Homecoming against LSU another chance for McElwain to prove Swamp Magic restored
GAINESVILLE — Homecoming in The Swamp. Gator Growl looming, an SEC opponent visiting and a national television audience.
Even with another hurricane looming in the Gulf, it almost feels a little like old times around the Florida football program this week.
It’s been a strange football season in Gainesville.
All before the Gators even play a game in October, the program has been beset by player suspensions, a lingering criminal investigation, critical injuries, quarterback roulette, an unorthodox opener in Dallas and a hurricane wiping out a home game.
The seemingly endless sequence of misfortune has made for a season’s worth of adversity in one September. That news alone would be odd enough, but when you couple it with winning a game on a 63-yard post pattern as time expires or beating Kentucky for the 31st time in a row because the Wildcats forgot to cover receivers twice, things get really weird.
Add another curiosity Saturday, when LSU visits The Swamp for the first time in the Jim McElwain era, and on homecoming no less.
Last year’s game, of course, was initially postponed due to Hurricane Matthew, then moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge after LSU athletic director Joe Alleva threw a tantrum about LSU potentially losing a home date Nov. 19. Alleva, whose program was scheduled to play South Alabama at home on that date, adopted the position that LSU would not travel to Florida to make up the game. His inflexibility (later revealed in a series of childish emails) was roundly (and rightly) criticized by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who called Florida the only “meaningful partner” in getting the game rescheduled.
Ultimately, Florida had to surrender two home games — and all the attendant revenue that means for the city of Gainesville — just to make sure the LSU game got played. You know the rest of the story — Florida won at Tiger Stadium on a goal line stand, clinching the SEC East and celebrating wildly on LSU’s home field. Meanwhile, Alleva’s program now pays the toll for its rigidity: two consecutive trips to The Swamp.
This week, McElwain laughed off the drama surrounding last year’s game and the largely Finebaum-driven narrative that Florida somehow scheduled LSU for homecoming as a “slight.”
“I laugh about it,” the Florida coach. “Whatever creates the buzz is good, but I’m not even sure our guys know it’s homecoming.”
McElwain’s deflections are hardly convincing. The Gators coach was emotional following last year’s win in Baton Rouge, effusively praising his team’s character while noting that the postponement drama had been incredible given “a hurricane is about people’s lives.” It’s unlikely he’s forgotten.
If he or the team has, Gainesville hasn’t. Around town, the theme for the week has been “The Swamp Remembers,” with the accompanying hashtag #HurricaneMatthew on social media. Florida fans are juiced-up for this game.
LSU will be too, and not just because they are desperate after a stunning loss to Troy a week ago. LSU certainly remembers Florida celebrating on its home field a year ago. And the Tigers just had their homecoming ruined. They’d like to return flip that script at The Swamp.
The Tigers’ personnel presents unique challenges for the Gators, who have shown, at times, a lack of discipline and gap control in the run game that LSU certainly will look to exploit. LSU also has outstanding personnel in their front seven, and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is famous for exotic and disguised fronts that confuse even veteran quarterbacks. Florida’s young signal caller, Feleipe Franks, will likely need to have his best game calling out protections and recognizing blitzes if Florida is to win.
Still, as hungry as LSU is and as many matchup problems as it presents, this is the type of game — against a wounded, unranked opponent and with a rabid Swamp — that Florida can’t afford to lose from a program standpoint.
History says Florida has the upper hand.
Jim McElwain is 13-1 in The Swamp in his tenure, and is 10-0 against unranked opponents at home. There’s no question Florida’s ability to hold serve in The Swamp has paced the ability of his first two teams to advance to the SEC Championship Game.
What’s more, the numbers hold up well when compared to the most successful coaches in program history.
Steve Spurrier began his career at Florida 23-0 at home. He didn’t lose to an unranked opponent in his tenure at Florida. Urban Meyer won his first 16 home games, emphasizing “restoring the magic of The Swamp” at his initial press conference after the all-too-frequent home disappointments of the Zook era. Meyer wasn’t quite as invincible at home as Spurrier, even famously losing at home to Ole Miss in the 2008 national championship season, but Florida’s aura of invincibility at home was very much restored.
When Florida’s program is headed in the right direction or rolling, The Swamp is one of the most feared venues in the sport. With 90,000 orange-and-blue-clad faithful as close to the action as in any venue in America, it’s a living, breathing organism, an extra defender, a cauldron of primal, ear-piercing, soul-rattling sound that often plays out in humidity and heat not fit for a jog, let alone four quarters of tackle football.
Beat LSU, and you take another step toward restoring the intimidation factor that has long been part of visiting Gainesville for even talented opponents. Lose, and well — you know the narrative — even a team that couldn’t beat Troy on homecoming can win in your building.
The good news for Florida?
The Gators appeared to be headed in the right direction against Vanderbilt. The offense is getting better. The defense is getting older. If they hold serve at home in October against LSU and Texas A&M, they’ll once again have a chance to seize complete control of the East when they get to Jacksonville just before Halloween. And the Gators know who is waiting that weekend.
But first, Florida needs to do what LSU couldn’t.
Win the homecoming game.