Don’t look now, but the Florida Gators are a contender in the SEC East. Yes, the same Gators team that was supposedly in “rebuilding mode” under first-year head coach Jim McElwain.
But McElwain has already successfully rebuilt Florida in five games.
The Gators enter Week 6 with a 5-0 record. After starting its season unranked, Florida cracked the Top 25 after rallying to beat Tennessee in Week 4.
Sure, people started to take notice, but it wasn’t until Saturday’s upset of then-No. 3 Ole Miss that Florida was taken seriously.
Ole Miss was the team that slayed mighty Alabama two weeks prior. The Gators were given little chance, despite playing at home.
But Florida took a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. Then a 25-0 lead at halftime.
And even then many expected the Rebels to rally. Instead, they were outscored 13-10 in the second half and fell 38-10.
Florida’s Week 5 win made a statement loud and clear: “Jim McElwain was the perfect hire.”
But really, is it all that shocking? You compare Florida’s “struggles” to its SEC counterparts — especially in the East — and it isn’t even close.
Tennessee has been stuck in rebuilding mode since 2007. Kentucky hasn’t made a bowl appearance since 2010. Vanderbilt’s greatest success was making three consecutive bowl game appearances.
So Florida’s 7-6 finish in 2014 is hardly a historically bad season, but it is a fall from grace given the program’s success in recent years. And yes, Will Muschamp was not the right man for the job, but he did provide the team with plenty of talent on defense.
Still, recruiting is only half the battle. Ask Tennessee what happens when you have a great recruiter who can’t coach.
McElwain is a success because he’s gotten the most out of his roster. Sure, we knew Florida would have a talented defense as it did in every season under Muschamp.
But McElwain has exceeded expectations on both sides of the football and — despite starting an inexperienced offensive line — has managed to bring the offensive improvement many expected long-term.
Now, Florida is perceived as a contender in the SEC East, especially after Georgia’s humbling loss to Alabama in Week 5. But McElwain wants his team to ignore the sudden hype surrounding it and keep its focus on winning football games.
“It’ll be really interesting to see how we handle the praise from all the people that obviously said they weren’t worth a hill of beans and now are talking about them,” McElwain said during his press conference on Monday. “People rubbing their bellies and making them feel good. Yeah, they should get their bellies rubbed. I mean, they’ve done a good job.
“And, yet, how do you handle it? It’ll be interesting.”
Another win for Big Jim. The coach needs to keep his team — especially the underclassmen — humble. Yes, a momentum shift is an excellent way for the Gators to keep rolling, but the winning streak began with the team having a chip on its shoulder.
“To me he’s just taking not really a hit, but a jab to our confidence and trying to make us come back with that fire we need,” offensive tackle Mason Halter on Monday. Obviously, the team is understanding the coach’s message.
McElwain has won both on and off the field since his arrival in Gainesville. His decision to start Will Grier at quarterback has looked brilliant thus far. His tactics have proved successful and kept Florida’s record perfect.
Again, it wasn’t the most impossible situation to enter, but McElwain has already exceeded expectations in his first five games. The coach is bringing new life to the Gators and has the program moving back in a winning direction.