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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Football fans: Don’t expect SEC championship appearance

<p>Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 54-16 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.</p>

Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 54-16 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.

Some students and fans have welcomed coach Jim McElwain as God’s gift to football since he won his first Gators game in 2015.

In part, they’re justified. McElwain gave Florida fans hope, like spotting a lighthouse after years of being lost at sea under coach Will Muschamp.

McElwain even became the first coach to lead his team to two SEC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons.

But his success isn't sustainable, and Florida’s due for a down season.

After going 10-4 and 9-4, UF will be lucky to do better than 7-5 next season because SEC teams are getting better, Florida is getting worse, and UF plays what’s arguably its most challenging schedule ever in 2017.

In terms of recruiting, some reporters considered McElwain’s jump in the recruiting rankings on National Signing Day, from the No. 19 class to No. 10 by the end of the day, a big win for the program.

But Florida still finished behind four SEC teams, according to 247Sports. Florida even finished behind four teams that it plays in 2017: Michigan, LSU, Georgia and FSU.

Of 11 five-star recruits who will suit up for SEC teams in 2017, none of them will call The Swamp home.

To be fair, Florida reeled in a fair share of four- and three-star recruits. But those recruits aren’t going to make up for UF’s defense losing seven starters.

No more interceptions from Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson or Marcus Maye in the secondary.

No more sacks from Caleb Brantley or Joey Ivie on the defensive line.

No more pad-pounding hits from Jarrad Davis or Alex Anzalone in the linebacking corps.

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And even if somehow Florida’s recruits double their potential, or if Florida’s second-stringers play like All-Americans, UF still has to survive its most hostile regular-season schedule in years.

First, Florida will travel to Dallas — almost 1,000 miles — to lose to a Michigan team that embarrassed UF 41-7 on New Year’s Day 2016.

Then UF will host a Tennessee team that beat it by 10. Two weeks later, UF faces Vanderbilt, a team UF beat by only seven points last year and two points the year before that.

Florida follows that with back-to-back games against LSU and Texas A&M, two teams ranked as high as No. 5 and No. 6 in 2016.

Two weeks after that, UF has to play a Georgia team that locked down the No. 3 recruiting class in the country.

Then the Seminoles come to Gainesville, where FSU hasn’t lost since Tim Tebow was under center.

So Florida fans: While McElwain and the Gators have enjoyed moderate success since his stint began in Gainesville, don’t expect UF to make a title run in 2017. This team will get worse before it gets better.

Matt Brannon is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at mbrannon@alligator.org, and follow him on Twitter @MattB_727.

Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 54-16 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.

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