NCF Nation: Jim McElwain

For all the solid work Jim McElwain and his coaches did down the critical 2015 recruiting stretch in the past month, those efforts should stand as a starting point for Florida's football program. That is by no means an end game or a standard for the Gators.

Not to sound like I'm getting ahead of myself too much, but Florida's 2016 recruiting class is critical to the success McElwain hopes to have during his tenure in Gainesville. The SEC is too good and the threat of sliding further and further in the SEC is nothing for the Gators to play around with. Just look at how long it's taken Tennessee to get back to relevancy, and that journey back toward the top still has a steep climb ahead for the Vols.

McElwain has yet to name a starting quarterback, let alone coach a single moment of practice, but in a fast-paced, cutthroat college football society, he and his coaches can't waste any time getting some sort of time with this 2016 class, which really could make or break McElwain's time at Florida. That might sound harsh or even like a bit of hyperbole, but look where Florida's program is now and look at the SEC around it. You can't afford to be a weak link in a conference as cannibalistic as the SEC.

The good news for McElwain is that he and his staff proved they have a clutch closing gene that helped transform a once hopeless 2015 Florida class into a top-20 group equipped with two five-stars and six ESPN 300 members. Another thing to consider is that recent new coaches in this league have had very good success with their second recruiting classes. From Urban Meyer to Butch Jones, a handful of first-year coaches in the SEC have cleaned up in recruiting with their second classes, and McElwain has to continue that trend.

What McElwain got in his first class with the Gators was a mixed bag -- some contents quality, some unknown. Landing immediate-impact five-star prospects Martez Ivey (offensive tackle) and CeCe Jefferson (defensive end) and playmaking hopefuls like running back Jordan Scarlett, wide receiver Antonio Callaway, and athletes D'Anfernee McGriff, Jordan Cronkrite and Chris Williamson gives the Gators a solid early foundation to work with, but it's no secret Florida needs more star power in its 2016 class.

McElwain desperately needed depth along the offensive line and signed five lineman, including two ESPN 300 recruits. That certainly helps with depth, but getting a little more quality there in 2016 will be essential. The same is absolutely true about the wide receiver spot, where Florida again needs legit playmakers, and quarterback, where questions abound this season.

Florida currently has just one 2016 commitment -- wide receiver Rick Wells -- but if recent history is any indication, McElwain and Co., who can sign a big class with such low scholarship numbers for this current team, could really make a statement with next year's class.

Not to immediately compare McElwain to Meyer and Nick Saban -- although Gators fans are hoping he reaches their level -- but those two went from having OK first classes at Florida and Alabama, respectively, to consensus top-five classes by major recruiting services (, and in Year 2. Florida ranked No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings in Meyer's second year (2006), while Alabama ranked third in Saban's second year (2008). Meyer went on to win two national titles at Florida, while Saban has won three at Alabama.

After bringing in a top-20 class during his first year at LSU in 2005, Les Miles landed a consensus top-eight class nationally in 2006 and won the national title in 2007. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik reeled in a top-25 class in 2009, then won a national title in his second year and brought home a top-five class in 2010.

Even coaches who haven't won titles have recently had second-year recruiting success in the SEC. Hugh Freeze began his time as Ole Miss' coach in 2012 with a class that barely registered on the recruiting radar and then signed arguably the school's best class ever in 2013 with headliners like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil.

Butch Jones signed a top-30 class in 2013 and now has back-to-back No. 5 classes in ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings. Of course, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has signed back-to-back top-10 classes in his two years at Auburn, but he's just bragging at this point.

McElwain has a long way to go as a coach and a recruiter at Florida, and he hasn't even seen his team run actual plays on a field yet. But having a strong second year of recruiting is essential to righting Florida's ship. Heck, even his predecessor, Will Muschamp, signed the No. 4 class nationally in his second year, so there's a formula for recruiting success McElwain can follow. And with the way the SEC is moving, McElwain can't afford to get behind and must emulate those before him.
Give Jim McElwain this: He appears to have the closing gene.

