Florida’s final win that year, as UF closed with defeats to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan by a combined 97-24.
“Anytime you finish 0-3, it’s the worst taste in your mouth,” said Del Rio, who was sentenced to the sideline in 2015 after transferring to UF from Oregon State. “That’s tough to swallow.”
Saturday marks the first chance to get rid of that aftertaste.
“There’s just so much learning that can go on in that opening game,” McElwain said. “That’s why you have to make sure that you’re sound in everything you’re doing more so because who knows really what you’re going to see.”