University of Florida

Florida Gators’ rapid rise meets ultimate test vs. Alabama in SEC title game

Alabama coach Nick Saban, left, and Florida coach Jim McElwain pose with the trophy during a press conference ahead of Saturday’s SEC championship game on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Atlanta.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, left, and Florida coach Jim McElwain pose with the trophy during a press conference ahead of Saturday’s SEC championship game on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Atlanta. AP

A year ago, Jim McElwain was introduced as the University of Florida’s new football coach.

He talked of modeling UF’s program after Alabama. He invoked Nick Saban’s “Process” and later saluted his mentor by calling him “Coach.”

“I owe him a lot. I hope the next time I see him will probably be in Atlanta. Around this time of the year,” McElwain said last December.

Everyone laughed.

They’re not anymore.

Led by a sharp and folksy 53-year-old Montana native, the No. 18 Gators will take on Saban’s No. 2 Crimson Tide in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.

McElwain has engineered a rapid rebuild in Gainesville, taking Florida from a conference also-ran to a championship contender in just 12 months.

After only 11 wins combined in the previous two seasons, the program’s identity, infrastructure and future outlook have dramatically changed.

“It’s the way it should be. It’s Florida and Alabama, in Atlanta, for the SEC championship,” said McElwain, who is taking UF to the title game for the first time since 2009.

“I am so proud of our players and all the people in our organization, from the administration on down that have committed to a higher standard and a higher level of expectation, and it’s been great. You know guys it was about a year ago, maybe yesterday, I was first contacted about the opportunity and had to pinch myself. I just can’t tell you how happy I am that the administration chose to go our direction and to trust us to help this program get back to where it belongs. I’ll tell you what: We’re going to get there. And we’re getting there in a hurry. It’s still going to take time, but let’s celebrate what these guys have done in the short time that we’ve been here.”

With a flawed roster, the Gators won 10 games for just the second time in six seasons. Their makeshift offensive line never truly meshed, and they lost their starting quarterback to a PED suspension. But they still clawed their way to Atlanta. While the program’s journey is simply starting, McElwain is pleased with its progress.

“This is something we should shoot for every year,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go, but I think the thing that celebrated is how quickly these guys have changed the way they think. And how proud we should be for where we’re at. Now let’s go take the next step and go play in it and see what it’s like. That’s pretty exciting. And at the end of the day, the Florida Gators belong, and these Florida Gators belong in this game.”

Saturday will certainly stand as a measuring stick for exactly how far UF has come and how much further it needs to go. Alabama is an 18 1/2-point favorite, making the Gators the second-largest underdog in SEC Championship Game history.

“I feel bad for the guy who was the first,” McElwain said, chuckling.

“We have an opportunity to go play the game. Everybody in this conference, their goal is to get to Atlanta, right? And you know what, the Florida Gators are in Atlanta. I’m OK with that.”

Florida hasn’t played well in a month, regressing offensively and getting routed at home 27-2 to archrival Florida State just last weekend.

But the Gators’ entire season has been a surprise, and the Tide refused to be shocked at Florida’s accelerated turnaround.

“This is the best team we’ve played all year,” said Saban, also acknowledging his team’s role as a heavy favorite.

“The best fighter doesn’t always win the fight. You’ve got to fight your best fight in the ring, and that’s certainly what we’re going to have to do in this game.”

Saturday: No. 18 Florida vs. No. 2 Alabama

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

TV/radio: CBS; WINZ 940.

Favorite: Alabama by 18 1/2.

Records: Florida 10-2 (7-1 SEC); Alabama 11-1 (7-1 SEC).

Series: Alabama leads 24-14.

Florida injuries: Questionable — OL David Sharpe (foot); DB Quincy Wilson (leg); LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); OL Alex McCalister (foot); DL Andrew Ivie (knee); WR C.J. Worton (undisclosed); DB Chris Williamson (back); OL Jordan Sherit (hamstring); WR Raphael Andrades (undisclosed); DL Taven Bryan (undisclosed). Out — K Jorge Powell (knee).

Alabama injuries: Questionable — RB Kenyan Drake (arm). Out — WR Chris Black (ankle); WR Robert Foster (rotator cuff).

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