After a late start and a major game of catch-up for Florida's brand new staff, McElwain & Co. were able to finish stronger than most expected in this staff's first recruiting season in Gainesville. A week ago, the Gators weren't even a blip on the SEC recruiting radar. Light years away from even top-40 class, the general consensus was that McElwain's first class with the orange and blue was going to be a dud -- maybe the worst in school history.

The firing of Will Muschamp coupled with the simple fact that McElwain wasn't the big-name coach that would electrify recruits appeared to be weighing on Florida's 2015 recruiting class, which was in the single digits at the end of January.

[+] EnlargeMartez Ivey
ESPNNo. 1 offensive tackle Martez Ivey is the jewel of Florida's recruiting class.
Then, the final recruiting push happened, and the Gators roared to a solid finish by bringing in seven four- or- five-star prospects in the last week, including five-star gems Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. (Jefferson committed Wednesday but Florida has still has not received his letter of intent. According to Jefferson’s father, Leo Jefferson, Jefferson is still thinking about his decision.) Not counting Jefferson, four of those six eventual signees were ESPN 300 members, giving the Gators five for their 2015 class. Nineteen of Florida's 20 signees came from the states of Florida and Georgia.

It wasn't the elite class that a school like Florida expects, but after mired in a recruiting funk and even with the prospect of not signing Jefferson, it's hard to argue that McElwain delivered one of the best closing acts of the 2015 recruiting season.

"For our first signing class, first and foremost, the momentum that we've gained has been fantastic," McElwain said. "The doors that we've opened in this short period of time back in the places that we need to be successful at when we go out and recruit, go out and recruit, and obviously that's in the state of Florida first, and bumping into that five-hour radius part as we go up into Georgia is something that we need to make sure that we work on and keep getting better at.

"We knew it was going to be late because we were getting in late on a lot of guys. We had to go back and re-evaluate a lot of players to fit the criteria that we felt were going to be successful Gators and I feel really good about those guys that ended up coming."

Disaster seemed to be the theme of this class until the Gators got Ivey's much-needed commitment. The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle temporarily washed away the pain of losing out on RecruitingNation's No. 1 overall recruit, defensive end Byron Cowart, who picked Auburn over the Gators. You know, the school where Muschamp is now the defensive coordinator. A string of prospects then began picking Auburn over Florida, including ESPN 300 members Jeffery Holland (linebacker) and Ryan Davis (athlete). Not to mention the fact that ESPN 300 offensive lineman Mike Horton flipped to the Tigers early on signing day.

But Ivey was the prized possession of the class -- he always was. With the pitiful offensive line numbers the Gators currently have on campus, landing Ivey, who could start immediately at one of the tackle spots, was critical.

As the day went on, Florida addressed its needs at offensive line (signing five linemen), got a playmaker at receiver in ESPN 300 member Antonio Callaway and snatched up four-star athletes Jordan Cronkrite and D'Anfernee McGriff (an Auburn flip), who could both play running back.

On Monday, the first real momentum-building domino fell when the Gators grabbed former Miami running back commit Jordan Scarlett, also an ESPN 300 member. So while this wasn't exactly a who's who of a recruiting class, Florida's late surge shows recruiting promise for the future.

And that's now where the focus lies.

McElwain and his staff have to get more elite players on campus. Florida didn't sign a quarterback in this class, which means that McElwain now has a full year to find one. Only two receivers signed, and everyone knows the need for playmaking receivers is crucial to turning Florida's offense around. And of course, Florida will need to continue to build on that offensive line.

McElwain's finish to the 2015 class was very impressive, and it just makes you wonder what he and his staff can do with a head start of a full year.
National signing day, and the build up to it, is as close as Texas and Texas A&M get to actual football competition these days, to see who will in fact “run this state.”

Well, right now it’s neither school. The Lone Star State is run by Baylor and TCU, the Big 12 co-champs that narrowly missed the initial College Football Playoff field.

That’s why the 2015 recruiting class and the season are so vital to both the Longhorns and Aggies, with each power striving to re-establish itself -- not just regionally, but nationally.

Texas and Texas A&M lead off our look at programs and coaches that need the 2015 class to pay off, and the sooner the better.

(Note: The RecruitingNation ranking and number of commitments are updated as of Sunday evening.)

