The Florida Gators were expected to be in a rebuilding year of sorts but Jim McElwain has shown the college football world that he knows how to coach — especially in the SEC. The Gators have struggled at times this season and have won some ugly games but they have already clinched the SEC East crown and are destined for a matchup with Alabama in the SEC Championship game should have fans excited.
McElwain can’t take all of the credit for the turnaround though because there have been several players that have stepped up to the challenge and the mentality in 2015 has been consistently “next man up.” The last two games have shown that the formula for success has been jumbled at times, but no one can argue that the Gators got remarkably better, exceptionally fast. There are a few reasons for this instant success, and they are perhaps bigger than the new head coach.
The Gators have long been known for a defense that has teeth, and 2015 is no exception either. The offense is 122nd in the country in points per game with 28.10, but the main reason that the Gators only have one loss is because the defense allows the eighth fewest points (14.50) in the FBS. The SEC as a conference is filled with stingy defenses, so Florida is just living up to the needs of keeping pace to stay relevant.
The Gators have forced an SEC-high 21 turnovers this season and 17 of those are during conference play. Vernon Hargreaves III leads the secondary and has four interceptions by himself, but the Gators have had moments of desperation in the secondary and have given up some big plays this season. It doesn’t feel like a weakness, rather moments of mental breakdown, but it could be something that could affect them against Florida State and most likely Alabama.
Wide receiver Antonio Callaway is a speedy freshman from Miami and he has helped the Gators with his exceptional play this season. There have been great receivers on Gators’ teams before him — Percy Harvin — but Callaway seems like a man among boys at times. While he only has 25 receptions for 489 yards and three touchdowns, he is averaging an astounding 19.6 yards per reception. He is also a big part of the return game, and he has 20 punt returns for 288 yards (14.4 avg) and a touchdown. If Will Grier (suspended) were still playing quarterback for Florida, Callaway’s stats would be eye-popping. But who can forget the biggest play of the Gators season when Callaway made the game-winning touchdown catch on fourth down against Tennessee?
With Callaway returning punts and placing the Gators in good field position, the kickoff return man can’t be lost in the shuffle. Sophomore wideout Brandon Powell has used his talents to help with field position much like Callaway has, but on the kick return team. Powell has 20 kick returns for 430 yards and an average of 21.5 yards per return. The return game isn’t his only ability either because he has 25 catches for 344 yards and three touchdowns as well. Add receiver Demarcus Robinson (47 rec., 505 yds, 2 TDs) to the formula of Callaway and Powell, and you have three receivers that are a deep threat on any given play.
The rushing attack has also helped take some pressure off of quarterback Treon Harris, and is led by junior running back Kelvin Taylor. He has tallied 191 carries for 736 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns this season, but he is only one of five Florida players with at least 30 rushing attempts. When a team has a double threat on offense they are able to keep their opponent guessing most of the time, and the Gators have 16 touchdown passes and 18 rushing touchdowns so far.
All three of these things have helped Florida rebound quickly and give hope to a fan base dubbed as the “Rowdy Reptiles.” If this is what the Gators can do in the first year of Coach McElwain’s tenure then just imagine what is to come. On Saturday, the Florida Gators play Florida Atlantic and McElwain has the ability to become the first Gators football coach to reach 10 wins in his first season.
The road is a lot darker in coming weeks, with matchups against Florida State and presumably Alabama, but the Gators need to be taken seriously before they sneak up on an unsuspecting field and win the College Football Playoff.