For four years, Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart sat together in the same meeting room at the University of Alabama as coordinators under coach Nick Saban.
From 2008-2011, McElwain had full command of the Crimson Tide’s offense, working with players such as quarterback Greg McElroy and running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
Smart and Saban were masterminds for the defense, putting up top-10 defenses each year.
The result: A 48-6 record and two national championships.
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On Saturday, 4 1/2 years since they roamed the sidelines at Alabama together, McElwain and Smart will meet again, this time as opposing head coaches.
McElwain will lead his No. 14 Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) to Jacksonville’s EverBank Field to face Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3 SEC) for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff that will renew the teams’ annual divisional rivalry.
“He’s a lot of fun to be around,” McElwain said of Smart. “I’m happy for him to have this opportunity, especially at a place that means so much to him, you know, how he played there. I mean, you get a chance to grow up and do that, that’s pretty awesome — and well deserved and long overdue.”
A pair of like-minded coaches with fiery personalities, Smart and McElwain built a bond over those four seasons together that extended past the football field.
Smart was one of the first people to welcome McElwain to the program when he made his way to Tuscaloosa, and they forged a friendship from there even though they were going toe-to-toe with each other at practice every day.
“You know, sometimes you can just be working buddies or whatever,” said UF defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who also coached at Alabama from 2011-2013, “but I think they truly like each other, and I think they respected each other for you know what each one brings to the table.”
Smart, the 40-year-old first-time head coach, agrees.
“He’s a funny guy, dry sense of humor, very family oriented. A great man to be around,” Smart said. “I always thought he does a great job offensively, and the players, when I was around him, really liked him a lot and played hard for him.”
And with an SEC East lead to protect, McElwain is hoping his players put up a fight on Saturday and extend UF’s win streak in the series to three games.
To do so, Florida will have to stop the Bulldogs’ multifaceted offense that is fifth in the nation in time of possession.
It starts with the run game, where the trio of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Brian Herrien all have the potential to break the game open.
“Each one of them brings a little different flavor to the party,” Rumph said, “but it’s going to come down to us doing our job up front. … Everybody has to do their job and be committed to doing it.”
In the passing attack, true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has been turning heads. The 6-5, 235-pound quarterback has started all seven games for Georgia, completing 54.3 percent of his passes for 1,366 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He already has two 300-yard passing games under his belt, including a 308-yard, three-touchdown performance on the road against Missouri in which he capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 20-yard go-ahead touchdown pass.
On defense, Georgia ranks 20th overall, giving up an average of just 339.7 yards per game.
“This will be a great chess match going into it. I expect our guys to play well and play excited,” McElwain said. “You only get this opportunity once a year. Let’s go take advantage of it and let’s really enjoy it. That’s a big key.”
Saturday: No. 14 Florida vs. Georgia
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; EverBank Field, Jacksonville.
TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 7 1/2.
Records: Florida 5-1 (3-1 SEC); Georgia 4-3 (2-3 SEC).
Series: Georgia leads 49-42-2.
Florida injuries: Questionable — RB Jordan Cronkrite (leg); TE DeAndre Goolsby (hand); LB Jarrad Davis (ankle); LB Jeremiah Moon (thumb); DL Justus Reed (undisclosed). Out — WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).
Georgia injuries: No reported injuries.