The Gators have wildly overachieved. Now comes the hard part
THE LOOK IN his players' eyes during last Saturday's lackluster 20--14 overtime win over Florida Atlantic inspired Florida coach Jim McElwain to conjure a vivid image: "When you guys go to the seafood market, or if you go to the grocery store, and you see all those dead fish on ice? That's the energy they're playing with right now."
But just as quickly McElwain turned to more uplifting thoughts: His team has clinched the SEC East title, and he is the first coach to win 10 games in his first year at Gainesville. "Double digits," said McElwain, 53, who replaced Will Muschamp last December. "That means our next one I get to count with toes."
If the Gators were to beat Florida State at home on Saturday and then beat the SEC West champion (likely Alabama) in Atlanta, they would be 12--1 and a near shoo-in for the College Football Playoff. But this is the same team that over the past three weeks has beaten Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic (combined record: 9--24) by a total of just 18 points. Defeating either the Seminoles or the Crimson Tide (combined record: 19--3) is far-fetched; the idea of beating them both seems downright insane.
Yet it would have seemed just as crazy in August to predict that a team with only one offensive lineman who had made an SEC start would play for the conference title. Florida's strength is a defense that ranks sixth in the nation in yards per play (4.3) and sixth in sacks (36). When they were beating better teams, like Ole Miss, the Gators also flashed an opportunistic offense that relied on the playmaking of freshman receiver Antonio Callaway, who averages 20.0 yards a catch. But in the five games since the one-year suspension of quarterback Will Grier, who tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, sophomore Treon Harris has struggled, especially as injuries to the O-line mounted.
Still, the 4--8 Gators of 2013 or the 7--5 Gators of '14 found ways to lose; these Gators have found ways to win. This is the sort of success that Florida's players—most of whom were impressionable teens when Urban Meyer was winning national titles in Gainesville—expected when they signed. "You appreciate it a lot," senior guard Trip Thurman says. "With Coach Mac, it's a new era. He's got Florida back on top."
Not quite. Florida still needs a few improbable wins, but stranger things have happened. For instance, the 2015 Gators' winning 10 games in the first place.