It hasn’t been easy and sometimes it hasn’t been fun, but the Florida Gators earned a right to play in the SEC Championship Game Saturday, the second time in the two years that head coach Jim McElwain has been the head coach. The Gators come in bruised and battered, an after a tough loss. But, they come in as usual ready to fight for a game that they feel they can win.
“The guys are excited to not only get back here but excited to go out and perform tomorrow,” McElwain told a throng of reporters gathered at the SEC Championship luncheon gathered Friday. “Our guys have been through a ton, and yet, you know what, they've really overcome and learned a bunch about who they are and what they're all about. Tomorrow we're going to go test ourselves against the best… looking forward to that.
“What this game means to so many -- not only football fans, but for all the players that have ever played in the SEC Conference, to be able to be part of this event is something that you'll remember for the rest of your life. You know what, can't wait for tomorrow to get here.”
This is the 11th time for the Gators in the big game and that is more than anyone, including mighty Alabama. McElwain was asked about the expectation for Nick Saban and his Alabama team to be a part of the contest, and the Gator head coach slowed the roll of that particular questioner.
“I think it's an expectation for the Florida Gators,” he said about being a participant in the SEC Championship Game. “I think for both programs, to be here on the 25th anniversary is huge, but you come to the University of Florida, the expectation is to go play in Atlanta. That's something our guys have done.
“Likewise, you want to win a Championship. This is the first step in winning that Championship.”
Now the Gators are at the doorstep of their really top goal of the year, winning a SEC title. It will be a Herculean task, but this team has fought through some real adversity to get to this point and McElwain believes his guys will be there to do whatever they can to win on Saturday against the nation’s top team.
“You set goals to go achieve goals and that kind of thing, and yet understanding that goals only happen when you're willing to invest and you're willing to do it every single day to go achieve something, I've seen this football team understand what that is through some things and through some adversity that I'm really proud of,” he said. “They could have sacked their bats and gone home a while back. You know what? They didn't… and I'm proud of them.
Along with the ninth year the two teams have met in the SEC Championship, the two teams matched up last season as Alabama went on to win and also win the National Championship.
When he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008, he lost his first year to Florida as the Gators went on to win the National Championship. In 2009 he returned the favor on the Gators helping Saban win on the way to a National Championship for Alabama.
McElwain believes that the experience that 2008 team received in going to Atlanta and playing in that game was catamount to their success the following year.
“I don't know about the losing (in 2008), but really understanding the experience and more so what you may be able to do to help yourself be successful when that… next event comes up, and in our case, that next event was the following year.
“I mean, we were a little bit of a surprise in '08, just kind of how we went about our business and then being able to get back here. Getting a taste of it and being able to get back here, I know that was something our guys were driven to do, and we were fortunate enough to come out on the front end of that one.”
The odds makers have Alabama as a 24 point favorite in the contest. Nobody is picking the Gators. The general feel is that the Gators have no chance, kind of like they thought a couple of weeks ago in Baton Rouge. His guys have fought hard this year. They most likely will come out fighting on Saturday. McElwain believes his guys belong in Atlanta and doesn’t see things like the general population.
“No, it's not unbeatable at all,” he said of this Alabama opponent. “Last time I checked, I think we're a pretty good football team.”