1. Texas
Ranking: 9
Commitments: 26

The Longhorns have secured a number of solid, team-building pieces in this class, and a few high-end targets -- DT Daylon Mack and RB Soso Jamabo, among them -- remain distinct possibilities to sign with Texas this week.

Still, Wednesday
Unfortunately for Florida, the biggest issues on this team revolve around quarterback and wide receiver. That isn't exactly the best bad combination to have, especially with a new coach taking over.

But for our purposes, we have to nail it down to one position. And while both of those areas have been concerns for the better part of the last five years in Gainesville, if Florida can't get its quarterback situation on solid ground, new coach Jim McElwain is going to have an even steeper uphill climb in front of him in 2015. And trying to get it done with multiple people probably isn't going to work out.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: Where to start? Not since Tim Tebow in 2009 have the Gators had a quarterback throw for at least 2,500 yards or 15 touchdowns. Since that time, Florida’s quarterback carousel -- which has featured eight different participants -- has managed to average only 173.4 yards per game, with 67 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. Also in that span, Florida cracked the 10-win mark just once, never won the SEC East and failed to make a bowl game in 2013. Even with top high school prospects John Brantley, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett on the roster, Florida’s passing game has been mediocre, and Driskel is now finishing his career at Louisiana Tech. Last season, freshman Treon Harris replaced Driskel during the last month of the season but was incredibly inconsistent, averaging just 126 yards in six starts, with six passing touchdowns and three interceptions. Florida has had plenty of offensive issues over the years, but it all goes back to the quarterback position.

How it can be fixed: For as bad as the actual on-field play has been by the band of quarterbacks who have suited up for the Gators over the last few years, you have to open things up at times and let these guys play. Former head coach Will Muschamp just couldn’t get past his own stern ideals of what he wanted -- and needed -- his offense to look like. Consequentially, the passing game was mostly limited and the offense was incredibly stagnant more often than not. So McElwain and his offensive coaches will need to open things up and give their next quarterback -- or quarterbacks -- some freedom. But development is also important here. That starts this spring, and Harris, along with redshirt freshman Will Grier, have a long way to go. Also, it would probably help if the Gators could stitch together a solid pass-protecting offensive line this fall and find some playmakers at receiver not named Demarcus Robinson.

Early 2015 outlook: With Driskel departing, the Gators will have quite the quarterback battle on their hands (again) between Harris and Grier. Harris’ passing ability didn’t exactly develop as 2014 went on, and Grier watched from the sidelines. We don’t know what to expect from Grier, who had an impressive high school career in North Carolina, but some feel he might be better suited for McElwain’s more pro-friendly offense. Harris, more of a dual-threat QB, must improve his accuracy, and McElwain, considered a quarterback guru, will be very hands on with both players’ development. As for recruiting, the Gators got an official visit from four-star Florida State commit Deondre Francois over the weekend and are in hot pursuit of three-star Louisville commit Lamar Jackson, who might officially visit Gainesville this weekend. Francois hasn’t exactly budged on his FSU commitment, so as of now, Florida’s only hope at landing a quarterback in the 2015 class might rest in Jackson.
Unfortunately, the time has come to say goodbye to the 2014 season. All that excitement generated from the first College Football Playoff is slowly evaporating around the country.

It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.

Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?

The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.

Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:


Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.

Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.

Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.

Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.


Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.

Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

Bowl games are a tricky barometer in college football.

People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.

Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?

This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.

Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?

Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.

Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.

Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.

With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.

Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).

Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.

Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.

After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.

I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.

Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.

But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.

Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.

The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.

Now that Randy Shannon has been officially announced as a part of the Florida coaching staff, the expectations for success in South Florida are high for the Gators.

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Ducks, Buckeyes hammer perceptions

January, 2, 2015
Jan 2
LOS ANGELES — Perception, that truth-y thing that often stands in for reality, was front and center during the buildup to the College Football Playoff semifinal matchups on Thursday.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston talked about how “perception is reality” for him and how he can’t change the minds of haters. Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost noted that coach Mark Helfrich had “an uphill battle in terms of perception” having to following Chip Kelly at the Ducks' helm. Helfrich’s squad endured another round of questions about being perceived as a finesse team that wilts against programs perceived as more physical.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Brynn AndersonOhio State ran away from Alabama to cap a miserable bowl season for the SEC West, and there was nothing fluky about it.
Down in New Orleans, the perception was that top-seeded Alabama was too big and too bad and was going to leave a footprint on the collective foreheads of Ohio State, because that’s what SEC teams do to Big Ten teams, particularly when that SEC team is Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.

