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Florida's Jim McElwain shoots down allegation Gators wanted to dodge LSU

Florida coach Jim McElwain strongly defended his program Monday, four days after the Gators postponed the LSU game because of the threat of the storm. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Florida coach Jim McElwain strongly defended his program Monday, four days after the Gators postponed the LSU game because of the threat of the storm. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Oct. 10, 2016

GAINESVILLE — Hurricane Matthew has come and gone, but the controversy it brought to the SEC hasn't blown over.

Florida coach Jim McElwain strongly defended his program Monday, four days after the Gators postponed the LSU game because of the threat of the storm. Hurricane Matthew's impact in Gainesville was not as strong as initially feared, causing some outsiders to question whether the Gators were trying to avoid the game to boost their chances of defending their SEC East title.

"Nineteen deaths, 2.5 million people without power, families in dire needs …" McElwain said of the storm's devastation. "Dodging the game? Wow.

"How anybody could even think that way is beyond me."

The theory, circulating online and promoted by at least one prominent national writer, goes that UF doesn't want to play rival LSU to prevent a possible SEC loss. If the Gators sweep their remaining conference games and No. 9 Tennessee falls to No. 1 Alabama this week, UF would win the division. McElwain said he was shocked that "someone could actually think that way."

"You've got to do what's best for the state of Florida," quarterback Austin Appleby said. "Sometimes it's a little bit bigger than ball."

McElwain said players' reactions were mixed when they learned that the biggest home game of the season was postponed.

"You're upset that you're not playing," quarterback Luke Del Rio said, "but you're not upset at the reason why."

Although the storm's local effects were weaker than expected, Hurricane Matthew did have an impact on the program.

At least 21 players are from Brevard, Volusia, Flagler or Duval — four of the coastal counties that were hit the hardest. Guard Tyler Jordan said some of his family members in Jacksonville were at home when a tree fell, damaging part of the brick fence before breaking into the room they were sitting in.

"You've got to look at the big picture," Jordan said.

UF encouraged players' families to come to Gainesville to ride out the storm. The school canceled classes Thursday and Friday, and coaches had barely seen their players since then. UF handed out food before the storm, just in case; Appleby said he stocked up on about 70 store-bought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The on-field effects will follow. UF, like Miami, canceled the official recruiting visits that were previously scheduled. The Gators missed out on some practice time thanks to an unexpected bye week, but coaches also had extra time to prepare for this week's game against Missouri.

"There wasn't much else but worrying to do on Saturday," McElwain said.

It remains unclear when, or if, the game will be played. The SEC is leading the rescheduling charge, and commissioner Greg Sankey told CBS on Saturday that the game needs to be played.

The most obvious solution is to play the game on Nov. 19 by canceling UF's game against Presbyterian and LSU's home game against South Alabama. But LSU athletic director Joe Alleva remained adamant Monday that the Tigers would host a game on that date, meaning what would have been a UF home game would be played at Tiger Stadium.

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"We are not going to change that situation," Alleva said.

If the game is not made up, UF and LSU would play only seven conference game instead of the usual eight, and division winners might have to be determined based on conference winning percentages.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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