Gators Primed for Future Success After Unexpected Run To SEC Championship Game
By Scott Carter, GatorZone.com // December 7, 2015
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (GatorZone.com) – As the players quietly stepped off the buses and into the chilly night, Jim McElwain stood next to the stairs that led to the entrance of the jet the Gators flew home in Saturday night.
As he does after each road game, McElwain greeted players, coaches, trainers, support staff and anyone else who stepped onto the stairs with a handshake.
It’s a sign another Gators’ business trip is finished.
The trip the Gators took here to the Georgia Dome didn’t turn out the way they hoped. No. 18-ranked Florida fell to second-ranked Alabama 29-15 in the SEC Championship Game.
Few outsiders gave the Gators a chance Saturday and in the end, they were proven correct. Florida kept it close for a while and even led in the second quarter when freshman receiver Antonio Callaway returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown.
But as the game wore on, Alabama’s dominant defensive and offensive lines began to take control. The Gators racked up 83 yards of offense in the first quarter. In the second and third quarters, they had three yards to the Crimson Tide’s 308.
Florida’s inability to sustain drives, which forced the defense to be on the field for nearly 44 minutes, highlighted the gap between the SEC East and West champions.
“That’s why we’re getting on the road [to recruit] as soon as we leave,” McElwain said.
The Gators were clearly disappointed when they walked off the field, some looking back as workers rolled a stage onto the field and confetti dropped from the rafters to celebrate the Crimson Tide’s second straight SEC Championship Game victory.
While they were heavy underdogs, the Gators expected to win. The defense made it closer than predicted despite Alabama dominating time of possession (43:29 to 16:31), first downs (25 to 7), total yards (437 to 180) and rushing yards (233 to 15).
SEC Championship Game MVP Derrick Henry, who finished with 189 yards on 44 carries, put the Crimson Tide in front for good with a 2-yard touchdown run less than three minutes before halftime.
“It’s the best defense that we faced all year,” Henry said.
Still, reminiscent of the loss to Florida State a week earlier, the Gators’ defense could only bend so much before breaking with so little help from the offense.
“You’ve got to have a bad memory in football, I was always taught,” Callaway said. “We never stopped trying to make plays.”
Alabama scored 27 unanswered points after Callaway’s punt return and it wasn’t until quarterback Treon Harris hit C.J. Worton for a 46-yard score with 5:02 left in the game that the Gators finally found the end zone on offense.
The Gators, after winning 10 of their first 11 games under McElwain, now have lost two in a row as they wait to officially hear their bowl destination on Sunday. Some of their warts have been exposed for all to see.
And while critics will be quick to dismiss what they accomplished this season because of their recent offensive struggles, McElwain reminded everyone Saturday where this team is headed.
“I don’t think there were a lot of people around the country that thought we would be playing in this football game,” McElwain said. “And they never backed down.
“We’re a program on the build; these seniors and guys that are going to come out early built a great foundation for the future, and I’m proud of them.”
Junior linebacker Jarrad Davis is one of the players expected to carry the torch into next season. Davis improved as much as any player on the roster and on Saturday, he made eight tackles and forced Henry to fumble.
After going 11-13 his first two seasons at UF, Davis said the Gators are ready to flip the page to a brighter future.
“I feel like we’ve been buried for years now just based off the last two years,” he said. “We want to be recognized as a team that’s coming back. We’ve got a lot of athletes on this team who actually want to work and want to win. Just look out.”
More than anything, Saturday was validation for the Gators.
Florida’s last trip to Atlanta was six years ago and their 32-13 loss to Alabama shifted the landscape in college football. The Gators, winners of two the last three national championships at the time, dropped from the top.
Meanwhile, the Nick Saban-led Crimson Tide became the SEC’s dominant program and seeks a fourth national title in seven years.
The players on Florida’s roster were in high school at the time and came to Florida expecting to play for multiple SEC championships in their careers.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Despite Saturday’s defeat, Davis treasured the opportunity.
“We came away with the experience,” he said. “It’s always great to have a chance to come into a game like this. We know what it takes to get here now and now we have to push even more so we can win it next year. That’s the only positive I took from it.”
McElwain echoed those sentiments in his postgame press conference.
“The taste of being here, you can’t put a price tag on that because the thirst to get back becomes, oh, so great,” he said. “It’s what you learn from it. You know what, they didn’t take no for an answer when we came in here, and they found a way to win some ball games.
“It’s a great building block for the future.”
Late Saturday night, as the Gators exited their jet back on their home turf, they began taking steps toward that future. The goal is another business trip to Atlanta next season.