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Thursday, January 27, 2022

From underrated to elated: UF leads SEC East after upset win

<p>UF tight end Jake McGee celebrates after scoring UF's second touchdown of the game during the Gators' 38-10 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 3, 2015, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.</p>

UF tight end Jake McGee celebrates after scoring UF's second touchdown of the game during the Gators' 38-10 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 3, 2015, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Just five weeks ago, Florida was unranked, and Jim McElwain and his team were both unproven.

Now, the Gators find themselves ranked 11th in the country after defeating then-No. 3 Ole Miss 38-10 in one of the biggest upsets of this young college football season.

That’s something no one thought possible — except for the team that pulled it off.

"(The Rebels) probably thought that they were going to come in here and beat our tails off. That’s good," UF coach Jim McElwain said after the game. "And I’m sure the next team’s going to be the same because here’s what’s going to be next. ‘Are these guys for real?’... and all this kind of stuff and I get it. I’ve been there. I get it. We’ll find out."

The win didn’t come from anyone doing anything out of the ordinary, though, according to McElwain. Instead, it came from everyone doing his job, an idea the team seems to have bought into.

"A place like this, the talent level in this building, you expect to make the plays," tight end Jake McGee said. "You shouldn’t get a pat on the back for making a touchdown catch, for making a big play. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

"Internally, we’ve been a confident group and we know what we have on this team and what we can do. ... We’ve known all Spring, Summer, camp what we can do if we worked the right way."

It would have been easy to have little faith this season.

The Southeastern Conference media picked Florida to finish fifth in the SEC East, and a seven- or eight-win season probably would have satisfied most reasonable fans.

There were plenty of questions about the team’s talent and experience levels, or the lack thereof.

But while people on the outside doubted, McElwain has seemingly restored the belief within the locker room, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

"I think over Spring and over Fall camp, we’ve really gained a confidence as an offense that we’ve never had before since I’ve been here," offensive lineman Trip Thurman said. "We’ve always put a hand on our defense like ‘c’mon, help us out, come help us out.’

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"But it’s awesome to have that kind of control where we can end the game with four minutes left and get two first downs and kind of close it out."

The defense has always been confident in its own abilities.

But when the fate of games rests exclusively on your shoulders every week, as it often did in recent seasons for Gator defenders, it can wear you down.

This season, though, it’s a shared responsibility from both sides of the ball. And for those defenders, it makes a huge difference.

"We had the utmost confidence in them the whole game on the sideline," linebacker Jarrad Davis said.

"We saw them practice this week. If we got the ball in their hands anywhere close to the 50-yard line, it was points."

"It almost makes you feel like you’re invincible."

Now, the Gators find themselves in an unfamiliar position: ranked 11th in the country, in first place in the SEC East and with an actual chance to finish the season in Atlanta for the conference championship game.

It’s still a long way off to even begin thinking about such goals, and the path only gets tougher with road games at Missouri and LSU in the next two weeks.

But with each game, each step on the journey, the Gators are learning who they are and what they’re capable of. And the confidence is growing.

"Tonight kinda solidified who we were," Davis said after the game. "I think the biggest learning experience was last week when we were down. That really showed us that we can fight through anything.

"We can beat anybody, but we’ve got to do it for four quarters. Tonight showed us that we can do that."

Follow Graham Hack on Twitter @graham_hack24

UF tight end Jake McGee celebrates after scoring UF's second touchdown of the game during the Gators' 38-10 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 3, 2015, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

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