Jim McElwain was asked about sharks and bears at SEC Media Days on Tuesday and didn’t get a single direct question about Florida State, and got exactly one about Alabama, which sums up the frustrating current position of Florida football pretty nicely.
It’s not that the Gators, two-time defending champion of the SEC East Division, are a bad team. It’s just that, at this point, Florida has not yet recaptured the cachet, the swagger, of the Steve Spurrier years, or the Tebow Era. That doesn’t mean McElwain, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, hasn’t done a good job in his two years in Gainesville. He has. But he hasn’t captured the imagination of SEC fans, and he won’t win the hearts of Florida fans until he knocks off FSU or wins the SEC title, not just the division.
It’s unfair to compare McElwain (or anyone) to his former boss, Nick Saban. But if Saban had a transfer quarterback coming in from Notre Dame to compete for the starting job, or had law enforcement issues with his No. 1 receiver, do you think he’d be fielding novelty questions about an Internet shark photo, or playing LSU for homecoming? To be fair, some of that falls on the media asking the questions and there is a time and place for light-hearted questions at a media event that can be painfully ponderous at times. But there’s also a sense that, fairly or not, Florida just doesn’t get the instant respect that it used to get.
Even McElwain senses it. At one point, he was asked about where he thought Florida might be picked in the preseason media poll to be released here at some point.
“I don’t know,” McElwain replied. “Will somebody at least say we exist? That would be nice, I guess. Right?”
On the field, Florida should deserve respect although an educated guess would be that the Gators will be picked second in the East behind Georgia. Their quarterback position hasn’t been settled, McElwain insists, but Malik Zaire (the incoming Notre Dame transfer) and Feleipe Franks (who had the upper hand coming out of spring practice) have tremendous physical skills. The running back corps is deep, the offensive line is good, the receiving unit (especially if beleaguered Antonio Callaway is available) is talented. Defense has not been a problem for the Gators recently. There’s even an extra SEC home game on the schedule thanks to the hurricane-game snafu with LSU last year.
Thus, McElwain is optimistic – if a little hard to decipher at times, as when he was asked about “closing the gap” with Alabama.
“They’ve just done an outstanding job,” he said. “Closing the gap, I go back to…the understanding here (that) each year is its own and certain things have to happen that you don’t have control of. Yet what you hope happens is (that) you’ve taken care of a lot of the details along the way, so when something comes up you can still be successful. That’s the great thing they’ve done in that (Alabama) program. And I don’t know the gap itself.”
Getting a firm grasp on that paragraph is roughly akin to tackling Josh Jacobs in the open field. You think you have a grip, and then, somehow, it eludes you. That same feeling, that same inability to get a firm handle on Florida, and just what they are as a football program today, persists as well.
They aren’t what they were in the days of Spurrier or Meyer. They are also no joke, despite the “shark photo” wisecracks. Maybe this year, games with Michigan, Georgia, FSU and perhaps Alabama or some other West Division champion will clear things up and the only predator that McElwain will talk about next July will be Gators.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.