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Florida's success a product of Jim McElwain's relentless detail

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Is it possible we're underreacting to Florida? (1:24)

Adam Rittenberg, Brett McMurphy and Heather Dinich explain why Florida has a serious chance to come out on top of the SEC at the end of the season. (1:24)

JACKSONVILLE, Florida -- Halfway to his victory news conference in his first Florida-Georgia game, Jim McElwain abruptly stops and scolds the football spokesman in front of him who has accidentally run into a cameraman. His voice rises as he demands an apology by the spokesman, in what seems like a half-joking display. But it clearly carries some discomfort for the two men Florida's first-year head coach is addressing.

"How rude is that?" McElwain asks with a hint of a laugh.

Exchanges like that that have set the tone for McElwain's 2015 Florida football team. A bumbling group for the better part of the past five seasons has re-energized, thanks to a man who stresses core values before championships. The first-year Florida coach has the 11th-ranked Gators at 7-1, one win away from clinching the program's first SEC Eastern Division title since 2009, because this team is playing better and thinking better.

"Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am" are requirements in McElwain's building, just like other house rules that overemphasize small things in order to make the big things go. This was by no means an overnight transformation for a program on the brink less than a year ago. But an infectious mindset grew because of McElwain's commitment to daily improvement.

"We started holding each other accountable to things that we do instead of having the coaches hold us accountable," sophomore safety Nick Washington said.


Of the five players asked after Florida's 27-3 win against Georgia on Saturday, none had any clue who McElwain was before he met them last December. The former Colorado State head coach and Alabama offensive coordinator was a relative ghost in the minds of his future players.

Washington's only recollection of McElwain was a quick shot of him during one of Alabama's BCS national title game appearances. Offensive guard Trip Thurman knew he was from Montana, so he expected quirkiness. All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, running back Kelvin Taylor and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard didn't know what to think.

And the same could be said for most fans, too. Florida hired the Colorado State coach with plenty of bigger fish out there. It was a gutsy move for a program that desperately needed to win.

For the Gators to get to Saturday, they had to embrace McElwain's ideals. He didn't enter Florida's locker room with his chest poked out or his foot down on anyone. His message was simple: Be great. From Day 1, McElwain just wanted competitors -- guys who would focus on winning the moment, not winning everything.

It's a daily mental and physical competition for players who were either going to comply and work or watch someone else take their spot.

"As soon as you start looking down the road, that's when you run a stop sign and somebody blasts you," McElwain said. "You gotta stay focused on the detail of what we try to accomplish."

Athletic director Jeremy Foley felt a new vibe almost immediately with this team. There was more juice and energy in the weight room and out on the practice field. Play wasn't always great, but the attitudes improved and the fire brightened.

Getting to class, meetings and practice means you're there five or 10 minutes early, not just on time. Bullard said leadership flourished and spread from just a few players to "every position." Even before the wins came, players and staff members could feel more positive energy swirling. Guys were tired of losing.

"If you're not being successful in this business it's a grind," Foley said. "Mac came in and changed the vibe of the Gator Nation because of his confidence and because of his style."

Florida's play can sometimes be downright ugly, but there is fortitude in this team that is a fake LSU field goal away from being perfect this season. The Georgia game perfectly encompasses it. With the offense stalling, the special teams turned a muffed punt into a touchdown. Backup quarterback Treon Harris launched a prayer that slips past coverage and into the hands of Antonio Callaway for a 66-yard touchdown. Hargreaves intercepted a tipped pass to set up another score that somehow gave Florida a 20-point lead in the second quarter.

Weeks earlier there was the two-score, fourth-quarter comeback in the Swamp against Tennessee and then the 38-10 drubbing of a third-ranked Ole Miss team.

There isn't much of a personnel difference in this Florida team compared to the one that won seven games last season in the final year of Will Muschamp's painful 28-21, four-year tenure.

Attitude changes a lot.

"I don't expect to lose, and we should never come into an event thinking we are going to come in second," McElwain said. "The one thing you learn real quick in this business is that there are no participation ribbons."

In an already bizarre college football season, Florida is the poster child for the weird. But make no mistake about it, this team is damn tough. It has survived its starting quarterback getting suspended for the season, has a top-15 defense, is second nationally with a turnover margin of plus-13 and leads the SEC with 19 takeaways.

"It's a good vibe on this team," Hargreaves said. "We know we have more to accomplish, but it's awesome [to be in position to win the SEC East]."


McElwain almost refuses to talk about the SEC title game. His Gators are a Homecoming win against 3-5 Vanderbilt from solidifying a seat in Atlanta, but he's more focused on getting routes and protections right against the Commodores than the Georgia Dome.

"It's not about thinking about going to the championship," McElwain said. "It's about what we do right now to get better, because a championship will never come if we don't take care of the now. Our guys are getting that."

That's just how this crew operates. It combats its lack of flash with some luck, heart and determination that will continue to make this team a tough out.

"This is a good football team that we have, and our guys believe and they care," McElwain said. "They invest and they're doing it the right way. They're a lot of fun to be around."