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Gators know better than to look past cupcake foes

GAINESVILLE — For No. 23 Florida, nothing seems menacing about this week's toothless trap game against the Mean Green.

North Texas is a directional school without a big name and a first-time head coach (Seth Littrell) working through his first few games. It's coming off of a one-win season and holds an offense ranked No. 119 in passing efficiency and a defense ranked No. 105 against the run.

All of that is enough to scare Gators coach Jim McElwain about a program with a recent history of slipping against lackluster teams, especially with a big-time matchup looming like next week's game at rival Tennessee.

"It's not something you coach them to do," McElwain said, "but let's face (the) facts."

And the facts are on McElwain's side.

Since the start of 2012, the Gators have played six teams from Group of Five conferences, excluding season openers. One of them was a 26-20 home loss to Division I-AA Georgia Southern in 2013, maybe the worst defeat in school history. Of the five wins, three were decided by only one score, including last year's overtime victory over Florida Atlantic and a last-second 27-20 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in 2012.

"Kind of the MO of this program has been, you know, you play high and you play low, and not consistently," McElwain said.

That holds true through the first two games of this year. McElwain said the Gators were "just okay" against UMass before exploding offensively in a romp Saturday over Kentucky. That's why McElwain said UF can't afford to be cautious, either through its preparation or potentially resting star receiver Antonio Callaway, who is nursing a quad injury.

"What you learn when you play well like we did on Saturday is it really doesn't matter who you're playing," quarterback Luke Del Rio said.

But the heavy hitters in the SEC East have shown that it does seem to matter who they're playing, with mediocre results against middling teams like the one UF hosts Saturday night.

Then-No. 9 Tennessee needed a lucky bounce in overtime to survive Appalachian State on Sept. 1. Then-No. 9 Georgia trailed Nicholls State in the third quarter Saturday before holding on for a two-point win.

As McElwain previewed the game against North Texas during his weekly news conference Monday, he sounded a lot like his former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban. "I don't know that I've ever been this disappointed after winning a game, maybe ever," Saban said of his top-ranked Crimson Tide's 28-point victory last week.

'Bama's win came against Western Kentucky, the defending Conference USA champion. UF's opponent looks even worse; UNT finished last in that league in 2015. McElwain doesn't seem to care.

"This will be a huge week for us as far as our guys understanding that never, ever let an opportunity pass you by," McElwain said.

If they do, the Gators could miss out on even bigger opportunities in the coming weeks — like a run at the SEC East title.

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

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