It’s then fair to say that perception suffered as bad a bowl season as the SEC West, which was unmasked as college football’s tough guys when Saban’s Crimson Tide capped a shocking 2-5 divisional face-plant by being bullied by the Buckeyes.

That, of course, happened just after Helfrich took a decisive step out of Kelly’s shadow by leading his Ducks to a 59-20 brutalizing of a Seminoles team that hadn’t lost in 29 consecutive games, a team that impressively passed the sight test but nonetheless was frantically tapping out to the Ducks' jujitsu on both sides of the ball before we were more than a few minutes into the fourth quarter.

And so the dominant college football paradigm was sledgehammered in the first go-round of our new system by a matchup that resembles a traditional Rose Bowl. For the first time since 2005, no SEC team will play for the national title, and the SEC will not win a national title for a second consecutive year after winning the previous seven.

Friday was an odd day if you’ve been around the sport for a while, not only because postgame celebrations at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl were muted by the fact that the victories were secondary accomplishments that didn’t conclude the season. The much-maligned Big Ten took down the state of Alabama -- Auburn lost to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl -- which had won four of the previous five national titles, and Michigan State hushed Baylor, a team that still doesn’t understand that its cowardly scheduling is the problem, not the media or CFP selection committee.

Those marquee Big Ten victories came after Michigan made a thundering statement by acquiring Jim Harbaugh, a hiring that stands in contrast to SEC power Florida looking to Colorado State for its next coach. No offense to the capable Jim McElwain, but his pleated khakis aren’t nearly as inspiring or fascinating as Harbaugh’s.

Oregon and Ohio State arrive as our finalists after seasons laden with adversity. Both have been wracked by injuries, the Buckeyes at quarterback, the Ducks everywhere else. Both suffered early-season defeats that had many dismissing them from the national picture. They also both feature creative, up-tempo offenses that stand in contrast to the two-back, pro-style sets that many traditionalists still write sonnets about. So there are some notable similarities.

There also are differences, of course. Ohio State has won seven national titles, the Ducks zero. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer is probably a win away from having his face carved into the Mount Rushmore of coaches. Winning a third national title after capturing two at Florida and previously winning big at Bowling Green and Utah would insert him into the "best ever" discussion.

Of course, Phil Knight might build a golden statue of Helfrich outside Autzen Stadium if the Ducks win the first CFP, grabbing the only prize that has eluded the program during its steady rise as a national power since the 1980s.

Oregon will beat Ohio State if it sticks to the simple plan it used against the Seminoles. Before the Ducks squared off against FSU, another college football blue blood, Frost spoke of the necessity of "dictating" instead of reacting to what the Seminoles were doing.

"If we are reacting to what they are doing, we aren't at our best," he said.

[+] EnlargeJan 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks running back
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State couldn't stand up to Oregon's physicality, another way the College Football Playoff semifinals contradicted conventional wisdom and stereotypes.
Did a team ever dictate a big game more than the Ducks did to the Seminoles, particularly in the second half, when FSU was supposed to take control? While Winston pulled out the "we beat ourselves" line afterward, he apparently failed to pay enough attention to Ducks' game film. Rendering teams into bloody hamburger during a sudden transformative frenzy is what Oregon does. The Ducks were not gifted those five turnovers from the Seminoles. They took them. The Ducks forced 30 turnovers this season and ranked second in the nation in turnover margin. They ranked first in turnover margin in 2012 and have been in the top 25 every year since 2010.

“All they did tonight was go out and act like themselves,” said Frost.

