GAINESVILLE — Even a usually realistic Jim McElwain bought in to the hype that always surrounds the Gators football program just before the start of fall practice.
“The excitement in the air is awesome,” said McElwain at Florida’s annual media day on Aug. 5. “Guys are ready to get after it. They put in a ton of work for 15 opportunities. That’s what it is. Fifteen opportunities to play the game.”
15 opportunities? But the Gators only have 12 regular-season games scheduled.
When the new Florida coach was asked to clarify his comment, McElwain made it obvious that he was including the Southeastern Conference Championship, a College Football Playoff semifinal game and the national championship game
“There isn’t a game, there isn’t an event, there isn’t a thing that we do that we go in expecting a participation ribbon,” McElwain said. “I struggle with that. You go in expecting to win. We’ve got 15 opportunities. Let’s take advantage of them now to make the 15 a reality.”
If the Gators made that number a reality this season, it would be a huge turnaround from last season’s 7-5 record. Florida, which returns four starters on offense and seven starters on defense from last year’s team, was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East in the annual media voting at SEC Media Days.
But McElwain went back to his usual realistic approach when discussing his expectations for the upcoming season.
“I think the realistic expectation is what we do every day to get better,” McElwain said. “I’ll tell you each and every day what we did that day and if the Gators got better that day or not.”
The Gators entered fall practice without a starting quarterback and are lacking experience on the offensive line. That’s usually not a good mix, but offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier believes McElwain’s methodical style will bring improved results for the unit.
“In order for us to get where we need to go, we have to get better every day and progress in all areas,” Nussmeier said. “We haven’t arrived in any one area. What is the expectation? It’s what we define within our room with our players.”
Florida’s offense was ranked No. 93 in the country in total offense last season and has not scored more than 400 points in a single season since 2009. In fact, the Gators put up more than 500 points for three consecutive seasons from 2007 through 2009 under former coach Urban Meyer.
Since then, Florida has struggled to find playmakers and a reliable quarterback. But the team is hopeful the addition of freshmen like Antonio Callaway from Miami-Washington to a group of wide receivers that already includes Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell will help turn things around.
“He’s ready,” quarterback Treon Harris said of Callaway. “He’s college-ready. He’s about 206 pounds, he’s tall, physical, runs great routes and has great hands. I’m just ready to see what he can bring to the table.”
But the Gators’ defense is proven. With players like defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves returning, the unit will need to lead the team again.
Florida’s defense allowed 21.1 points per game last season and finished fifth in the country in yards allowed per play (4.6).
“Everybody has the same mindset — we are the best defense in the nation,” defensive lineman Alex McCalister said. “We’re going to prepare and practice like the best defense in the nation and hopefully that’s the result.”
But in the end, this season is just part of McElwain’s long-term vision for the future of the program.
“He has great vision,” Nussmeier said of McElwain. “It’s a long-term view of what he wants Florida football to be. I think he has done an outstanding job of sending a message to players and staff about how he wants us to represent this great program.”
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
1. Who will be the Gators’ starting quarterback?
Florida entered fall camp without a starting quarterback, as sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier compete for the job. Coach Jim McElwain has not put a timetable on naming a starter. One thing is for sure, the guy who wins the competition won’t have long to adjust to life as Florida’s starting quarterback.
2. Can the Gators get adequate offensive line play?
Once Florida names its starting quarterback, the offensive line will then have to protect him. That could be an issue, as the Gators lost four starters to the NFL Draft. The most experienced offensive lineman is redshirt senior Trip Thurman, who started 10 games at left guard last season after playing as a backup in 2013. But Florida is optimistic the addition of five-star freshman Martez Ivey and transfers Mason Halter and T.J. McCoy will help solidify the line.
3. Can the defense live up to the hype?
Does Florida have the best defense in the country? A lot of the Gators’ players think it’s possible. Having All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on your side definitely helps things. But the wildcard is the health of linebacker Antonio Morrison, who is still recovering from a knee injury. Morrison is working to return for Florida’s season opener on Sept. 5, but that’s looking less and less likely. With a lot of unknowns on offense, the Gators’ defense will need to live up to the hype this season.