The players won't say it. But this game is a must-win.
No one on the Gators’ football team would dare utter the words “must win” in reference to Saturday’s game against Tennessee.
So I’ll do it for them.
Maybe it’s too early to declare this the most pivotal game of the season. But the Gators will slip to 0-2 in the conference if they perish at the hands of their SEC East rival on Saturday night. That sounds pretty pivotal to me, especially given that the road only gets rougher from there: at Mississippi State, LSU at home, at Vandy and then to Jacksonville to face the Georgia Bulldogs.
It’s a doozy of an upcoming schedule.
That trip to Starkville alone will be an exhausting hurdle for this Gators program. And surely first-year Florida coach Dan Mullen wouldn’t want to fall to his old team AND — potentially — remain winless in the conference.
It’s obvious UF needs to come out on top on the road against Tennessee.
The Gators need to get a formidable win on their 2018 resume. Not for morale or confidence, but insurance.
Insurance that all of Florida’s struggles are not beyond repair. Insurance that this season is more than just a rebuild for Dan Mullen. Insurance that the Gators can actually compete with another SEC team.
Those two blowout victories over Charleston Southern and Colorado State were nice little spirit boosters, but Florida’s gotta show that it won’t cower when faced with some adversity.
Mullen and his players spoke repeatedly this week about going out there and “just having fun.”
“Tennessee’s a really good football team,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “They’re a good football team just like we are. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re up for the challenge. Just go out there and play football and have fun.”
I understand that they want to stay calm.
But this Tennessee program hasn’t won an SEC game since 2016. Any team that has gone a whole year without a conference win is going to treat a game against its rival like a “must-win.”
So why should the Gators treat it any differently?
Now, two teams that combined for three SEC wins last season surely will not constitute the most riveting 60 minutes of college football this weekend.
But the implications are immense.
This is by no means a hot take, just stating the painfully obvious, maybe even the cliche. Whether they want to admit it or not, the Gators can’t take this game lightly.
Alanis Thames is a sports writer for The Alligator. Follow her on Twitter @alanisthames and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org