By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s preseason is over.
With all due respect to New Mexico State, East Carolina and Kentucky, the Gators essentially begin the regular season Saturday against Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee.
The game is the first in a daunting stretch that likely will define coach Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville. After playing the Volunteers (2-1), the Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) face third-ranked Mississippi, No. 25 Missouri, eighth-ranked LSU and No. 9 Georgia.
That’s five games in six weeks against teams that were ranked to start the season.
Even McElwain acknowledged one key aspect of the looming gauntlet.
"We’re going to start to play some real D-linemen, glass-eaters and fire-breathers," McElwain said Monday.
And that’s the No. 1 challenge for Florida. Forget the unsettled quarterback situation. Ignore the close games against East Carolina and Kentucky. Move past McElwain’s sideline rant and postgame tirade following the win over East Carolina.
Florida’s main concern over the summer remains the team’s biggest issue heading into the "regular season:" an unproven offensive line that features three sophomores who had never started a game before this season, a graduate transfer from Fordham and a fifth-year senior with a recurring shoulder injury.
The line looked shaky at times in the first two games, but really showed flaws against the Wildcats.
Quarterback Will Grier, who started over Treon Harris and played the entire game, was hit on more than half of his 34 drop-backs in a 14-9 win. Grier completed 13 of 22 passes for 125 yards, with an interception. He also scrambled 12 times, including two sacks, for 61 yards and a touchdown.
"He made some big plays with his feet, using his feet as a check-down," McElwain said. "Sometimes what happens to you is you’re like, `Hey, this is cool, man. I’ll just drop back, look for a hole and run."’
Grier’s ground game was the best Florida had at Kentucky since running backs Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Cronkrite averaged less than 2.6 yards a carry.
"I’m concerned about wins and how we’re going to get them," McElwain said. "Obviously, you would love to have a 10-yard average when you run the ball. I think where I’m more concerned is our explosive runs; they haven’t been there. We’ve got to somehow create that with a little bit of movement, snap up front and then we’ve got to hit that crease when we have it."
The line could be tested even more Saturday, although the Vols have just five sacks in three games.
"Get off the ball and go move somebody," McElwain said. "That’s what we’ve got to do. I think we’ve done that a little bit on the edges. We haven’t done that as well inside. We’ve popped a couple. Controlling the line of scrimmage? Keep working that."
The Gators have controlled the series of late, winning 10 in a row. It’s the longest streak since Tennessee won the first 10 meetings between 1916 and 1953.
Florida’s dominance has dominated pre-game talk in recent years and surely will be the main topic of conversation this week.
"I’ve lived in Knoxville all my life, so it’s something I kind of hear just about every day," Vols safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. "Now it’s time for game time. We’re just going in with the mindset that it’s the next game coming up. The past and the future don’t really matter. It’s all about the now. We’re focused. Each practice we’re going with the mindset that we’re going to win the ballgame."
Florida’s previous two coaches, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp, never lost to Tennessee.
McElwain would like to follow suit. An initial victory certainly would be a solid start to a formidable stretch that could provide some much-needed confidence for a young team trying to regain league and national prominence.
"They haven’t beaten us in 10 years and we’re looking forward to keeping that going," Florida cornerback Quincy Wilson said. "It’s a lot of hype. They are going to hype the game up to whatever they are trying to make it. But at the end of the day, we’re the Gators and we’re going to go out and play and come out on top."
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