By Shannon Snell – OnlyGators.com Featured Columnist
Why Jim McElwain is making a difference. Welcome to Atlanta, indeed. Wow. After six long years, the Florida Gators have finally punched their ticket back to the SEC Championship Game. As someone really close to the football team, I can honestly say that there is a belief throughout the entire program that not only can this program win the conference title, but a College Football Playoff berth is a legit possibility.
Moments like this should be cherished. This is as exciting as Gators football has been in a long, long time. And why shouldn’t it be? Fifteen years ago, I played in my first and only SEC Championship Game as a freshman with the thought that there would be many more after that. Unfortunate circumstances, coaching changes and bad luck proved otherwise. I don’t know what the future will bring for this team moving forward. No one can predict what will happen in the years to come.
Many thought that this was going to be a rebuilding year for Florida with media and so-called “experts” pegging them as fifth in the SEC East. Let’s call it what it is: If you told me in September that, at the beginning of November, the Gators would be 8-1 and headed to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game, I would have laughed in your face and asked you what you were smoking.
The best thing going for this program right now is head coach Jim McElwain. I know everyone is fawning over how he’s winning games and making Florida relevant again, but anyone that has talked to or been around him for more than five seconds will realize the guy is genuine. One of a true leader’s best traits is being an effective communicator, and McElwain has proven he is one since the beginning. He has done an amazing job turning around this program in such a short period of time, and I only expect it to get better from here.
Winning is winning. I am a bit upset about the grumblings I’ve been hearing about Florida not being a championship-caliber team because of the 9 -7 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday. For all of you that think championship-caliber teams don’t struggle, let me give you a little history lesson.
Let’s start off with what many consider to be the best college football team of all time: 2001 Miami. The Hurricanes were up 12-7 in the final minutes against Boston College. The Eagles, which were considered and inferior opponent, drove down into Miami’s red zone only to have a pass picked off by Ed Reed to seal the game. In 2002, eventual national champion Ohio State went into Purdue and almost get beat 10-6, then needs overtime the following week to beat Illinois.
You’ll of course remember 2006 when Florida needed a blocked field goal by Jarvis Moss to avoid a devastating loss at home to South Carolina. And then there’s 2008, when Ole Miss straight-up beat the Gators, leading to Tim Tebow’s “The Promise” and an incredibly impressive title run.
What am I getting at here? Championship teams are going to struggle from time to time. Not any one team lines up and plays perfect every Saturday. That’s not reality. The difference between good teams and great teams is the ability to dig down deep and pull through when the times get tough. If Florida was in the same position last year, in my opinion, the game would have been lost. That’s the difference that McElwain brings.
Already relevant, now playing for a title. So here are the Gators at 8-1 with the SEC East all locked up. Florida is no longer playing to be relevant; it is relevant. Every team moving forward wants to play spoiler to this magical season that McElwain and company have put together. I know most will say, “Let’s take it one game at a time and see what happens.” Screw that. That’s bullshit. The possibility of a national title is as real as the Florida heat.
This team is destined for great things. The Gators put themselves in this position by going out every week and competing, so they should act accordingly. This has turned into a four game season, and if Florida can win all four of those games, it will find itself in the CFP Semifinals with the opportunity of a lifetime. It doesn’t matter if the Gators win these next four games by one point each or 100 combined. In the end, all that matters is getting the win.
A three-year starter for the Florida Gators who played under Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, former guard Shannon Snell joined OnlyGators.com in 2012 as a football columnist to provide his unique perspective on the team. He is now in his fourth year sharing his musings and will do so through the 2015 season. Snell, who played in 46 games over four seasons and started 36 of those contests, was named a First Team All-American by Sporting News in 2003 and spent two seasons in the NFL.