JACKSONVILLE — Raise your hand if you expected this from the Gators this season?
OK, if you’re raising your hand, I don’t believe you. No. 11 Florida is on the verge of clinching a spot in the SEC championship game after defeating UGA 27-3 on Saturday.
What did we learn from the huge win? Take a look.
1. SEC championship game bound: It’s not official yet, but it will take a lot — I mean a lot — to keep the Gators out of the conference championship game. After beating UGA, Florida is just a home win over Vanderbilt away from punching its ticket to Atlanta. Even if the Gators are upset by the Commodores, they can get in to the SEC championship game with a road win over an underwhelming South Carolina team in two weeks. And even if Florida drops its final two conference games, which is highly unlikely, it could still get in if some other SEC East teams lose. Florida hasn’t been to the conference championship since 2009. Pretty incredible that Jim McElwain is close to leading the Gators there in his first season as the head coach.
2. Jim McElwain making his name known: After the win over UGA, three Gators players were asked if they knew who Jim McElwain was before he was hired as Florida’s head coach. They each responded with, “No.” But I think it’s safe to say that McElwain is making his name known with the immediate success he has been able to have as Florida’s head coach. After posting an 11-13 record over the past two seasons, the Gators are 7-1 this season despite losing starting linebacker Alex Anzalone for most of the year with a shoulder injury and starting quarterback Will Grier to a year-long suspension. McElwain is a magician. He has found a way to squeeze every ounce of potential from this team so far. The guy has proven to be a great hire so far.
3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: Takeaways have been one of the biggest on-field reasons behind Florida’s turnaround. The Gators have an incredible plus-13 turnover margin this season. How does that compare to past years? Florida finished with a plus-six turnover margin last season and a minus-two turnover margin in 2013. All of those takeaways have taken the pressure off of the Gators’ inconsistent offense. But the offense has played a role in the impressive turnover margin, too. Florida has lost just six turnovers (3 interceptions, 3 fumbles) this season, which puts the Gators on pace to lose nine turnovers in the regular season. The Gators lost 24 turnovers in 2014 and 20 turnovers in 2013. Efficient play on offense and aggressive play on defense is Florida’s recipe to success.
4. Run game still alive: After a lot of the talk leading into Saturday’s game focused on Florida’s struggling run game, the Gators silenced the critics — for one week, at least. Florida accumulated a season-high 258 rushing yards against UGA. It came against a pretty good defense too, as the Bulldogs entered ranked 15th nationally in total defense. Florida averaged 5.4 yards per carry against UGA after averaging 2.9 yards per carry over the first five conference games. Kelvin Taylor was a stud Saturday, running for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Freshman Jordan Scarlett showed that he’s pretty good, too. The Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas product needed just nine carries to rack up 96 yards, with most of that coming on a 60-yard run. I still think freshmen Jordan Cronkrite and Scarlett should see more playing time to take some of the load off of Taylor.
5. Kicking issues: Florida’s kicking woes made an appearance again against UGA. Kicker Austin Hardin missed his only field goal attempt of the game, a 45-yarder in the first quarter. Hardin has now missed four consecutive field goals. The Gators have not made a field goal since Oct. 3 against Ole Miss. Well, can’t Florida turn to its backup? Sure, but the backup joined the team on Friday. His name is Neil MacInnes and he’s a dental student, who has not kicked a football in competition since making 48- and 43-yard field goals in a Hillsborough County all-star game at Raymond James Stadium in December 2011. The Gators’ kicking problems haven’t come back to haunt them yet, but they likely will come back to bite them at some point if they don’t get corrected.
“Nah. He’s just got to make them,” McElwain said when asked if Hardin was still bothered by his leg injury. “That’s what your job is.”