Hats Off to Jim McElwain in Year 1 at Florida

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Florida’s win Saturday over Vanderbilt wasn’t the sightliest. Ugly has often been the M.O. in head coach Jim McElwain’s debut season with the Gators.

Take away the 38-10 rout of SEC West-leading Ole Miss, and you have a lot of single-digit wins, including some against lower-tier competition like Vanderbilt.

But, as the head coach told reporters afterward, “champions find ways to win” such contests. And the Gators are indeed champions.

Style points aside, McElwain’s first year deserves major kudos. The Gators’ 9-7 win Saturday sewed up the SEC East championship to book Florida’s first conference championship game appearance since 2009.

Certainly Florida benefited from implosions around the division. Rival Georgia is in disarray, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier abruptly retired midway through the season, Tennessee was a repeat victim of yakking (including against the Gators).

But it’s not as if Jim McElwain’s bunch didn’t face down adversity. He inherited a roster “insufficient at some of the areas,” namely an offensive line held together with the spare twine laying at the bottom of the kitchen Misc. Drawer.

Predecessor Will Muschamp and his staff hadn’t recruited on the front five particularly well, and the result is a rush offense that ranks No. 100 nationally and averages less than 3.9 yards per carry.

Florida has also had issues consistently kicking, prompting tryouts just a few weeks ago.

Austin Hardin gaining a measure of redemption Saturday with the game-winning field goal is a reflection of the Gators’ odds-defying campaign.

The offensive-minded McElwain prefers run a balanced offense — and the Gators have been balanced in how anemic they are at times. The loss of quarterback Will Grier to a failed drug test earlier this season, which forced Treon Harris into the starting lineup, could have relegated Florida to the kind of middling season predicted over the summer.

But the media’s preseason choice to finish fifth in the SEC East is now the division’s representative in Atlanta.

McElwain joins a coach whose team played for a national championship and another who won one as the only newbies to win their division.

Florida has a difficult road to pave if it’s going to play for a national title, as Gus Malzahn’s SEC-winning Auburn Tigers had in 2013, or as Jim McElwain did twice as offensive coordinator at Alabama. Saturday’s outcome may have wrapped up the SEC East, but the nail-biting finale against a pedestrian Vanderbilt bunch should drop Florida in the College Football Playoff rankings.

If that prompts McElwain to ask media “who are you to doubt El Vandy,” it’ll be worth it for all involved.

Florida may not play for the national title this season, though it will have the opportunity in the coming weeks. Beyond 2015, Jim McElwain is positioning the Gators to return to the national prominence they largely lost over the last half-decade.

McElwain proved an adept program-builder in his tenure at Colorado State, taking a one-time national power in the 1990s and early 2000s that had hit hard times and restoring past glory. Last year’s Rams won 10 games and appeared in the Top 25 behind a potent offense.

Once Florida has more pieces on offense to match the stifling defense the current staff inherited, McElwain could position the Gators to challenge his former colleague and mentor Nick Saban for SEC supremacy.

This start for Jim McElwain at Florida is quite a sight — even if it’s not always easy to watch.