Yet there was a little bit more to the Ducks' effort, and perhaps this can be attributed to Helfrich. There is no question that Oregon players and coaches were annoyed by the pregame talk about "finesse." Receiver Byron Marshall, who was pretty snappy about the topic before the game, said afterward that certain dismissive comments that were attributed to Florida State players were posted in the locker room, which further motivated the team. Kelly would have outright rejected such an approach as an outside distraction that had nothing to do with the quality of execution. Helfrich seemed to let his players marinate just a bit in the perceived -- that word! -- tweaks.

When asked about what Winston could have meant when he said "this game could have gone either way," about a 39-point defeat, Oregon center Hroniss Grasu was at a loss.

“I don’t know what he was thinking," he said. "We beat them physically, we beat them mentally, our coaches outcoached them."

He then added: “They are a great team. We are just a better team."

Here's a guess that many of the Buckeyes could identify with those pregame sentiments and postgame conclusions.

Both these teams want a national title above all else. Winning is always the ultimate reward. But you can also bet both will sustain an internal perception that they still have to prove their doubters wrong, that they must still play with a chip on their shoulders.

And no matter what, when the smoke clears on Jan. 12, one more set of perceptions will be sledgehammered.
Florida is back in a bowl game, but a matchup against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN) is not the game Gators fans were hoping for at the beginning of the season. No offense to the Pirates and the city of Birmingham, but Florida had higher aspirations for 2014. It’s why head coach Will Muschamp was let go at the end of the regular season.

But now it’s 2015, a year of hope for the Gators. A win over East Carolina could be just the momentum boost this team needs as it begins a new regime. Here are five things to watch heading into Saturday’s game:

New coach on hand: Florida has already tabbed Jim McElwain as Muschamp’s successor, but the former Colorado State head coach won’t be able to coach during the bowl game. Instead, he’ll be relegated to a box in the stadium where he’ll watch and evaluate his new roster, making it an audition of sorts for the returning players. They will be looking to make a good first impression on their new coach and get a leg up heading into spring practice. McElwain has interfered very little with interim coach D.J. Durkin during the bowl preparation, but he’ll be paying close attention during Saturday’s game.

Swan song: Let’s not forget that East Carolina is playing in this game, too, and the Pirates have Shane Carden, one of the best quarterbacks in college football. It will be Carden's final game with the Pirates, and he’ll be looking to finish his career on a high note. The senior is No. 2 nationally with 4,309 passing yards this season. He’s averaging 359 yards per game and has thrown 28 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. He also has a chance to climb up the all-time ranks. If he can go over 300 yards Saturday, he’ll finish among the top 30 in career passing yards, passing the likes of Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.

Hargreaves vs. Hardy: Remember all the hype when Vernon Hargreaves III went up against Amari Cooper, the eventual Biletnikoff Award winner? Well, the Florida sophomore will have his hands full again in the bowl game with Justin Hardy. The East Carolina wide receiver is second to Cooper with 110 receptions on the season, and he played in two fewer games. Hardy leads the nation in first-down receptions and receptions in the red zone. With that said, he hasn’t faced a cornerback quite like Hargreaves, who led the SEC in passes broken up. Both players will be playing on Sundays before they’re done.

Wet conditions: If Florida’s defense can’t stop Carden and the Pirates’ prolific passing attack, the weather might. It’s expected to rain nearly two inches in Birmingham this weekend, and there’s a chance for thunderstorms in the area on Saturday. That’s nothing new for the Gators, who had their season opener canceled due to weather. But how will East Carolina respond? If it does get wet and sloppy, protecting the football will be at a premium.

Special teams disparity: The rain also might have an effect on special teams, which already is an area of concern for East Carolina. The Pirates rank 119th nationally in special teams efficiency, worst among all bowl teams. Florida comes in at No. 21 but will be without its top return man, Andre Debose, who opted to stay home rather than make the trip with his teammates. The sixth-year senior returned four kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns during his Florida career.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In his introductory news conference, new Florida coach Jim McElwain said he talked to the team about going and winning a bowl game.

"That’s what it’s all about right now," he said.

The only problem is that McElwain won’t be the one on the sideline leading the Gators when they take on East Carolina in Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl (Noon ET on ESPN). He will be in the stadium, likely in a box evaluating his new roster, but he won’t be coaching the team.

That job belongs to former defensive coordinator and current interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who took over the role when Will Muschamp was let go at the end of the regular season.

