Jim McElwain delivers a first in SEC football history with Florida’s win over LSU on Saturday.
Florida fans have been screaming for it, and on Saturday, in arguably the nation’s toughest venue, Jim McElwain delivered. A signature road win gift-wrapped with an SEC East championship bow on top.
Are you happy, Gator Nation?
You should be, because what McElwain has accomplished in his first two seasons with the Florida Gators has never been done before in conference history. McElwain is the first coach to take his team to the SEC Championship Game in his first two seasons.
Not Nick Saban. Not Phil Fulmer. Not Les Miles. Not Urban Meyer.
Only Jim McElwain has accomplished that feat.
For many years, an early-December pilgrimage from Gainesville to Atlanta was a given for Florida fans. It was expected. But toward the end of the Urban Meyer era Atlanta became a mythical place Florida fans could only dream of. One day it would become a reality again.
McElwain has made it just that, and in quick order.
A win in Baton Rouge as double-digit underdogs and a second-straight SEC East crown doesn’t erase all of the question marks – specifically offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s sometimes perplexing play calls – but McElwain is doing the most important thing as he reconstructs the program from the ground up: winning.
It’s not pretty at times, but the Gators continually find a way to win. That’s a far cry from the previous regime when Florida perpetually found ways to come up short when it mattered, a team known more for tackling each other rather than opposing players.
As for the other consistent question mark that continues to hang over McElwain’s head, recruiting, he left that behind in Baton Rouge on Saturday. McElwain-signed players were the reason Florida was able to secure its biggest upset-win in over 40 years.
Three-star freshman Vosean Joseph made one of the game’s pivotal plays when he decleated Danny Etling at the goal line, keeping the LSU quarterback out of the end zone early in the third quarter. A touchdown would have given LSU a seemingly insurmountable 14-3 lead. Instead, the Tigers attempted a field goal, botched the snap and failed to complete a pass into the end zone, turning the ball over to Florida. The Gators scored on the very next play when Austin Appleby connected with freshman Tyrie Cleveland, a four-star high school prospect and nation’s No. 2 wide receiver, for a 98-yard touchdown. McElwain pulled Cleveland out of Texas, showing that he has the ability to recruit high-end prospects nationally.
Any concerns of an inevitable drop-off on the defensive side of the ball after Will Muschamp’s star players depart for the NFL have also been eschewed. McElwain reassured that the Gators’ trademark was in good shape moving into the future by holding a resurgent LSU offense to just 10 points without leading tacklers Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis and Marcus Maye.
Despite the revolving door at quarterback and laundry list of injuries – Florida had as many as nine starters sidelined the week leading up to the LSU game – McElwain continues to find ways to win.
And Saturday’s victory over LSU was much more than just one win. It was a statement to the nation and top recruits that McElwain is the right fit at Florida. That the Gators are trending in the right direction.
Florida is within striking distance of a second straight double-digit win season, will again play for the SEC Championship, and still has a shot, albeit an outside shot, at the College Football Playoff.
That’s the reality of where the Gators are with Jim McElwain leading the program.