GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Nine months ago Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley introduced Jim McElwain as the Gators’ new head coach at a press conference inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The two shook hands as Foley stepped away from the lectern, and McElwain then addressed the room full of media and Florida officials gathered to hear what the former Colorado State coach had to say.
"I got to tell you something now, what an honor, how humbling it is to be a part of one of the greatest brands in all of college athletics, to have an opportunity to be a part of something that’s real special," McElwain opened. "These are things you dream about."
The time has finally arrived for Florida fans starving for another Southeastern Conference championship and return to national prominence to see what kind of team McElwain and his impressive coaching staff have in his first season.
The Gators finished 7-5 last season, needing a win in the Birmingham Bowl to ensure a winning season.
McElwain took over a dilapidated Colorado State program in 2012 and in three seasons turned the Rams into a winner. Colorado State won nine consecutive games a season ago and McElwain finished his stay in Fort Collins with a 22-16 record.
Now McElwain is back in the Southeastern Conference, where he served as Alabama’s offensive coordinator for four seasons, winning two national titles while in Tuscaloosa on Nick Saban’s staff.
McElwain clearly arrived with a plan and over the past nine months has implemented his vision for Florida football.
Tangible evidence already exists of his impact, such as the team’s new $17 million indoor practice facility, a savvy modernized approach to recruiting, and behind-the-scenes tweaks on how the Gators go about their business day to day.
Next up, and the part fans are most interested in, is how the Gators perform on Saturdays. McElwain climbed the coaching ladder as an offensive coordinator and has used a variety of styles and schemes over the years.
He has focused on rebuilding Florida’s offense from the inside out.
"Part of that is the understanding, you’re allowed to be great," he said. "You’re allowed to. You’re not a second-class citizen. You’re allowed to actually invest in yourself and go make plays at a million miles an hour. We’re starting to get a little bit of that, but we’ve got a long ways to go."
The 2015 version of the Gators will take the field Saturday night in the season opener against New Mexico State.
A new coach is in town and a new era has arrived. The goal is a return to glory.
"Right now nobody really fears the Gators," senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said. "We’ve got a lot to prove. Really, nobody gives us a chance and it’s hard to blame them."
McElwain is here to reverse that trend.
— A renewed sense of optimism will greet the Gators when they run onto Florida Field on Saturday. The arrival of McElwain rejuvenated a fan base hungry for more success than Florida’s 37-26 record over the past five seasons. His first game as Florida’s coach is finally here and that is the biggest story.
— The Gators plan to use both Treon Harris and Will Grier at quarterback. Harris will start, but Grier is expected to take plenty of snaps too. The separation McElwain has been searching for in their battle could start to show itself in real-game action.
— The Gators will be without defensive lineman Alex McCalister, safety Marcus Maye and receiver Latroy Pittman due to University Athletic Association policy. That opens the door for young players such as defensive lineman Jordan Sherit, defensive back Nick Washington and receivers C.J. Worton, Alvin Bailey and freshman Antonio Calloway to prove they can contribute when given an opportunity.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
— Freshman running back Jordan Scarlett had a solid preseason camp and gives the Gators a physically gifted tailback behind junior Kelvin Taylor, the team’s most experienced running back.
— Florida tight end Jake McGee finally has an opportunity to play after being on the field for just nine snaps last season before he suffered a season-ending broken leg. McGee figures to be one of Florida’s top receivers in 2015.
— New Mexico State receiver Teldrick Morgan is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list after hauling in 75 passes for 903 yards last season. To get open, Morgan will have to break away from a talented trio of cornerbacks in Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson.
THE QUOTE FILE
— "We’ve got to get over the hump from the psychological standpoint. That’s how you build a team, and part of that comes with the mental conditioning piece that takes time." — Gators head coach Jim McElwain
— "This might be the most competitive group of kids I’ve ever been around. If you put a ball down or say there’s a winner or loser or some kind of competitive situation, these guys just thrive and shine." — Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins on his unit
— "The team is supporting both guys and doing everything we can to be behind them. We’re going to do our best. We’re going to block for both of them." — Gators center Cam Dillard on UF playing two quarterbacks in opener
— "There’s a lot of things that are different about our football program. Most noticeably is the talent level. The two recruiting classes that we have here now have made a tremendous impact on the talent level." — Third-year New Mexico State coach Doug Martin, who is 4-20 in his first two seasons
— "He’s always talking about making plays, and if you’re making plays they’ll give you the ball. So that’s my goal: to make plays every time I touch the ball and hopefully I get a lot of touches." — Florida receiver Brandon Powell
The folks at GatorVision created a series of videos during camp to get fans excited about the start of Florida’s football season. They released this one earlier in the week:
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium remains one of the most revered venues in college football. When the Gators are going good, there is not a better home-field advantage in America.
The Gators won a school-record 30 consecutive games at home from 1994-99 as UF became one of the elite programs in the country.
However, over the past five seasons, the Gators are just 22-11 at home, including six losses in their last nine games at The Swamp.
As the program enters a new era, reclaiming a distinct home-field advantage is part of the plan.
"That’s unacceptable. It’s Florida. It’s The Swamp," senior defensive back Brian Poole said. "We’ve got to take pride in playing in The Swamp and really get it back to what it was before."
10 QUICK HITTERS
— Second meeting between Florida and New Mexico State. In the first, Florida played at home for the first time in school history as the No. 1-ranked team. The Gators looked it, rolling to a 70-21 victory in 1994.
— The Gators have won 25 consecutive season openers, the second-longest current streak behind Nebraska’s 29-game streak.
— The Gators went 4-2 in Harris’ six starts last season, upsetting No. 9 Georgia in his first outing.
— McElwain is the 25th head coach in Florida football history. The Gators own an 18-6 record in the first game under a new head coach.
— Fifth-year senior Trip Thurman is the only UF offensive lineman to start a game at Florida. He has 10 career starts. Graduate transfer Mason Halter started 33 games at Fordham prior to arriving at UF.
— Florida’s defense forced a turnover on 18 percent of its opponents’ possessions in 2014, which led the Southeastern Conference.
— Sophomore running back Larry Rose III became the first Aggies freshman to rush for 1,000 yards (1,102) in 19 years a season ago.
— New Mexico State quarterback Tyler Rogers threw for 2,779 yards with an FBS-high 23 interceptions in 2014 as the Aggies finished 2-10, losing their final 10 games of the regular season.
— New Mexico State is 0-12 all time against SEC teams.
— Florida is 81-27 all-time in season openers, including 51-4 at Florida Field.
THE OTHER SIDE
New Mexico State coach Doug Martin had a formidable challenge when he took over the Aggies in 2013. The program had suffered scholarship casualties to poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores, which resulted in reduced scholarships his first two seasons. Martin is optimistic this is his best team. Here is what Martin told reporters earlier this week:
The Gators opened last season with a 65-0 victory over Eastern Michigan in former offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s debut. They racked up 655 yards. Still, the tone afterward leaned more toward doubt than optimism. By the end of the season, the offense performed better than previous years but failed at key times to help out a defense that kept the Gators in most games. Is this the year Florida’s offense finally gets back on track? Hard to say. Much of that will depend on how Harris and Grier develop and whether an inexperienced offensive line is ready for the SEC. The Gators return a talented defense that once again should keep the score close. McElwain has emphasized the Gators have talent but lack some key pieces to have his ideal roster. For now, an efficient performance and victory over New Mexico State would be a good start to the McElwain era.