Is there any legitimate argument in opposition to the contention that Jim McElwain should be the unanimous SEC Coach of the Year at season’s end?
The first-year Florida Gators head coach has been so masterful at pulling the right strings, making calculated decisions and moving his team forward on a weekly basis that he resembles more and more his mentor – you know, the one he and Florida could very well meet in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 5.
Yes, the No. 11 Gators are 7-1 (5-1 SEC) with their sole loss coming on the road, at night in one of the toughest environments in college football to No. 4 LSU … by seven points … with the game-winning score coming on a fake field goal touchdown … in a week where Florida lost its burgeoning star quarterback to a year-long suspension for a violation of the NCAA’s banned substance policy.
But it is the fact that McElwain has Florida playing as well as it is with that one negligible loss that is truly impressive. How has he done it? By getting players to focus on the individual game, practice, drill or play in front of them and not look further ahead.
“Yeah. Yeah, I did. I don’t expect to lose,” said McElwain when asked after Saturday’s 27-3 victory over rival Georgia if he believed UF would win the game in that manner. Florida is now in the driver’s seat for the SEC East title and all but clinched the division crown after last winning it in 2009. “We should never go into an event thinking that we’re going to come in second. … It doesn’t matter who we play; we go in with the mindset that we’re going to put a plan together to do whatever it takes to win the football game.
“We slipped up [against LSU] a couple weeks ago and gave up some big plays and learned from it and we just got to keep going forward. You ask if I’m surprised? I’m not. It’s just how we’re built. Every competitive guy – and our team’s competitive – it’s not about thinking about going to the championship. It’s about what do we do right now to get better because a championship will never come if we don’t take care of the now. And our guys are getting that.
“It’s not something we talk about because it will never happen if we don’t take care of right now. … It will be interesting to me to see if we have become mature enough to handle the position we’re in. I don’t have the answer for that, but to me, that’s the key to find out what kind of ball squad we have.”
McElwain’s Gators are not the breed that observers of Florida are used to seeing over the last handful of years. UF is not content to sit on the ball at the end of halves, win games with a 4-to-1 run/pass ratio and pray that its defense saves an embarrassing offensive effort. In other words, this is not in any way the same type of 7-1 Gators that held that record at this point in 2012. Florida is not hanging on a thread hoping for it not to snap; this year’s team is the one holding the scissors.
“They’re starting to understand the why – why we do what we do, why we ask them to do certain things. I think they’re getting that,” McElwain said. “And yet, they can go and feel warm and fuzzy after this all they want, but you’re only as good as your next game. In our case, we’re only as good as our next practice. I think they get it, I really do – I can see it in their eyes. We’ll find out [each] Saturday.”
Junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III explained after Saturday’s victory that McElwain’s charge to the Gators was simple when he took over the program: “He told us what we had to do to be great.”
Florida may not be great just yet, but it is damn good. It has the best blemish of college football’s one-loss teams at this juncture – though that may not be reflected in the top 25 polls at this point – and is in complete control of its own destiny for the first time since 2009.
McElwain appreciated the Gators’ total focus on Saturday, noting that Florida was “prepared to go play a ballgame” and not worrying about “getting into any chippy business and mouth-talking or anything like that.”
The Gators’ improved discipline is just another example of McElwain’s immediate impact. The coach’s explosive tirade in the face of junior running back Kelvin Taylor at the start of the season made headlines and became a hot topic among talking heads nationally, but those that praised the coach for the move wound up being on the right side of the argument.
While McElwain looked as if he’d lost his mind screaming at Taylor for celebrating a touchdown with a throat-slash gesture, ultimately that incident served as another calculated decision that benefited Florida in the long run. Players immediately learned that McElwain – still somewhat of an unknown quantity to them – was not fooling around: The Gators are bigger than any individual player and one person putting the spotlight on himself should not be done at the consequence of the greater good.
Taylor has done nothing but improve since the incident, while Florida has steadily become more disciplined as a team. On Saturday, Taylor referred to his coach as “wonderful” on more than one occasion, noting that the confrontation has only improved their relationship. McElwain praised the running back for his “special” performance in the huge rivalry game for the second-straight year.
That’s not the only proper string that McElwain has pulled. Though the quarterback controversy lasted too long when the eventual choice of redshirt freshman Will Grier, McElwain’s decision not to name Grier the permanent starter – widely criticized here on OnlyGators.com – may very well have kept sophomore Treon Harris more bought-in and involved than he would’ve otherwise been after losing the battle.
Though Hargreaves, Harris’s roommate, claims he never got down about the situation, the potential for that to happen was certainly there. Florida saw it just a couple years ago with Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. Instead, Harris prepared each week like he was the starter, and though he is far from as effective as Grier’s been, he absolutely played a major role in Florida winning the Georgia game.
“Treon made some plays when he had to,” McElwain made sure to note at the start of his media availability. “At the end of the day, the guy’s 2-0 in this ballgame as a starter. 2-0. That means something. I’m proud of him.”
Hargreaves believes the Gators have a “good vibe” running right now, one that could lead the team to greater victories and celebrations. “We still know we got more to accomplish. We’re going to enjoy this win and see how the rest plays out,” he said. His mindset is exactly what McElwain is trying to instill in his team.
“You should think you’re going to be successful; you should work towards that,” the coach explained. “It’s not gonna happen all the time, but certainly more likely to not happen if you don’t think you’re gonna do it.”
McElwain made it a point to call Florida “a good football team” on Saturday, one that believes, cares, invests and is doing most things the right way at this juncture.
Just moments earlier, merely minutes into 15-minute post-game press conference that should have been all about celebrating his first win in the Florida-Georgia rivalry, McElwain was zeroed in on anything but.
“I just can’t help but focus right now on a really good defense that Vanderbilt has. Derek [Mason]’s doing an outstanding job,” he began. “We can’t fall off. We’ll find out what our team’s made of. We’ll see how we come out of the tunnel. We’ll see what kind of energy The Swamp has.
“My focus right now is getting ready and figuring out how to beat a Vanderbilt team that has been in every single ballgame and played everybody really tough. Just take a look at the film and watch that defense of theirs. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do offensively.”
That’s how McElwain’s been all season – even-keeled and focused on the task at hand, not worrying about the future but rather doing what is necessary to ensure it’s bright for Florida.