GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Did somebody move the Magic Kingdom 100 miles to the north? Who’s coaching these brazen Florida Gators anyway, Walt Disney or Jim McElwain? And who were those guys in orange Saturday night?
Whatever … the Florida Gators’ football program has come back from the living dead and is now college football’s newest version of Donald Trump: The brighter the lights, the better they seem to like it. And, like Trump, they ain’t doing bad in the polls, either.
These Gators have just engaged in the Swamp’s two most magical back-to-back game nights in history. More than just a win over the No. 3 team, this was the other bookend in the eight-day reclamation project of their home turf and the “Reconstruction of the Gator Nation.”
Once again, it’s the Swamp, where only Gators get out alive. The Ole Miss Rebels died there 38-10.
I don’t ever recall a similar stretch when an underdog Florida team beat favored opponents with such fanfare and bravado on their home field — not even in the Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer eras.
From the final four minutes in a two-touchdown comeback against Tennessee through four quarters of a UFC-style beatdown of the nation’s No. 3 team, these young Gators turned the page on four years of ugliness and sent out the clarion call: We’re back, baby!
Indeed, they are back in the top 15 (11th in the AP poll, 12th in the coaches’ poll). Back as No. 1 in the hearts their fans. And maybe back in the high life again.
Sitting atop the SEC East as the division’s only unbeaten team, the Gators look more like a finished product instead of a work in progress — already built and no longer rebuilding.
Fans have fallen back in love with their team and their joy is evident in the way they emote in the Swamp. The young quarterback has grown up before their eyes. And grown in popularity.
The Grier family now has two brothers on the big stage. While little bro Hayes is on “Dancing with the Stars,” big bro Will is shooting for the stars.
Apparently, the old axiom that we should beware of wounded animals and sick athletes (see: Michael Jordan) is true. Because of the flu that reportedly struck he and 20 teammates, Grier’s start was a game-time decision — literally 20 minutes before the kickoff. He was nothing short of brilliant, with 24 completions in 29 attempts for 271 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers were Wuerffelesque, like the guy whose No. 7 he wears. Grier is now 35-of-47 for 412 yards and six touchdowns in the past five quarters.
“I feel a lot better,” Grier said after the game. “A lot of the guys were sick during the week. This is a game of adversity and moving on. I’m really proud of the way everyone responded and how we came out with a big team win.”
Grier’s deft touch, quick and deliberate release, calm demeanor and command of the offense were examples of the quantum leap he has made in four starts. His first touchdown pass, of 36 yards to Demarcus Robinson, was impressively delivered under heat, with the mammoth 6-foot-4, 296-pound Robert Nkemdiche bearing down on him.
And he did it in one of America’s greatest sports arenas, a well-lit stage known as Florida Field where the passion has returned.
“That stadium was something special,” McElwain said in his post-game remarks. “For a kid from Montana, that was pretty cool.”
For a kid from anywhere rooting for the Gators, it also was pretty cool.
Nobody saw this coming. And if you say you did, go and turn yourself in for perjury right now. As recently as July, when one reporter who covers the Gators was asked how McElwain might fare this season, he responded, “If he wins seven, he ought to be coach of the year.”
Start carving his name on the trophy.
Grier was magnificent, but so was the defense
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly might as well had surrendered when he got off the bus because Geoff Collins’ defense was waiting with the handcuffs. And Collins’ defense had the Rebels’ offense on lockdown. A team that had been averaging 54.8 points was stymied as Kelly was sacked four times and intercepted once.
Gators fans have seen good defenses the past few seasons, but it has been a long time since they’ve been able to cheer for an aggressive offense that throws the ball down the field and doesn’t stutter and stammer in never-never land.
It’s also time to realize that what McElwain has brought to Gainesville is more than just a drink of water — it’s something worth bottling. He’s the first Gators coach to beat a top-three team in his initial season and the first to start 5-0 in his initial season since Spurrier.
Florida hadn’t beaten a team ranked this high at home since knocking off No. 2 Tennessee in 1999, and the Gators beat a top-five opponent for the first time since defeating No. 4 LSU in 2012.
A team staring down at a murderer’s row schedule in October of Ole Miss, Missouri, LSU and Georgia showed it isn’t necessarily going to be the victim of the murder.
Asked by ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe after the game where his team would go from here, McElwain seemed almost flummoxed and begged her to let him enjoy the moment as he said, “We’ll show up next week.”
Quite frankly, Gators fans are confused about what to cheer for and what to expect now, almost like when a pitcher has a no-hitter going — afraid to jinx it. They don’t need to know what to cheer for next. Just enjoy it, as McElwain did.