The Gators return to Atlanta for the first time since 2009 when Jim McElwain was on the opposing sideline. Orchestrating the Alabama offense that went on to win a national title, the Crimson Tide ended Florida’s hopes for a national title in Tim Tebow’s final season.
Now it’s McElwain leading the charge as the Gators return. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East, Florida clinched the East and went undefeated against teams in the division.
“To be a part of the SEC Championship Game with two storied programs, that's something special,” McElwain said. “It's also something that year in and year out, two of the programs that should be playing in this game. I know how excited we are to have this opportunity to play such a great program and a team that arguably is the best team in college football obviously.
“For us to go in and have that opportunity to play in Atlanta, it's something that the Gator fans around the country and this football team, based on what they've done, deserve. I'm really excited about the opportunity."
It’s the atmosphere of the Georgia Dome that sticks out in McElwain’s memories of the game. As the first-year staff at Florida continues to get the program pointed in the right direction, getting a taste of Saturday’s atmosphere is something McElwain hopes will continue to push the players.
It’s a unique atmosphere because of the split crowd between the two teams, but it can still get loud when one of the fan bases get excited.
“All I can say is wow,” McElwain said. “It was amazing in both years we were in it. I think what the difference is, and whether it is or isn’t I don’t know, but you’ve got two fan bases that split the stadium. It’s the energy that’s in there because they’re all true fans. I think sometimes maybe some of the other games have some corporate tickets and aren’t necessarily (loud).
“(Saturday) you get students in there and true fans. The place is located everybody can get to. I’ve got to tell you, it’s something special.”
The Gators are already in the biggest game in the toughest league in college football, and that should continue to help push the program forward. Even with the 27-2 loss to Florida State at home on Saturday, McElwain has continued to stay positive and push his players to focus on the next game.
“We’re a program on the rise, we’re a program that’s going to continue to get better,” McElwain said. “This is just another opportunity for us to get out there and, you know what, match ourselves against the best.”