Florida leads the Southeastern Conference in appearances in the league’s title game, but Saturday will be the first trip to the Georgia Dome for every player on the Florida roster. However, the Gators haven’t played in the SEC Championship Game in six years.
It’ll be the third time in the game for Florida coach Jim McElwain with the first two coming during his tenure as the Alabama offensive coordinator. He’s spending this week educating the Florida players for the atmosphere they’re about to experience. McElwain said there could be more excitement in the Georgia Dome for the league title than there is for the national title.
“I don't think you ever realize it until you're actually in it,” McElwain said. “We've explained to them, but until you're really living it, it's hard to explain. I told them, man, they should be excited. This is something special."
To try preparing the players, McElwain has had former players speak to the team. Mark Campbell and Mike Peterson are two of the former Gators on the current staff that played in the SEC Championship, and the players have leaned on them for experience going into this weekend.
The Gators will enjoy their Friday in Atlanta and also have a chance to see the College Football Hall of Fame. McElwain wants them to enjoy the experience and understand what a special environment this game is.
“Part of coming to the University of Florida, that’s kind of an expectation. I’m excited for those guys, really excited for them. I’m really excited for the young guys that are all going to be there because we get to take 85 on this. There’ll be a lot of guys that will be big contributors for us in the future and now they’ll get the experience to see what it is and what it’s all about.”
ALABAMA DL TURNING HEADS
Florida’s offensive line had an inconsistent November, but they’re coming off a strong game against Florida State last week. They haven’t seen a group close to the one they’ll face on Saturday in Atlanta.
The Alabama defensive line has size, speed, and most importantly, depth. At defensive tackle, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson combine for 89 tackles with 10.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and 14 quarterback hurries. Defensive end Jonathan Allen leads the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks.
Even the backups stand out on film, and that’s what has the attention of the Florida coaching staff.
“What I see this year is more depth,” McElwain said. “They’re rolling more guys, staying fresher, which is not comforting, because you’d rather see them a little tired. (Saban has) obviously answered, from a program standpoint, what he needed against these tempos is to make sure those guys up front, guys stay fresh. I think that’s been the point of difference.”
GRATEFUL FOR DURKIN
Former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was officially announced as the head coach at Maryland on Wednesday. He served as the Gators’ interim coach for the Birmingham Bowl last season and was an important part in holding the program together.
Durkin and McElwain spoke multiple times throughout the process, but he wasn’t retained at Florida and became the defensive coordinator at Michigan under Jim Harbaugh. McElwain maintains respect for Durkin after the way he handled the program in Gainesville last year.
"D.J., what a quality guy, first of all, and what a quality person,” McElwain said. “What he was able to do especially in that role in that time, which was hard on everybody, he held it together. He'd come in and visit between practices, that kind of stuff, and you could tell, this guy's a real guy and a great coach, obviously. But more than that, I think a real good person and a guy that really cares about his players."