HOOVER – Jim McElwain has gotten the Florida Gators to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons in Gainesville, Fla.
McElwain is the only coach in SEC history to reach the league title game in his first two seasons.
In both games, Florida lost to Alabama.
“They’re (Alabama) at the top,” McElwain said. “And it’s up to us to go get ’em.”
McElwain owns a 19-8 record in his first two years at Florida, but is 0-2 against in-state rival Florida State.
If the Gators want to take the next step, they need to get improved quarterback play. Florida has gone through nine starting quarterbacks in seven seasons since Tim Tebow left Florida, with little success.
Graduate transfer Malik Zaire was allowed to transfer to Florida from Notre Dame earlier this summer when the SEC eased transfer rules for graduates. He will compete with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks for the starting spot. Luke Del Rio started last season before going down with an injury, and will likely return to a backup role.
“It’s one of those situations that it doesn’t matter the position, we’re always looking to add,” McElwain said. “True competition breeds excellence.
“I know we’re going to be starting a quarterback.”
Whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of offensive weapons to work with.
Antonio Callaway, a junior wide receiver, is the biggest playmaker. He caught 54 passes for 721 yards last season, despite uneven play at the quarterback position. Callaway became the 21st FBS player since 1996 to score a rushing, receiving, passing, punt return and kickoff return touchdown in a career.
Callaway has run into some trouble off the field, and McElwain addressed his situation.
“He’s going through some things right now and has handled it well, McElwain said. “He’s a talented young man and a good person.”
Brandon Powell and DeAndre Goolsby, the second- and third-leading receivers will also return, along with sophomore receiver Tyrie Cleveland, who showed promise as a freshman.
Jordan Scarlett will be the lead running back for Florida after a strong sophomore season. He rushed for 907 yards on 179 carries last season, good for 5 yards a carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, Florida lost eight starters to the NFL draft, including three defensive backs. Juniors Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington will have to replace the trio of Marcus Maye, Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson.
Harris leads returning players with 73 tackles from a season ago.
The Gators will have a much tougher time replacing linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Davis, a first-round selection by the Detroit Lions, was the leader of the Florida defense. Florida might have to depend on freshman linebackers to take on Davis’ role.
The Gators will open the season against the Michigan Wolverines on Sept. 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Head coach: Jim McElwain
2016 record: 9-4 (6-2 SEC)
Returning starters: 18
Toughest question McElwain faced: You’ve seen them twice: What does Florida need to do to close that gap with Alabama?
McElwain’s reply: They’ve just done an outstanding job. I think closing the gap, as I go back to I guess the understanding here, each year is its own and certain things happen that you don’t have control over, and yet what you hope happens is you’ve taken care of a lot of the details along the way, that when something comes up, you can still be successful. That’s the great thing they’ve done in that program. And I don’t know the gap itself. You know, I do understand this. They’re right now at the top, and, you know, it’s up to the rest of us to go get them.
You need to know: Florida has lost to Alabama in two straight SEC Championships. The Gators return its leading rusher from a year ago, Jordan Scarlett (889 yards), and its top three wide receivers, Antonio Callaway (721 yards), Brandon Powell (387 yards), and DeAndre Gooslby (342 yards). The Gators lost eight players to the NFL draft, with six of those being on the defensive side of the ball, including three defensive backs. Marcell Harris will return, he leads the team in tackles, among players returning with 73.
Best player quote: The stadium itself feels like the fans are right on top of you. One of the memories I have is against Ole Miss where I was just telling everyone how I could hear the crowd, it was in me. At one point, it was so loud that I couldn’t hear nothing. It felt like the crowd was shaking me. We have a fan that sits right behind the O-Line and he always yells ‘Ah Ha’. We always make fun of him. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment. He’s always there. I can’t wait. It’s just so close, it’s real to me. -Sophomore offensive lineman Martez Ivey on the Swamp.