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SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: FLORIDA VS ALABAMA

November 27, 2016

Jim McElwain

Atlanta, Georgia

THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Happy Thanksgiving and welcome to SEC Championship Game Week.

We begin today with the Eastern Division champion, Florida Gators, and Coach McElwain.

Coach, how are you?

COACH McELWAIN: Great, thanks. I'm not sure I've got 30 minutes of knowledge to give you guys. Holy mackerel.

THE MODERATOR: We appreciate you being with us this afternoon, especially on a Sunday.

Congratulations for making the game, the second year in a row. You are the first coach in SEC Championship game history to take the team to Atlanta the first two years at the school.

If you wouldn't mind, give us some opening comments on facing Alabama in the championship game this year, then we'll take some questions.

COACH McELWAIN: Sure.

Well, I think first and foremost, I can't tell you how proud I am of our football team, our coaches, our organization. To get to our first goal, which is to get to Atlanta as SEC East champions, it's not easy. It's hard to do that. To be there back-to-back years is something that I am just very proud of everybody involved with the Florida Gators.

This is another great opportunity. Not often in life do you get those opportunities, as a competitor, you get the opportunity to go challenge yourself against the best, a team that is unbelievable.

They are clicking on all cylinders, got great players, obviously the best coach in college football, and a staff that works the way they do. It's an honor to be able to go play them again.

The big thing is, you know, it's a chance to go compete on a big stage and see what you're made of. We're excited to be there.

THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Coach McElwain.

Q. Jim, this is the 25th SEC Championship game. It's the ninth meeting between Alabama and Florida. By far the most common meeting. What about these two programs through the years, why has it lended itself to so many Alabama-Florida matchups, do you think?
COACH McELWAIN: That's hard to explain. Yet I know, having been a part of them now in recent history a little bit, it's two storied programs, two programs that year in and year out expect to be in Atlanta.

Part of that is a mindset and an understanding. The players that come to that school, those are expectations they have, to play that extra game in December. This year's no different.

Q. Obviously when you coached on the Alabama side, we see now what a college football four-team playoff looks like, how much did those '08, '09 games feel like national semifinals when you were a part of those?
COACH McELWAIN: I think ultimately it was the national semifinal.

I'd say this: I think the thing that makes this game so unique is the stadium. It's not corporate tickets, it's two fan bases that split the stadium in half. For both of us it's easy travel to get there.

The excitement and the juice, what's in that stadium, it's hard to explain, in some ways even more so than a national title game because of the fans that are able to get there. It just means a lot.

Q. Jim, the last two games you only scored one offensive touchdown against two pretty good defenses. How do you get your offense to have some confidence going up against a defense that's probably the best in the country?
COACH McELWAIN: I think first thing you do is don't show them the film. Those guys are pretty good (laughter).

But no, I think the thing you point out is really how close you are from a consistency standpoint. We had our opportunities last couple games, yet the mindset of finishing is something we have to do.

Obviously with these guys that we're playing, I think the thing that really stands out is how short the explosive play reel is when you look at it. They don't give a lot of big plays up. You got to go earn it. You know what, that's what we're going to set out and do.

Q. You guys have struggled with that. I think you're 118th in explosive plays in the country. Is there one thing you could point to on that? Is it lack of guys getting open, lack of speed, not protecting the quarterback long enough?
COACH McELWAIN: I think there can be a lot of factors there. I feel sorry for those couple teams that are behind us. Only imagine how they feel.

Obviously it's not something we're proud of. It's something we have to be able to do to get the ball in those guys' hands and let them make some plays in space. That's what we've got to focus on doing.

Q. Coach, how is Jordan Sherit?
COACH McELWAIN: He'll be out. It's funny actually you ask that. I'm actually doing this telephone call in the training room. Imagine that. Yeah, he'll be out. I'll get the list obviously tomorrow.

But we took some significant hits again. Yet I know everybody will try to do everything they can to play in this game, it means so much. We're not going to obviously put anybody out there that can't go. But Sherit will be definitely out.

Q. The mood on the bus I'm sure was pretty disheartened. How do you think the team responded? Do you feel like the team has the right mindset to bounce back?
COACH McELWAIN: Yeah, it was something we actually talked about. I gave them till 3:45 in the morning, which is when we unloaded the bus, to think about it, then erase it, learn from it, come back realizing that there's a whole bunch of people that wish they were playing on this championship weekend. The Gators are one of the few that are. Let's go take advantage of this opportunity.

The guys are disappointed, yet that game has no effect on us winning the SEC Championship game. That's what the focus is.

Q. Jim, doesn't happen very often, but Alabama is not unbeatable. They've only had one unbeaten year. I'm being a little bit sarcastic on that.
COACH McELWAIN: Pretty good. I like your humor (laughter).

Q. Going back to when you were there, what is the blueprint to beat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team? What do you have to do yourselves to win this game?
COACH McELWAIN: I think the biggest thing is you can't hurt yourself. Whatever they get, you got to make 'em earn it.

