Jim McElwain sounds like a coach who’s just happy to be here. The Florida coach is gracious in his praise for Nick Saban, thankful for his old boss giving him the call-up to the big time at Alabama in 2008.
Seven years later, McElwain is the coach at Florida, taking the Gators to the SEC Championship Game in only his first season.
To hear McElwain tell it, Saban plucked “some guy from Montana” and installed him as offensive coordinator just as the Crimson Tide’s dynasty was getting started. Never mind that McElwain had already been an assistant at Louisville and Michigan State, a quarterbacks coach in the NFL for a year and an offensive coordinator for Saban’s old friend Pat Hill at Fresno State.
No doubt, McElwain has some Lou Holtz to his press conference game — deferring to his opponent and downplaying his own team to almost an absurd level. This is the same coach who two weeks ago compared his team’s energy level to that of dead fish on ice in the meat department of the grocery store.
Nevertheless, McElwain is leaning into this “aw shucks” routine hard as Florida and Alabama prepare for the SEC title game in Atlanta, a game that will send the Tide to the College Football Playoff or result in the biggest upset in the history of the SEC Championship Game. And McElwain is playing right into it.
To him, Alabama’s front seven is so overwhelming, it might as well be a “front 30.”
“I just hope our offensive line, their knees don’t crack together from shaking as they got to play against those guys,” McElwain said.
If the SEC title game is going to be a coronation of Alabama in the SEC, McElwain doesn’t seem to be sweating that perception.
Maybe this is all an act with McElwain trying to goad Alabama into skipping over Florida and start planning for a potential trip to the College Football Playoff. Maybe mind games are all Florida has.
A trip to the College Football Playoff is on the table for only one of the participants in Atlanta, a change of pace from recent SEC title games.
Florida’s last two trips to the SEC Championship Game, both against Alabama, were de facto play-in games for the BCS title. The Gators won in 2008. The Tide won in 2009. Both followed with BCS championships. Matchups between Alabama and Georgia in 2012 and Auburn and Missouri in 2013 also sent their winners to the title game.
Long before the Crimson Tide were installed as a 17.5-point favorite in Atlanta, the prospect of an Alabama SEC title and place in the College Football Playoff had seemed inevitable.
Florida sealed its spot in the SEC title game early, defeating Georgia 27–3 on Oct. 31 for a key head-to-head win in the division race and then clinching a week later against Vanderbilt. The Gators’ offense, though, hasn’t been the same since the Cocktail Party.
Florida averaged 13.8 points per game and 4.3 yards per play in the in the month of November. This stretch included games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FAU and a performance against Florida State in which a safety kept the Gators from enduring their first shutout since 1988.
While Florida is limping into the SEC title game, Alabama is rounding into national championship form.
The Crimson Tide have their best defense since at least 2012. Only two opponents — Georgia with a healthy Nick Chubb and Tennessee — have topped 100 rushing yards or 3.0 yards per carry against Alabama this season.
This also has been the best pass rush Alabama has had under Saban, statistically speaking. The Tide’s 41 sacks (and 3.4 per game) are more than any other team under Saban. In other words, this could be a nightmare matchup for a Florida offense that struggled to move the ball against a Conference USA team that finished 3–9.
As much as Alabama is on a march to the College Football Playoff, running back Derrick Henry may be on a march to the Heisman Trophy.
He’s already broken Alabama’s single-season rushing record and is within striking distance of Herschel Walker’s SEC rushing record. Another standout performance by Henry — this time against the nation’s No. 7 rush defense — may all but clinch the award for another Alabama running back.
If it sounds like McElwain is playing with house money, there’s good reason. With a Heisman and College Football Playoff bids on the line, Alabama has the most to lose in Atlanta.
Saban doesn’t have the luxury of simply being happy to be the West representative in Atlanta. Though Saban will urge his team to live in the moment, the expectation is that Alabama will have two more games after Saturday.
“It still means a lot to us to be in the SEC Championship Game, and it certainly means a lot if you can accomplish winning the SEC,” Saban said. “Regardless of what anybody might say, there’s a lot of good teams, a lot of good coaches, a lot of good programs. It’s something special to me to be able to play in the game and have an opportunity to maybe win a championship.”