University of Florida

McElwain, Gators ready for SEC Championship Game challenge against Alabama

UF coach Jim McElwain: ‘You want to win a championship. This is the first step in winning that championship.’
UF coach Jim McElwain: ‘You want to win a championship. This is the first step in winning that championship.’ AP

University of Florida coach Jim McElwain has heard about it all and talked about it all.

The injuries. The road losses. The criticism about the program being in a tailspin.

But here he is, on a Friday afternoon, sitting in the Georgia Dome speaking to reporters before the SEC Championship Game.

And throughout McElwain’s half-hour press conference on the eve of Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff between his No. 15 Gators and top-ranked Alabama, McElwain made one thing clear above all else.

“I know how excited I am to be a Gator,” McElwain said.

And while there have been bumps along the way -- and a lot of them at that -- McElwain understands that he has plenty to be excited about.

Yes, Florida’s offense has not progressed to McElwain’s liking over his first two years.

Yes, UF is 2-6 against ranked opponents under McElwain.

Yes, the Gators (8-3) are a 24-point underdog about to face a Crimson Tide (12-0) team on a 24-game win streak.

But at the end of the day, he has made it known that he’s committed to the Florida Gators.

And at the end of the day, he has led the Florida Gators to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons as head coach.

No other coach can say that.

“The next step is going and knocking down that door,” McElwain said earlier this week.

Standing in his way: an Alabama Crimson Tide team with the potential to win its fifth national title since 2009 and a team that upended UF 29-15 in last season’s conference championship.

And despite being tied for the largest underdog in 25 years of the SEC Championship Game, McElwain’s players are confident as they prepare to step into the Georgia Dome for the second time in as many years.

“I always want to be the best, and to be the best, they're going to measure you against the best, against who everybody else thinks is the best,” junior cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “So it's going to be a real exciting game.”

For McElwain, the tall task in defeating Alabama comes down to this:

“You can't hurt yourself,” McElwain said. “Whatever they get, you got to make 'em earn it.”

McElwain knows that first hand.

He was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator from 2008-2011, when Saban was on the cusp of building his dynasty over the college football world.

And it took three days of prying from Saban to get McElwain to Tuscaloosa.

“You don't know anything about me, but my patience, three days is a long time for me,” Saban said through a smile.

McElwain has had to be patient, too, since coming to Florida.

He had a young team last year -- an offensive line with one returning starter and no proven skill position players.

Injuries have plagued his team this year. He’s been without an average of five starters every game and has had an average of 10 first-team players miss games over the last three weeks. His starting quarterback Luke Del Rio went down twice. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, the “heart and soul of the team” as McElwain and most of the team calls him, has missed the last three games.

And they lost three times on the road -- to a rallying Tennessee team, to a feisty Arkansas team, and to a determined Florida State.

The team bounced back after each of the first two, toppling Vanderbilt on the road after the Tennessee loss and defeating both South Carolina and LSU after the Arkansas loss to clinch the SEC East.

“I've seen this football team understand what that is through some things and through some adversity that I'm really proud of,” McElwain said. “They could have sacked their bats and gone home a while back. You know what, they didn't, and I'm proud of them.”

McElwain’s hoping a third -- and arguably the biggest -- rally will come on Saturday.

“You want to win a championship,” McElwain said. “This is the first step in winning that championship.”

Saturday: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 15 Florida

Kickoff: 4 p.m.; Georgia Dome, Atlanta.

TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.

Favorite: Alabama by 24.

Records: Florida 8-3 (6-2 SEC); Alabama 12-0 (8-0 SEC).

Series: Alabama leads 25-14.

Florida injuries: Questionable —TE C’yontai Lewis (ankle); OL Fred Johnson (undisclosed); OL Tyler Jordan (ankle); WR C.J. Worton (ankle); DL Justus Reed (undisclosed). Doubtful — LB Daniel McMillian (shoulder); DB Duke Dawson (ankle); DB Jeawon Taylor (undisclosed); DL Bryan Cox, Jr. (ankle); OL Martez Ivory (leg); DB Nick Washington (ankle); OL Cameron Dillard (knee); LB Jarrad Davis (ankle); QB Luke Del Rio (shoulder). Out — RB Mark Herndon (hamstring); DL Jordan Sherit (knee); DB Marcus Maye (arm); LB Alex Anzalone (arm); WR Dre Massey (knee); DB C.J. McWilliams (ACL); OL Antonio Riles (knee).

Alabama injuries: Questionable —DB Marlon Humphrey (hamstring). Out — OL Alphonse Taylor (undisclosed); RB B.J. Emmons (foot); DB Eddie Jackson (leg).

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