To appreciate where the Florida Gators will stand Saturday – on the field of the Georgia Dome preparing to square off against the best team in the Southeastern Conference (if not college football) in the league’s title game – one has to remember how Florida started the season.
The Gators did not have a starting quarterback, nor did it look like they had the offensive talent to truly compete against top-tier opponents. Hell, the team didn’t even have a kicker. Except head coach Jim McElwain developed a star signal caller in a matter of weeks, turned a three-star freshman into the team’s best pass-catcher, injected life into a dormant tight end position, turned a walk-on kicker into a scholarship performer and somehow made a Frankenstein offensive line work – at least most weeks.
Florida did not sneak into Saturday’s SEC Championship via tiebreaker; it worked and earned this spot by sweeping the SEC East and routing Ole Miss 38-10 to go 6-1 in league play.
“At the end of the day, the Florida Gators belong and these Florida Gators belong in this game,” McElwain said this week.
Indeed, it was not always pretty for the Gators, particularly following the year-long suspension of that found quarterback in redshirt freshman Will Grier and the season-ending injury to redshirt senior kicker Jorge Powell. Particularly when sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt junior Austin Hardin have spent the last month making those that follow the program wonder how these were even legitimate competitions in spring and fall practice.
Yes, Florida was rocking ‘til the wheels fell off. And they have done just that, which is why the Gators are a 17.5-point underdog entering the SEC title game.
The disappointment in UF’s loss to Florida State and Florida’s overall play as of late is understandable, but with perspective it is mindblowing that McElwain – a sure bet for SEC Coach of the Year and undoubtedly a top contender for the nationwide honor – got the Gators to a point where there could be legitimate discouragement in finishing his first season 10-2 with an underdog position in a league championship game.
No, Florida will not play for the College Football Playoff – win or lose on Saturday. When one considers that a healthy and eligible Grier may very well have led them to a more successful season and a win over FSU, it is probably maddening. But nothing has come easy for the Gators as of late and rebuilds are not supposed to happen overnight.
“I’m looking forward to something that I’m not sure anyone expected: That’s us – the Florida Gators, this football team – playing in the SEC Championship and going to Atlanta with the opportunity to win a football game that means so much in a place the Gators belong, a place they’ve been,” McElwain said.
“To get it back this quickly, we’ve got a long ways to go as an organization and a program, and yet the momentum this team has built is something everybody should be proud of. What they’ve committed to his a higher standard, a higher level, a commitment not only to each other but to themselves to be the best they can be.”
Things do not always go as planned; McElwain said as much this week. The plan, at least externally, was for Florida to spend the 2015 season rebuilding a program devastated by the Will Muschamp era. Yes, the Gators had defensive talent, but a new coordinator would be joining the team and UF’s offense was in shambles.
McElwain’s plan was to compete and contend immediately, and Florida did just that, beyond the level that most could have imagined.
Saturday will almost assuredly not go as those that follow the Gators hope it will, and it is apparent why. But one should not foolishly let Florida’s present play cloud the achievements of the last few months. The only reason there are expectations for the Gators to be even better than they are is because McElwain created those expectations by having Florida step up, put the effort in and play to that level it did earlier this season.
“We’re not there yet,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a long ways to go.”
While most want them to be there, the Gators are indeed not at the Crimson Tide’s level, but they also shouldn’t be. Not yet, at least.
The Alabama football machine was not molded overnight from clay with visible cracks and flaws but rather built from a foundation upon a frame, polished and reshaped to perfection over nine years.
“You got to remember, that didn’t happen overnight, now. Part of the maturation of the organization is you’ve got to go through some things to learn from and keep moving forward along with some of those bumps,” said McElwain about Nick Saban’s program. “If you look at the consistent success for that last eight-year stretch, is there anybody that can match that? I don’t think there is. So for that, I was more than grateful to have that opportunity to see how that was built.”
There should be no doubt that the football program in Gainesville, Florida, is being built with eyes on the one flourishing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After all, that was one of athletic director Jeremy Foley’s primary reasons for tapping McElwain in the first place.
So that the Gators and Crimson Tide are squaring off again for the SEC title – six years removed from their back-to-back meetings (2008-09) with Florida on its second coach since the departure of Urban Meyer – is remarkable. And as McElwain would say, it is the standard.
“It’s the way it should be. It’s Florida and Alabama. In Atlanta. For the SEC Championship.”