"Obviously when you go through it, it forces you to think of things differently as a head coach that you haven’t had to do before," said Durkin, one of two holdovers from Urban Meyer’s regime at Florida. "Just some of the day-to-day decisions you never really thought of before, but now you have to."

Florida isn’t the only school to be in this unique position during the bowl season. McElwain’s former team, Colorado State, went into its bowl game with an interim coach, and the results weren’t pretty. The Rams were trounced, 45-10, by Utah. Nebraska, which fired Bo Pelini after the season, fared a little better, but still lost, 45-42, to USC.

And then there is Wisconsin, which bucked the trend by beating Auburn in overtime Thursday. But the Badgers had coaching legend Barry Alvarez serve as the interim coach.

Durkin is not Alvarez. He’s never even been a head coach before, let alone a coach who now has 119 wins. But that hasn’t stopped Durkin from "coaching his tail off" this past month, and his players have responded.

"He’s handled it really well," Florida wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. "He’s handled it like a professional. He’s doing what he has to do to get us prepared, to get us to play ECU and get a win for us."

"This is a great time for Durkin to work on his head coaching skills, because he’s a great coach and I’m pretty sure he’s going to have an opportunity to be a school’s head coach really soon," added Gators’ defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

After hearing that remark, Durkin quipped that he hoped Fowler, who is leaving school early for the NFL, will one day be an athletic director somewhere.

This game isn’t about Durkin, though. This game is about the players. It’s about a group of guys that have stayed together despite all the outside distractions and now have an opportunity to finish their season with a win. They want to send the seniors out the right way, but also build momentum for 2015.

"That is what’s most important right now," Fulwood said. "Not to take a step back, but keep moving forward."

Durkin says this team has done a phenomenal job of staying focused and staying on task during the bowl preparation. And not just the underclassmen, but the seniors, too. They have all responded and practiced and played and done everything the coaches have asked, just like they’re going to "play for a championship."

"It’s easy," Durkin said. "You’re teammates. That’s what matters. The guys you play with, that you go to battle with -- that’s why you play this game, why you do what you do. Those guys feel that accountability towards their teammates, and they’re not going to let outside circumstances change that feeling."

So with their interim coach on the way out and their new coach watching from a distance on Saturday, the Gators will look to get a win.

That’s what it’s all about.

"It’s a bowl game," Fulwood said. "Go out and have fun. But obviously, everybody wants a 'W' for the whole program, and it would mean a lot to all of us."

Grading each of the head-coaching hires 

December, 30, 2014
With Jim Harbaugh’s entertaining introduction at Michigan on Tuesday, this latest turn of the coaching carousel seems to be winding down. The results: Seven Power 5 programs have new head coaches, and four Group of 5 schools hired coordinators from flourishing Power 5 offenses. Beginning with Michigan’s big splash -- one that is dominating the news cycle, even though we’re fewer than 48 hours from the first College Football Playoff semifinal -- here are grades for those 11 hires:

Michigan Wolverines
New coach: Jim Harbaugh (former San Francisco 49ers head coach)
Grade: A+
Harbaugh said Tuesday he isn’t comfortable with the idea of being Michigan’s savior, but he’d better get used to it because that’s the expectation. He didn’t face that sort of pressure when he resurrected Stanford, but he certainly did each year in the NFL, where he averaged 12 wins a season and took his team to a Super Bowl. Harbaugh is an A-plus hire because he’s equipped for the challenge, and as an alum, he’s emotionally invested in the product. As college coaches told me this week, Michigan could not have done any better. It sought Harbaugh from the start of the process, and it got him.

The question

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SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.

Early Offer: Hokies score super sleeper 

December, 16, 2014
Once again, Frank Beamer has landed an under-recruited prospect with “unlimited potential.” Plus, how much progress has been made by the committee looking into whether or not there should be an early-signing period?

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Early Offer: Isaac Nauta keeps FSU rolling 

December, 15, 2014
The addition of No. 1 2016 TE Isaac Nauta shows that the Florida State recruiting machine shows no signs of slowing down. Plus, Tennessee continues to impress with its 2015 defensive class.

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