One of the things when you look at it, I mean, what they have done scoring touchdowns on defense is pretty incredible, the way that they feed off of that field position and those type of things. I think that's one of the biggest things.

They've added a new dimension obviously. This quarterback is something that's real special, has created a lot of explosive plays not only for himself but obviously because you have to play that component. It loosens it up for some other guys.

There isn't really a weakness on that team as you look at it. You see the guys playing on their special teams. I mean, they'd be starting at most other places. Yet that's what great programs do, is they just kind of keep reloading.

But with that being said, I think the big thing is you can't hurt yourself.

Q. You recall there was a time where Nick was pushing for some rule changes to maybe cut down on the effect that spread teams have. He was beaten early on by some spread teams. Has he adapted to that to the point where I think one of his former players, Mark Ingram, tweeted during a game that Alabama has turned into a spread offense. Does Nick eventually adapt pretty well?
COACH McELWAIN: He's as good as there is, what he's done with that... I think part of it, too, it actually helps their defense because they're able to practice against it. That's one of the things, too. There's a lot of familiarity in what they do, yet the wrinkles they put in off of it is something that is really, really good, and obviously working.

I'd say Mark has too much free time if he's spending time on Twitter doing that (laughter).

Q. Jim, when you were at Alabama, they had some pretty good defenses back then as well, have for a long time. Just from watching film or even just maybe seeing it on TV, how would you compare this year's Alabama defense to the ones you had in '09, '11?
COACH McELWAIN: I haven't had an opportunity really to see them on television. Obviously the film that we've been able to watch, you know, they seem to me that they might actually even have more overall team speed. The depth at the D-line obviously stands out. But really the overall team speed is something that really shows up.

That's one thing that they will always have, is great defenses. Obviously Jeremy has come in and built on what Kirby had done, adapted to the personnel they have, doing what coach expects. They're sure playing at a high level.

Q. Coach, what do you think your team can take away from the experience last year of having gone to Atlanta, going through all the distractions? Does that help them get ready for this week?
COACH McELWAIN: Yeah, I absolutely do. Now that they've been there, done that, all right, all those little things that kind of go on that surrounds an SEC Championship game now becomes old hat. That's a good thing.

I know this, as hurt as we were with last night's outcome, the excitement and anticipation of knowing what we're going to do this week and what we're about to face is something that our guys are looking forward to.

As I said, getting to Atlanta is not easy. The next step is going and knocking down that door. That's going to be our mindset.

Q. Jim, schematically how similar does this defense look to the way you played defensively when you were there? Any similarities?
COACH McELWAIN: Oh, I think it's adapted over time. Obviously breaking down some of the coverages, I think there's some things there that you see, some of the pressures that they take advantage of, it shows up week to week, to attack whatever protections they're seeing that week.

I think there's obviously some carryover. Yet the great thing they do is every week they adjust it to whatever they're playing. That's a credit to coach and obviously Jeremy and those guys on defense, making sure that the plan fits whoever they're playing that week.

Q. When you were at Alabama, could you ever imagine starting a true freshman at quarterback?
COACH McELWAIN: I never really thought about it because we never really had to. I do know they've done a heck of a job playing to his strengths.

He's fun to watch, I'm telling you. He's got a great command. He's calm. He doesn't get flustered. He takes what they give him. Yet they give him a crack, he can beat you with his feet.

As coach used to say about the running quarterbacks, it's like playing 12 guys on the field. It looks that way sometimes.

Q. Jim, you alluded to this earlier, but what did you and your staff learn just in terms of approaching this game the week after losing a rivalry game?
COACH McELWAIN: Yeah, you know, it's obviously not something you want to do. Yet you can't let that affect what you're about to go to do, and that's play in Atlanta for the SEC Championship.

Look, it hurts, whatever went on. But as I said, again, Guys, think about it on the bus. We're not going to get home till 3:30, 3:45 in the morning. Give you an opportunity to sit there and dwell on it. But once we get off the bus, man, we have to move forward to something bigger and better, which is quite honestly something a lot of people shoot for and a lot of people haven't gotten to, and that's the SEC Championship game.

You'd love the other outcome, but at the same time our guys played hard. We're going to play hard again this week.

Q. You mentioned obviously you've had quite a few bumps and bruises. Playing this 13th game this late in the season, just the physical challenge of doing that.
COACH McELWAIN: I mean, everybody has to. It's one of those things you hope you get to do. Two years in a row now we're able to do it. That's what it's all about.

Q. You worked with a lot of different quarterbacks. How rare is it for a guy like Jalen Hurts as a young quarterback that you can't seem to rattle him?
COACH McELWAIN: I'm so impressed with just his demeanor that you watch on film. Nothing seems to bother him. Credit their offensive staff, what they put in for him to be successful. Yet his mindset, even when something maybe doesn't go his way, you don't ever see him panic.

