ATLANTA, Ga. -- When Jim McElwain stepped to the microphone after his team fell 29-15 to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, his eyes were on the future.
Florida being in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December was never supposed to happen. In the eyes of McElwain and the players, it was always possible, but it was never realistic externally. The Gators started to change the national conversation after a 38-10 win over Ole Miss in early October, and soon a berth in Atlanta looked realistic.
The Gators are a flawed football team, and that’s not much of a mystery to McElwain. He gets that. But the team was able to fight through adversity this season and reach the 10-win plateau for the second time since 2010.
“We're a program on the rise,” McElwain said. “We're a program on the build. The future's bright. Got a lot of good recruiting to do, a lot of good players are coming and going to want to come. I'm excited about it. And as we get out (on the road to recruit) tomorrow, there's a lot to celebrate. There's a lot of momentum.”
The players credit McElwain for the turnaround. His continued optimism has helped the players’ confidence and helped them produce. When the offense was productive during the first half of the year, the coaches were able to find ways to get receivers and tight ends open while moving the chains with the running game. When Grier was suspended and the quarterback production dropped off, the offense started to slow down.
But the last month of limited production shouldn’t cloud the view of McElwain’s first season. Receivers are open. Tight ends are open. The young offensive line has shown positive signs. As the talent on the roster improves on the future, the players are convinced the program will continue to improve under McElwain’s leadership.
“The sky is the limit,” Vernon Hargreaves III said. “These coaches that are here now know exactly what they want, they preach what they want and get what they want. That’s how it’s supposed to be. The guys are buying in and everybody bought in. That’s why we are where we are. It’s not the end for Coach Mac and the Gators.”
McElwain spent the week talking to his team about the environment they were stepping into. After coaching in three SEC Championship Games as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, McElwain said the league’s title game can have more intensity and excitement than the national championship game.
With his team well ahead of schedule, the first-year Florida coach got the opportunity to take his team to one of the most unique environments in college football, an experience that can only help them going forward.
“The taste of being here, you can't put a price tag on that because the thirst to get back becomes oh so great,” McElwain said. “There's a lot of things in life that are very similar. It's what you learn from it.”
The players were excited to see the environment in the Georgia Dome, as no one on the roster had ever played in the game. They heard McElwain rave about the environment all week and were able to experience.
More than anything, it will serve as motivation during the offseason for what it takes to return to Atlanta next year and win.
“To be able to experience this game, that’s the most positive part of this afternoon,” Linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “It’s hard to take the loss, but to know what it takes to get here and what it takes to win this game, I’m happy to be in this game. I’m not happy we lost, but I’m happy to understand what we need to do next year to get the win.”