Florida And The East Are Searching For Respect

HOOVER, Ala. -- You would never know Jim McElwain has won more games in his first two SEC seasons than both Nick Saban and Bear Bryant did in theirs.

But that's not particularly the way Florida's coach or his team are perceived. For a program that looks to be as healthy as it's been in the post-Urban Meyer era, Florida football sure does have attitude.

"Maybe someday, somebody might think we're OK," said McElwain with a healthy dose of snark.

The question Tuesday at the 2017 SEC Media Days was whether the Gators get enough credit for winning back-to-back SEC East titles.

"Definitely not," left tackle Martez Ivey said. "… We use it as motivation. We're pissed off about it."

Never mind McElwain's 19 wins surpass both Saban (by one) and Bryant (by seven), respectively, in their first two SEC seasons. Never mind a fourth-down goal line stand for the ages to beat LSU last season in the bitter Hurricane Matthew game. Never mind a defense that has thrived amid claims it holds the distinction of being DBU (Defensive Back University).

"Respect," senior defensive back Duke Dawson says, "is still kind of hard for us to earn right now …"

The takeaway is the Gators could be so much better with a quarterback. You know, one who could actually play. That's a big reason why McElwain is at Florida. That's also the biggest reason the Gators have been criticized.

Let's just say there is a reason McElwain pursued free agent graduate transfer Malik Zaire from Notre Dame. Will Grier tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2015, got suspended a calendar year by the NCAA and transferred to West Virginia. Florida is Luke Del Rio's third school. The former Alabama walk-on started six games last season and recently had surgery on both shoulders. Redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask hold promise. Most anything would be an improvement.

McElwain is an offensive coach whose offenses have finished 12th and 14th (dead last) in the SEC over his first two seasons.

"He looks like a new guy," defensive back Marcell Harris said of Zaire.

"He's had a lot of plays under his belt at Notre Dame. [But at] the same time, he hasn't worked at quarterback from the time he got out of school to the time he came in."

That was only last month after the SEC changed its grad transfer rules.
Zaire may have lost his starting job in the Irish's 2016 opener at Texas, but new opportunity equals optimism at Florida.

"Expectations, right now, are through the roof," Ivey said.

Those consecutive SEC East division titles have been cobbled together with defense and just enough points. Strange as McElwain was hired, in large part, because of his offensive prowess. He coached a future Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback at Alabama (A.J. McCarron). While at Colorado State, he tutored Garrett Grayson, the third quarterback taken in the 2015 draft. 

McElwain spent a proper apprenticeship as Saban's offensive coordinator helping win two national championships. Colorado State, where McElwain was 22-16 in three seasons, was a nice starter job.
Mac was hired to make Florida football exciting again after its offense floundered post-Meyer under Will Muschamp. Instead, McElwain's teams, by and large, have not succeeded offensively.

"Will someone say we at least exist?" McElwain asked the assembled media Tuesday afternoon.

"That would be nice, I guess, right?"

Florida will get respect when the SEC East gets respect.  The SEC East gets respect when its champion wins the SEC.

That hasn't happened since 2008. It's been so long that the Heisman-winning quarterback of that team, now-29-year-old Tim Tebow, is struggling in Class A ball. Since then, his coach (Meyer) has served as an ESPN analyst, switched schools, gone undefeated, been to two College Football Playoffs and won a national championship at Ohio State.

What has happened to Florida over the last two seasons has happened to every SEC East champion since '08. A trip to Atlanta has become more of a sentence than a reward.

Eight SEC titles have been achieved by the West champion by an average of 28 points over those eight years. Alabama's 38-point win last December was the second-largest in SEC Championship Game history.
As lauded as the SEC is for its football, it's unbalanced. The SEC West may be the best division in football. The Big Ten West -- the weaker of the two in that league -- might be better than the SEC East.

Some of it is a reflection of everybody being behind Alabama. Some of it is the East's stultifying mediocrity. Georgia will probably be favored this season but ask Tennessee how that rubber stamp feels.

McElwain himself tempered optimism. In early November, his team was in the top 10 and 4-1 in the East.

"Then you go to Arkansas and do what you did …"

What Florida did was lose by three touchdowns to the Hogs while being held to 12 rushing yards.
Maybe it's just the Gators have been the least mediocre in the division. Check a season-ending bottom line that shows a combined 1-5 finish in McElwain's last three games over the last two campaigns.
Four of those losses were by a combined 95 points to Alabama and Florida State.

"It doesn't just happen with sunshine and palm trees," the coach said.

"There is a realization that you truly have to sweat the small stuff."

McElwain made a cryptic reference to Florida having "invested the least" money in its football program among SEC schools since 2005.

"I'm not sure I could ever tell you in my life I've been comfortable," the coach said.

McElwain can begin to relax if one of those three quarterbacks comes through. That's where he made his reputation, padded his resume.

That's why he got the Florida job.

When he peaks in that quarterback room now, does he see a difference-maker?

"Maybe," McElwain said.

Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports


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