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Win or lose the SEC, count this a good year for Gators

Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby (12) and  offensive lineman Martez Ivey (73) pose for pictures with fans after the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday November 12, 2016 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. The Gators defeated the Gamecocks, 20-7. (Monica Herndon, Times)
Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby (12) and offensive lineman Martez Ivey (73) pose for pictures with fans after the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday November 12, 2016 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. The Gators defeated the Gamecocks, 20-7. (Monica Herndon, Times)
Published Dec. 2, 2016

GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Jim McElwain has a reminder for frustrated fans.

"I believe we're in the SEC championship (game) again for the second straight year," he said. "Maybe not the way people want it, but ultimately the idea is to figure out how to win a ball game and how to win the East (Division). Now the next step is how to win the whole SEC."

The vocal fans hoping McElwain jets to Oregon want to skip straight to that last part, where orange and blue confetti rains in the Georgia Dome again.

Before that can happen, UF has to build a program that regularly gets to that title game. McElwain is 2-for-2. That makes 2016 a success, no matter how ugly the No. 15 Gators might look Saturday against No. 1 Alabama.

A UF team pegged to win eight or nine games is 8-3 and would have another victory if Hurricane Matthew hadn't eliminated the Presbyterian gimme.

The Gators lost the games they were expected to lose (Tennessee, Florida State). They dropped one they shouldn't have (Arkansas) but snagged one they weren't supposed to (LSU). That Tigers victory — a home game played on the road with the biggest goal-line stand in school history — saved the season and might lead to a Sugar Bowl berth.

No, the Gators are not great. The offense is averaging fewer points (24) than it did in the season that got Will Muschamp fired (30).

But remember what Muschamp left. In his first spring practice, McElwain had only seven offensive linemen on scholarship. That problem takes years to fix. All Muschamp's quarterbacks were gone by August. That position takes time to develop.

Of UF's 27 offensive or special-teams touchdowns, 78 percent have been scored by McElwain recruits. Compare that to rival FSU, where freshmen and sophomores have accounted for only one-third of its scores.

Only three Muschamp holdovers will start on offense Saturday, and only one on the line. UF had the third-fewest seniors in the country, and that was before injuries to defensive stars Marcus Maye and Jarrad Davis.

Yet somehow this team still ended up in Atlanta. Granted, its division was historically bad, but there won't be an asterisk when 2016 gets added to the list of SEC East titles at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida rebounded from the collapse at Tennessee and weathered injuries the way the Volunteers could not. McElwain doesn't have to dub his players champions of life, like Tennessee's Butch Jones did for his. Instead, McElwain can call himself the first coach to make it to the conference title game in his first two seasons in the SEC.

Only four other active coaches have led multiple trips to Atlanta. Two (Nick Saban and Urban Meyer) are titans. The other two were toppled. Auburn pushed out Tommy Tuberville when the Tigers slipped, and Georgia fired Mark Richt because his six East titles and two SEC championships weren't enough.

There is no middle ground, and there won't be for McElwain, either. These are the expectations at a program with three crystal balls in its trophy case.

Soon, McElwain will have to compete against FSU and Alabama, on the field and on the recruiting trail. Losing to the Seminoles by 18 last week instead of 25, like it did last year, doesn't signify progress.

Soon, McElwain will have to groom a quarterback, either one already on his roster (true freshmen Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask) or a transfer (such as Notre Dame's Malik Zaire or Baylor's Jarrett Stidham).

And soon, McElwain will have to appease the fans and revive the offense, as UF brought him in to do.

"I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta," McElwain said.

He's 2-for-2. That qualifies as a success. For now.

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