Jim McElwain stands to win the biggest game of his head-coaching career, send the Florida Gators to Atlanta and notch his first signature win on Saturday.
With all due respect to the Rocky Mountain showdown between Colorado State and Colorado, that’s not really moving the needle down in SEC Country. McElwain was, for what it’s worth, 2-1 against Colorado during his tenure at Colorado State.
The Gators stuck to the script this week. The LSU game is the most important simply because it’s the next game. Not because it’s LSU, or because a win would send the Gators to the SEC Championship game, just because it’s the next one. It isn’t just another game, it’s a rivalry game with everything on the line.
McElwain knows that. He’s stressed that to his team this week, whether they’ll admit it publically or not. Traveling to Tiger Stadium to take on LSU is an experience and playing on that field, with yard markers on every five yard line instead of 10 and a student section that shows up three hours before kickoff is daunting.
“I think it’s so cool,” McElwain said of playing at Tiger Stadium. “It starts with going down that single road, which I’m sure they built on purpose.”
McElwain is referencing the road that the visitors bus has to navigate. It’s a tight squeeze and lining either side of the road are tailgating Tigers’ fans. You can imagine the scene when you mix fans, alcohol and the visiting busses rolling through your tailgate.
“For our guys to understand that, use that people that can’t stand you, and it’s a way maybe to fuel your performance a little bit,” McElwain said. “That’s kind of the way I always look at it. It’s something we have to get better at.”
The Gators finished a five-game home schedule undefeated. Their two losses came on the road in the two most hostile environments they have played in. LSU will provide a less than friendly crowd on Saturday. Florida is also counting on a lot of true freshmen, guys who may not have any experience playing in front of more than 100,000 fans.
“There’s going to be some rough moments, that’s what’s great about playing at home. There’s a reason we’re undefeated in The Swamp, because it’s a great home field advantage,” said McElwain.
McElwain visited Death Valley twice as the offensive coordinator at Alabama and again last season. The Baton Rouge faithful have given Mac an earful.
“I don’t know how they could call my mother names,” he joked. “My mother is 95 years old, she’s awesome. She’s one of the most loving, caring, people in the world and they’re going to say everything they can about my mother. That’s what it’s all about. It will be fun.”
It will be fun if the Gators win on Saturday. It will be the biggest win Jim McElwain has had during his head-coaching career, by a long shot. Bigger than a home win over Tennessee, bigger than a home win over top-five ranked Ole Miss. This game will indicate the overall health of the program moving. A loss would be catastrophic to the psyche of a fan base that is already growing restless with McElwain’s listless offense. A win, even an ugly one, and Florida will be singing McElwain’s praises all the way to Atlanta.