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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Column: McElwain has the Gators believing in themselves as season winds down

<p>UF coach Jim McElwain points to the crowd during Gator Walk prior to Florida's 24-14 win against South Carolina on Nov. 14, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina.</p>

UF coach Jim McElwain points to the crowd during Gator Walk prior to Florida's 24-14 win against South Carolina on Nov. 14, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina.

A few days after the Gators defeated Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt and locked up the SEC East, first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain addressed the team about the weeks that were to come.

"With a show of hands, who thought we’d be here?" McElwain asked the team.

It was a simple question.

The response spoke volumes.

"Not too many guys showed their hands," defensive end Jordan Sherit recalled after the Gators’ 24-14 win against South Carolina on Saturday.

In just a year’s time, McElwain has turned the Florida football program into a national title contender.

What was supposed to be a rebuilding year instead turned into one of increasing expectations — both internally and externally.

Some of the wins haven’t been pretty (see: East Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee), but when the time comes to make a play, the Gators are right in the thick of the competition.

"Our guys, they find something new every single day," McElwain said. "That’s what’s really cool about it."

And with two weeks left before the SEC Championship game, McElwain and the Gators don’t plan to slow down.

For the first time in three years, Florida isn’t playing for pride down the stretch.

If the Gators win their next three games — home contests against Florida Atlantic and Florida State followed by a game against the SEC West champion in Atlanta — they’ll be a lock for the College Football Playoff, a chance to win the program’s first national title since the Tebow Era ended.

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It’s an end goal most of Florida’s players didn’t expect to be possible heading into the year.

But McElwain has helped them see the light.

He’s shown them that hard work pays off in the long run.

"You believe what he’s teaching," said Jake McGee, who on Monday was named a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the best tight end in college football.

But believing is just the first half of the battle.

The rest is execution.

And so far, the Gators have held their own.

The defense is ranked fifth nationally, giving up an average of just 280 yards per game.

The offense is dominating the time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 33:19 per game, which ranks second in the SEC only to Arkansas and ninth in the country.

Florida is converting 42.8 percent of its third- and fourth-down attempts while holding opponents to just a 33.7-percent efficiency rate, moving chains while opponents are stopped in their tracks.

How well the Gators execute in their next three games will speak volumes about this team.

"We’re seeing the fruits of our labor and we’ve just got to keep going," Sherit said.

"We have a few more we’ve got to knock out."

Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126

UF coach Jim McElwain points to the crowd during Gator Walk prior to Florida's 24-14 win against South Carolina on Nov. 14, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Under first-year UF coach Jim McElwain, the Gators hold a 10-3 record, swept the SEC East and played for the conference title for the first time since 2009.

For a look at how he did it, check out our preseason feature by Graham Hall (http://www.alligator.org/sports/features/article_0dac7604-52b0-11e5-b06e-af7ae3070326.html) and our post-SEC Championship game recap by Jordan McPherson (http://www.alligator.org/sports/football/article_254b77f4-9ca9-11e5-be36-072943896566.html).

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