I think they've done an outstanding job with him. I think one of the things that you see is the bonus of being there in spring practice. We've had quite a few of those young guys do the same thing at different positions. But I think that really shows up, as well.

Q. Do you think it frustrates defenses that even though they can hit him, as we saw in the Ole Miss game, they can't rattle him?
COACH McELWAIN: I'm a big believer in that. When something doesn't go your way, and you start, whatever, showing the emotion, like somebody got to you, that's what they want you to do. In his case, man, he's unfazed. I just love that in watching him play.

Q. Say you beat Alabama this week, you're SEC champions, do you deserve to be in the College Football Playoff?
COACH McELWAIN: You know what, I think there's a committee for that. I just know this: it's going to be a great feeling if it goes that way.

You know, it's interesting, just where we're at with all that. Every year there's going to be some kind of controversy one way or the other, yet that's what makes America great. We're just excited that we have that opportunity to be in that discussion.

Q. Coach, once again the media was wrong about the East participant. We chose Tennessee to head to Atlanta. From a program standpoint, I'd like your thoughts on what this means for you to go to Atlanta the first two years.
COACH McELWAIN: For me personally, it's to see the work and the commitment that our organization and our players have put in to get in such a great game. It's hard to explain. This game is something special year in and year out. A great conference with great teams. There are no gimmes in this league. You got to truly earn getting there. That's what makes it so satisfying.

Now getting back again, it was asked earlier, we've got some guys that have gotten their feet wet there. Now it's time to go jump in the deep end of the pool. Our guys are looking forward to it.

Q. You mentioned earlier at some point you turn off the tape and kind of focus on yourselves. How much tape do you watch of that Alabama defense before you pretty much say, Let's focus on ourselves?
COACH McELWAIN: Well, already from just kind of getting off the bus and getting up here to work, there's only been a couple times so far that I've become violently ill watching them (laughter).

At the same time it is a about us. I mean, they're going to say the same thing. It doesn't matter about the opponent. What it matters about is us doing our job at a high level against the best on one of the biggest stages that there ever is.

To go through life and be able to do that, that's pretty cool now. I know we're excited about it.

Q. Jim, Tyrie Cleveland got a little bit of a slow start but developed into somewhat of a deep threat at times. What does the future hold for him?
COACH McELWAIN: This guy is a talented, talented player, more so fighting off injury. He had a heck of a hamstring, about the fourth day of camp I think it was. Didn't really get back to full speed until probably about game six. He's done a really good job for us.

He's one of those guys that we've got to get the ball in his hands. He's explosive. He's going to be a big part of what we do here now and in the future.

I can't say enough good things about Tyrie, really what a great person he is. He's fun to be around. This is really important to him. That's great to see.

Q. Another guy that was pressed into action, David Reese, stepped in when you needed him. How has he progressed? How has he handled the abrupt switch into a bigger responsibility on the defense and what does his future hold?
COACH McELWAIN: David, this guy is really playing good. The thing I like is how he has taken over the communication piece and the study piece, what he needs to do to get everybody adjusted.

He's tough to block. He does a great job of shedding blockers and getting under their pads. He's a good, solid tackler.

I also credit Jarrad Davis in his development because Jarrad kind of took him under his wing. Even to this day with Jarrad not being able to play, he's out there with him all the time. I think that speaks volumes about the guys in this program.

Q. Luke was dressed yesterday and went through some warmups. Is he an option this week, available?
COACH McELWAIN: Like I said, what we kind of did is we wanted to make sure if there was something that happened to Austin, like his helmet came off, Luke could go in there and function until we could get him back.

If it was a long-term deal, we'd still go ahead with Feleipe to go win the game.

Q. Jarrad also was moving around pretty well pregame.
COACH McELWAIN: Here is one thing I know about him. I never count him out. At the same time I'd say it's pretty doubtful. What he was able to do in that Georgia game, that was something pretty special. But I think that will be some tough sledding where he's at. At the same time, I know everybody wants to play in this game.

Q. Coach, it seems like the East has had a hard time with the West the last couple years. Are these things cyclical or might there be a deeper reason for that divide recently?
COACH McELWAIN: I don't know. That's probably a study for someone more than myself.

I think at one time it might have been a little bit flipped the other way, probably before I got in this league. Yet at the same time, you know, you take a look at probably what those programs have done in investing in everything in their football programs that they have. They really aggressively have gotten after a lot of the things that really help you in recruiting at a real high level. Maybe that has a little bit to do with it.

Q. As far as Ohio State goes, they seem to be in great position to make the College Football Playoff without even making their own conference title game. Is that something that makes the sport unique and fun for everybody or would uniformity be better in the playoff era?
COACH McELWAIN: You know, I don't know. I got off a bus last night about 3:45, been watching film. Here is the way I look at it. You know what, if it makes for good chatter for people, something for people to talk about, that's a good deal, I guess. I don't know.

THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you for your time. We look forward to seeing you on Friday.

COACH McELWAIN: All right. Thank you.

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