GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida coach Jim McElwain took over the Gators last year, a downtrodden fan base would have been happy with just a few passing touchdowns.
Ten wins, an SEC East championship and a raise to $4.25 million later ...
"Other coaches have told me I really screwed up because now the fan base expects 11, 12, 13 ... 20 wins when we go to the playoffs," McElwain said with a laugh in a recent interview.
Oh, and by the way, Urban Meyer won a national championship in Year 2 at Florida.
Who are we kidding? No matter the expectation level, the pressure always is on at Florida, where it is unacceptable to be out of championship contention for long. Just ask Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. But now that McElwain has experienced unexpected success immediately, there cannot be any turning back.
But how well-positioned is Florida to build on 2015?
Florida has another slew of questions to answer before the Gators will be counted on as a perennial favorite the way they were under Steve Spurrier and Meyer.
McElwain recognizes all of this, saying, "I'd rather have high expectations than none at all. But you've also got to be a realist. We've got a ways to go with the whole program. We're getting there, and that's a good thing."
Once again, there are no clear answers at quarterback -- where the competition has been completely reset this spring with transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby, and true freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.
McElwain has not given many hints about who will start, though the expectation is that Del Rio will get the nod despite having no game experience. But there are questions beyond quarterback.
The team's best returning offensive player, receiver Antonio Callaway, remains suspended indefinitely for violating the school's code of conduct policy. So is Treon Harris, who has been ineffective as a quarterback the past two seasons. McElwain has not shed much light into their situations, other than saying they have not been with the team since January.
The situation provides an interesting contrast to last season, when many expected the Gators' defense to carry the team because of questions at every offensive position. Now, Florida has nearly as many questions on defense as it does on offense, and that leads to much more mystery about what to expect in 2016.
Indeed, media pundits have not fully bought into what McElwain has done just yet. Though it is early, Tennessee has gotten more pub as the preseason favorite in the SEC East. McElwain agrees, saying, "They should be tabbed. The way they finished and the way we finished, I'd think somebody will pick us to win another four games like they did last year. Because let's face it, the Gators didn't finish. I wouldn't pick us."
Perhaps that is just a reverse motivational tactic. But McElwain realizes just because he had 10 wins in his first year does not mean he has an automatic ticket to the SEC championship game every year. He learned as an assistant at Alabama "that can't be your primary focus because if it is, you're not getting better every day. There's so much that goes into it that it goes back to every day you're either getting better or getting worse."
Especially given the way Florida played after it clinched the division. The Gators beat Vanderbilt in an ugly 9-7 game to seal their ticket to Atlanta, then struggled to beat South Carolina, needed overtime to beat FAU and lost their final three -- failing to score 10 points in two of those losses.
"I thought there was almost a sense of relief from a group of guys that hadn't been to Atlanta," McElwain said. "There may be one class ever in Florida history that didn't at least go participate in that game. We got a little worn down. That's all part of the learning curve I think."
Worn down cannot explain a dismal 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Orlando, Florida. McElwain says he can pinpoint why the Gators played so poorly but did not want to elaborate on the reasons. Several players have said they are using that game as motivation this offseason.
"I would hope so," McElwain said. "Any time you go out and get embarrassed you shouldn't be happy about it. If you are, go do something else with your life. As a competitor, that should hurt. Sometimes you lose, but you lose with maybe dignity knowing that you at least put forth a winning effort. I was very disappointed."
Disappointment has turned into renewed energy this spring. McElwain says his team understands the day-to-day expectations now that they have been around him and the staff for a year. Despite losing key players, Florida hopes to have a stable of young running backs and receivers to help the starting quarterback out. The defense still has standouts in Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Jalen Tabor, CeCe Jefferson and Bryan Cox.
And now they know what it takes to win. Whether they make it back to Atlanta, the expectation is to make it back. From here on out.