GAINESVILLE — There was a time not so long ago when hearing Florida players talk about preparing for Furman as if it was a conference game would clearly be seen as trying to be politically correct.
But for a Gator team that finished with a losing conference record for the first time in 25 years and is struggling in all facets of the game, it's more like an excellent idea because every game is important.
Even when it's Division I-AA Furman in the 11th game of the season.
"Absolutely, we're treating this like a regular team we play," junior safety Josh Evans said. "We're coming in with the same momentum that we would come in for any other team. We're treating them just as if they're Florida State. It's still a football game. We've been struggling, and we're really coming in hungry to win."
Ordinarily, this would be the kind of late-season, filler game teams might use to get some of its younger, lesser-used players some game time.
Strangely enough, it's a huge game for the Gators.
Sitting at 5-5, Florida needs a win against Furman to keep its bowl-eligibility hopes from riding on the outcome of the following week's game against FSU.
"(A bowl game is) very important," quarterback John Brantley said. "It's good for the program, good for the school and everything. And it lets us keep playing ball longer, keep practicing."
It's difficult for the Gators to find themselves in this position, the players keep saying. They are fighting as hard as they can as a team, they insist. If they could just get some of the young players to be more consistent, the story goes, this might all be different.
Even offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said he walked out of Tuesday's practice still convinced this team is better than its record suggests.
"I'm talking to one guy saying, 'That's not a 5-5 team,' " Weis said. "But as one of my old mentors said, 'You are what you are.' We're 5-5 for a reason, because we've been too inconsistent at critical times."
The Paladins are 6-4, but those losses include Coastal Carolina and Elon. Florida coach Will Muschamp said none of that matters. For the Gators, losers of five of their past six, it's about getting back on the field — versus anybody — at this point.
"We get an opportunity to go on the field and play better," Muschamp said. "That's the way I approach it. It's nameless and faceless for me. We go out and look at the schemes and what they do and what matchups are issues and what we've got to do in order to win the football game.
"I don't put an asterisk by certain games and say, 'These are more important than these.' They all count for one. And with our football team right now, we just need to work on Florida —I've said that all season and every week — and work on improving ourselves as a football team and playing well on Saturday."
The Gators have two remaining regular-season games to improve and, perhaps, prove Weis' theory correct.
Said Brantley: "We have to go out there and prove to ourselves, and prove to everyone, that we're getting better and everything's going to work out."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.