Tuesday, 5 a.m.
The first season is always tough. There are new faces and new opponents, new schemes and new surroundings.
The second season is a grind, too. Everyone wonders if you can repeat your success. Everyone wonders if the league can catch onto you.
Ah, but for Jim McElwain, Gator, it is the third year that will be worth the telling.
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McElwain certainly looked like a coach in charge of tomorrow Monday, leading his Gators past under-gunned Iowa, 30-3, in the Outback Bowl. The Outback Bowl? This was a backyard whipping. The Gators' defense toyed with the Hawkeyes. On a gorgeous, dry afternoon, they held quarterback C.J. Beathard to 55 yards passing, to seven of 23 completions. They intercepted two others, and they turned a dull little competitive game into a dull lopsided one. The Gators had seven tackles for losses.
But what about tomorrow?
Isn't that much of what bowl games are about?
Tomorrow, it turns out, is a chore and a half for McElwain. As always, he has to find a quarterback. Please. McElwain has had four in two seasons, with the Gators, and the last three have made the slinging steroid guy, Will Grier, look better. This year's quarterbacking between Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby had Gator fans looking longingly toward the freshman quarterbacks.
Last year, Florida had the 111th-best offense in America. This year, it fell to 116th.
So there is that.
Now, there is a mass exodus coming on the defensive side of the ball. For too many Gators, this was a farewell song.
Yeah, yeah. The Gators have talent returning. But new faces lead to new questions and new challenges. The next generation of Gators will have to prove itself.
“We've got a lot of really good recruits that are excited to be Gators, and that's a good thing,” said McElwain. “We've had a heck of a year. Two straight SEC East
championships, new facilities. I know this: We've got a lot of good young players that would have played a lot of football for us this year.
“This is still a heck of a building process. We're headed to building it, but we're building it right.”
McElwain has been an offensive coach in his career. You know it has to bother him to play field position and lean on his defense this way. But that's the best way for Florida to win, and so he does.
“One thing I will tell you,” McElwain said. “Going through this off-season, we'll become a lot more physical than we were this year. I'm looking forward to getting Swamp Life going.”
Oh, it was a nice way to go out for a change. Last year, the Gators lost to FSU, to Alabama in the SEC and in their bowl game. They faced the possibility of doing the same against Iowa. No one wants to go into the off-season on a losing streak. This time, it won't.
Question No. 1 about the months to come: Can a quarterback worthy of the school emerge?
Question No. 2 about the months to come: Can the defense flex its muscles yet again. The last two years, that's been the backbone of the Gator team.
“Great future,” said game MVP Chauncey Gardner. “We're not worried. We'll go out there and compete and get at in the off-season.”
In two years, it's possible to see McElwain as coaching with one hand behind his back. Yes, he can be conservative, but which of his four quarterbacks do you want throwing the ball in a 10-10 tie. None of them, really.
That's what makes the new few weeks vital for McElwain. He has to recruit more depth. He has to decide on a quarterback. He has to plug in new defenders for his old ones. And he has to chase yet another SEC East title.
After all, he works in Gainesville.
Nothing less will be allowed.