Jim McElwain already has Florida fans thinking SEC East title
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from this week’s Forward Pass. Click here to read the full column.
Two SEC East teams played 38-10 contests Saturday. One, Florida (5-0), blew out then third-ranked Ole Miss by that margin, while the other, Georgia (4-1), fell mightily at the hands of Alabama. Naturally, many will now view the Gators (which jumped from 25th to 11th in Sunday’s AP poll) as the new division favorite instead of the Bulldogs (which dropped from eighth to 19th).
First-year Florida coach Jim McElwain won’t hear of it.
"The thing people don’t realize is, we’re playing the reigning champs [at Missouri] this week," he told FOX Sports on Sunday. "… We certainly haven’t arrived by any stretch of the imagination."
But McElwain still took no shortage of satisfaction in Saturday night’s performance, in which the surprising Gators took a 25-0 halftime lead on a veteran Ole Miss team that, a week earlier, he said himself "probably should beat the heck out of us." A week after throwing a late 63-yard touchdown pass to rally Florida past Tennessee, redshirt freshman QB Will Grier (24-of-29 for 271 yards) came out and threw four TDs before intermission.
Notably, he threw them to four different receivers.
"I like when that guy [the quarterback] can play like a good point guard," said McElwain, whose previous protégés include Alabama star AJ McCarron and Saints rookie Garrett Grayson. "Get the ball to your shooters, know to take the shot when you have it. He took three to four checkdowns I’m not sure he would have before."
It’s hard to believe how quickly and dramatically the former Colorado State coach has reconstructed a Florida program that slogged its way to a 10-13 record in predecessor Will Muschamp’s last two seasons and ranked in the 90s and 100s in total offense. This year’s Gators are up to 51st (5.88 yards per play).
Florida’s confidence is seemingly growing by the week, starting from its ugly 14-9 win at Kentucky just two weeks earlier. "There’s no doubt that’s part of it," said McElwain, "but more than that, it’s these guys realizing what they do during the week usually comes to fruition on Saturdays. They’re seeing a glimpse of why we do things a certain way."
Now comes a new challenge – dealing with heightened expectations. Many Florida fans entered the year just hoping for a bowl berth. Now they’re likely starting to set their sights on Atlanta. How will McElwain’s players handle that?
"I’ll be interested to see not only how we play on Saturday, but more so, what’s the mindset when we come to work on Monday," he said. "Is it hey, I’m excited I’m getting my belly rubbed, or is it, why am I getting my belly rubbed? Which is, based on putting in the work and doing my job, good things should happen."
It seems like more good things have happened in Florida’s first five games than happened in the entire two seasons before this one. McElwain has had that big an effect.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.