McElwain: Florida Gators Have Opportunity in SEC Championship Game to Face the Best
By Scott Carter, GatorZone.com // December 2, 2015
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (GatorZone.com) – One of the biggest surprises of the 2015 college football season, Florida turned its attention Sunday to pulling off another surprise.
The 18th-ranked Gators (10-2), who dropped eight spots in the AP Top 25 Sunday after their 27-2 loss to Florida State, began to prepare for No. 2-ranked Alabama (11-1). The teams meet Saturday at the Georgia Dome in the SEC Championship Game.
Alabama is trying to become the first school since Tennessee in 1997-98 to win back-to-back SEC title games. Meanwhile, this is Florida’s first trip to Atlanta in six years and will be the eighth time the two have faced each other for the conference title since the SEC Championship Game was created in 1992.
The last time Gators head coach Jim McElwain participated in the game he was Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2009.
“It’s something special,’’ McElwain said Sunday.
“You’ve got two fan bases that split the stadium and the energy that’s in there because they’re all true fans. It’s a huge challenge. We’re playing the best team in college football. We’re a program on the rise, and we’re a program that’s going to continue to get better.”
“This is just another opportunity for us to get out there and, you know what, match ourselves against the best.”
Alabama is a heavy favorite and has beaten Florida four consecutive times, a streak that started in Atlanta with a 32-13 victory of then No.1-ranked Florida six years ago. The Crimson Tide have been the dominant program in the conference since then, winning three national titles under head coach Nick Saban.
Alabama is riding a nine-game winning streak since losing at home to Ole Miss, 43-37, on Sept. 19. The Crimson Tide capped the regular season with a 29-13 victory over Auburn on Saturday in the annual Iron Bowl.
“They’ve had their backs against the wall since the Ole Miss game early in the season and really come through just about every time they needed to in some tough circumstances on the road as well as at home against some very good teams,’’ Saban said. “We’ve improved as the season’s gone on. So I’m very proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Both teams feature dominant defenses. Alabama is ranked second nationally in total defense (264.6 yards per game) and Florida checks in at No. 5 (283.6 ypg). Offensively is where Alabama has a decisive advantage.
The Crimson Tide average 421.3 yards per game, which is 51st nationally; Florida is ranked 104th at 351.9 ypg. Florida managed only 262 yards Saturday night to FSU, avoiding its first shutout loss since 1988 thanks to a safety in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Treon Harris finished 19 of 38 for 134 yards as the Gators punted nine times and converted just 5 of 13 third-down attempts. Florida is 7 for 30 the past two games (23.3 percent) on third down. The offensive star Saturday was running back Kelvin Taylor, who rushed for a season-high 136 yard to close in on a 1,000-yard season. Taylor finished the regular season with 977 yards.
Still, Saban expects his defense to be tested by Florida’s offense.
“They still have a lot of good players,’’ Saban said. “They’ve shown an ability to run the ball. They have a very good back. They have a very good receiver. This is a good football team, and I don’t see them struggling.”
In his four seasons as Saban’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11, McElwain’s offense was tested daily at practice by the Crimson Tide’s always-formidable defense.
Nothing has changed.
Alabama’s defense features junior lineman Jonathan Allen, who leads the team with nine sacks, junior defensive back Eddie Jackson, who has five interceptions, and senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who has a team-high 90 tackles.
And defensive coordinator Kirby Smart remains in charge of the unit.
“Whatever you do they’re going to take away,’’ McElwain said. “We’ve got to do an outstanding job of trying to keep them off-balance. As always, that’s as good a defense as there is in the country year in and year out. As a football purist, people should just sit down and watch how they play together. It’s pretty amazing.”
As he said following Saturday’s game, McElwain remains confident in Harris to lead the offense.
In Florida’s lackluster offensive performance in a third consecutive home loss to the Seminoles, Harris and kicker Austin Hardin (one missed field goal, one blocked) received most of the fan criticism.
“He’s our quarterback,” McElwain said. “He’s going to get a little bit better this week as we go into the SEC Championship game playing a pretty darn salty defense.
“For us to be where we’re at, that’s pretty cool. We have a really good football team. We have a bunch of guys who care for each other. We have a bunch of guys, you know what, still have something to prove.”