Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain returned to Gainesville after a vacation to his home state of Montana to find out a rather controversial scheduling decision had been made by his superiors while he was gone. Last Thursday, Florida announced its 2017 homecoming opponent would be LSU on October 7, rather than the typical Missouri or Vanderbilt matchup it has stuck to over the last four years.
“That’s something, maybe you guys don’t understand, maybe it’s because I’m not Coach [Nick] Saban at Alabama, I don’t get those decisions,” said McElwain. “That’s something the school does based on their alumni. I heard this question might be coming up and I said, ‘Well, who are we playing at homecoming?’ And I guess we’re playing them.”
The relationship between the two programs has been a rocky one to say the least over the last year, between the battle for location after Hurricane Matthew suspended the game in 2016, to back and forth between players that led to a pregame scuffle, to Florida going into Tiger Stadium and defeating LSU on a goal line stand, and even to the Gators’ baseball team taking down the Tigers to win the College World Series.
As if the rivalry needed any more intensifying, Florida had to throw one final wrench into things before the season started. The rivalry has certainly heightened for fans over the last week, and likely for the players as well, even though most won’t admit to it. Junior offensive lineman Martez Ivey did not shy away though.
“It definitely blew up fan-base wise,” he said. “I started seeing everything that goes on Twitter,
Facebook, and people outside always in my ear about LSU, LSU, LSU. Ever since I have been
a Florida fan it was all about FSU, and lately it has been all about LSU. Just because what
happened last year with the Florida game and then the year before that. The goal line stop
we had last year putting the icing on the cake. Everyone is looking towards the game
coming up. Scheduling it on our homecoming makes it even more interesting for people to
blow this game up.”
LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark, running back Derrius Guice and defensive end Christian LaCouture traveled with Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron to SEC Media Days on Monday. Inevitably, all three were asked to give their opinions on being scheduled as Florida’s homecoming opponent.
Guice and LaCouture took similar stances with the media, downplaying it as much as possible.
“I just think they’re [Florida] having fun,” Guice said. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time. When Florida comes, we’ll worry about them scheduling us for homecoming and them beating us last year. We’ll worry about all that then.”
“It’s two great teams that when they play, competition is going to be down to the wire,” said LaCouture. “It’s something that certainly we can’t control. We just know going into it that it’s going to be a hostile environment and we’re going to have to bring our A game.”
Chark, on the other hand, took things a little more personal.
“Honestly, I’ve never been scheduled for somebody’s homecoming. In high school, my senior year, we went 2-8 and we won our homecoming game. Being scheduled for the homecoming game, it says a lot, but at the end of the day it’s just football, you know, it’s just a rivalry. We enjoy getting up for the rivalry … We know for a fact that the stadium is going to be packed now. Everybody is coming home. The fans are going to be all hyped-up, so it’s going to be a good atmosphere.”
Orgeron was also given his chance to throw some shade the Gators’ way on Monday, but he chose to keep his thoughts to a minimum, brushing the homecoming situation off.
“People going to do what they going to do,” he said. “And Florida is a great rivalry for us. We respect them. Any time we go into The Swamp, it’s going to be a battle. I have a lot of respect for Coach McElwain and the job that they do. We are going to be ready to play regardless of what it is.”
While McElwain took the high road as well and had little to say on the matter of scheduling LSU for homecoming besides the fact that it wasn’t his decision, he made it clear that the poor handling of last season’s game has not been forgotten. The intensity of the rivalry hit an all-time high, but the maturity and consideration for the emergency situation at hand in the state of Florida hit an all-time low, and that is what he spoke to.
“You know, we lost a bunch of revenue in the city of Gainesville by not being able to play that game, and yet at the same time there wasn’t one emergency worker that wasn’t down on the coast helping with a devastating event,” McElwain said. “So, in the big picture, how important was it? You’re talking about people’s lives now. So, yeah, we’ll go play a ball game. That’s the way it was.”
Despite so much going against them last year, the Gators persevered to defeat the Tigers 16-10 and LSU brought a pretty bad deal onto itself as it now has to travel to Florida two seasons in a row. With that, the ball is now in Florida’s court to defend its home field.
Senior defensive back Marcell Harris said he feels the rivalry growing between the two teams and he knows the Tigers are going to come in with a fire under them, so the Gators have to be ready for a fight. As he prepares for his final season and his final homecoming at Florida, this game is more important to him than ever.
“We are looking to defend our stadium and to defend The Swamp. That’s how we go about it. We defend our land and that’s how it’s going to happen.”