Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain is a man of many quips, idioms, jokes and sayings. A new saying, more of a sticking point with McElwain this season has been stressing the details. It was the focal point of spring and fall camp, “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable” he would say, which has now turned into, “that’s what great teams do.”
McElwain became just the third coach in Southeastern Conference history to lead his team to the SEC Championship game in his first season and then became the first coach in conference history to take his team to the title game in each of his first two seasons.
That’s not good enough for McElwain. Sure, when questioned about his offense finishing outside the top 100 in each of the last two seasons he has shot back that he was brought to Florida to get to Atlanta but fans aren’t happy with just getting to the dance. Neither is McElwain.
McElwain told fans during halftime of the Gators matchup with Vanderbilt basketball team that the Gators were going to “kick the door down” in 2017.
When he said that there was no way he could have imagined how this season would play out. First the Gators lost senior safety Marcell Harris for the season to an Achilles injury. Then seven players were indefinitely suspended, including Antonio Callaway. Just days before the season opening game he would lose two more players, including starting running back Jordan Scarlett.
Florida lost their high profile to matchup with Michigan, outmatched by the Wolverines and then Hurricane Irma forced a cancellation of their matchup with Northern Colorado. More so than missing a game, the effects of the Hurricane to the islands as well as the state of Florida has taken a toll on McElwain.
Florida won a thriller against Tennessee to improve to 1-1 on the season but, as they did in the first game, turned the ball over. Despite intercepting five passes in two games Florida has a -1 turnover margin, tenth in the SEC. The Gators have lost five fumbles and thrown an interception. That, to McElwain, is not what great teams do and if Florida is going to kick the door down they can’t continue the trend.
“We’ve got, plain and simple, to not turn the football over. Anytime you do that you’re stealing plays from yourself,” McElwain said. “I think somebody asked it the other day and part of that is you’re losing 7-14 plays anytime you put it on the ground. It’s just something you can’t do.”
Against Tennessee Malik ripped off a 74-yard run against Tennessee, only to have the ball poked out of his arms and go through the endzone for a touchback on the goal line.
“On a run like that you’re not out of trouble until you’re 5 yards deep in the end zone,” said McElwain.
McElwain used that one play as an opportunity to show his team a real life example of how effort and hustle can change a game. If Davis isn’t chased down by a Tennessee defensive back the Gators likely go up 20-3 and the entire course of the game would be different. There was a similar effort play, where Florida defensive end Jachai Polite chased down Vol running back John Kelly 35-yards down the field. That play was shown to the team multiple times.
“It was an unbelievable play, I’ll give that guy credit,” McElwain said of Davis’ fumble. “Let’s call it the way it is. I want that guy on my team. We showed it to our guys just like we showed Jachai Polite’s play. He’s the farthest guy away from the team and he goes out and makes a play. That’s what good football teams do. I think anytime you have an opportunity to show, that’s important.”
Those type of effort plays are, in McElwain’s mind, what separate average teams from good teams and good teams from great teams. His good teams have gotten to Atlanta twice in two years only to serve as a scout team for Alabama’s run to the College Football Playoffs.
This week they hit the road to face a 3-0 Kentucky team that McElwain says is the most talented Kentucky team he’s ever faced. The Wildcats think this is the year that they’ll break a three-decade long losing streak. Kentucky just went on the road and beat South Carolina. A win Saturday would give them a discernible lead in the East.
This is a game that an average team could slip up. It’s a game where a good team could even come out on the wrong end. A great team, the kind of team McElwain hopes to have in his third season doesn’t. they go on the road and win tough conference games.
Kicking the door down starts this week in Lexington.