Edward Aschoff, David Ching, Sam Khan Jr., Chris Low, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough contributed to these rankings.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Jim McElwain took playful shots at his alma mater, the Oakland Raiders and himself.
He was friendly, funny, witty and self-deprecating during his introductory news conference Saturday.
More importantly to the Gators, he was ultra-confident that he can and will get what used to be one of the most feared offenses in the Southeastern Conference back to being a juggernaut.
"I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell," McElwain said. "There are good players here. It's our responsibility to get that going."
Florida hired the former Alabama offensive coordinator and Colorado State head coach nicknamed "Mac" on Thursday to get the Gators back to prominence -- maybe even relevance -- in the SEC East. His top priority is revamping an offense that has grown stagnant since former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow left school in 2009.
McElwain declined to specify whether he plans to install a spread scheme, which he had success with at Colorado State and Fresno State, or a pro-style scheme, which he used to help get Alabama to the top of the league.
He also said no decisions have been made about whether to keep some of Florida's current staff. Speculation has centered on retaining defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and recruiting ace Travaris Robinson.
So McElwain provided no real news Saturday, but drew plenty of laughs from a crowded room that included reporters, fans, boosters, his boss, university employees and his wife and three children.
"People like being around him," athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "You can see he's very comfortable, has a good sense of humor."
That was evident Saturday. Here are some of the highlights:
Defense: Florida's secondary returns the most talent for McElwain's staff to work with. The Gators only lose senior safety Jabari Gorman, but return a solid contingent of cover cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Sophomore Keanu Neal returns as the Gators' top safety, and freshman Duke Dawson can play safety and cornerback. Marcus Maye and Brian Poole, who improved greatly this season, return to the nickel spot. Expect to see more from redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris, a special teams beast, and Nick Washington. Also, true freshman J.C. Jackson returns from a season-ending shoulder injury. The Gators lose seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor, but could return senior-to-be Antonio Morrison, who is coming off his best season with the Gators and is considering a jump to the NFL. Florida returns good depth, starting with sophomores Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin could also have a bigger impact on the defense next fall. The defensive line will lose the defense's best player in end Dante Fowler Jr., along with starting nose tackle Darious Cummings, but could return junior tackle Jonathan Bullard, who is also flirting with the NFL. Ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. have the potential for bright futures, as do young tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie.
Special teams: The Gators went back and forth with their kickers, but lose senior Francisco Velez, who hit 12 of 14 field goals this fall. That means sophomore Austin Hardin (7 of 10), who finished the season as the starter, will have all eyes on him. Incredibly efficient punter Kyle Christy will be gone, but Johnny Townsend returns after starting ahead of Christy in 2013. Finding a return man to replace Andre Debose won't be easy. He had four kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown in his career.
Fan base: Gator Nation isn't happy. There was a toxic atmosphere within the fan base for the past couple of seasons because the product on the field just wasn't adequate. Is this fan base excited about McElwain's hire? That is to be determined, but fans have to be happy about the prospect of having some sort of real offensive pulse going forward. Obviously, fans want wins, and the Gators didn't deliver enough of those during Muschamp's tenure. These fans also want a competent offense, and that was clear when there wasn't a ton of buzz around the program during an 11-win 2012 season that featured a run-heavy, defensive Florida team.
Administrative support: Athletic director Jeremy Foley is one of the most loyal athletic directors out there. He stuck with Muschamp after an embarrassing 4-8 season for crying out loud. But he also knew exactly the direction his program needed to go in 2014, and it never went the right way. Foley isn't afraid to stand up for his coaches publicly, and he's always willing to work with his coaches to find ways to improve everything around them. He's one of the smartest athletic directors around, and Florida's athletic program isn't short for cash. The program has been incredibly successful under Foley's watch, and he will make sure his new coach is taken care of and put on the right path for success.
Recruiting: Florida's current recruiting class only holds nine players. Four are offensive linemen, who have to stay committed to the Gators going forward because of how thin that line will be in 2015. Two of those linemen -- Mike Horton and George Brown Jr. -- have visited other schools. The Gators also only have a couple of offensive skill players committed. Dual-threat quarterback Sheriron Jones is committed and will have to see if he works within McElwain's offense. McElwain has to snag some solid offensive talent to help the Gators in 2015, because Florida has somehow failed to sign elite offensive talent for years now. With Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris taking the SMU job, the Gators could get in on Clemson athlete commits Deon Cain and Ray Ray-Ray McCloud III, who have interest in Florida. Miami running back commit Dexter Williams has flirted with Florida before, and his family likes what Florida has to offer, so keep an eye on him. Uncommitted five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey is still high on the Gators, and Florida is still looking at receiver Antonio Callaway, who was a teammate of Treon Harris' at Booker T. Washington High. Defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart are also high priorities for McElwain.
You know Mike Riley as the universally liked, overachieving, player-developing, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding coach who made Oregon State relevant but never a conference champion. He spent time in the NFL and had opportunities to take jobs at brand-name college programs (Alabama, USC) but never did until Thursday, when he shocked the college football world by accepting the Nebraska job. He's a "wow" hire, as Tom Shatel writes, but not a doing-backflips hire.
Less of you know Jim McElwain, the new head man at Florida. He did a tremendous job building Colorado State into a Mountain West contender, and previously excelled under Nick Saban as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Like Riley, McElwain is a quarterback guru with some NFL experience, spending the 2006 season coaching the Oakland Raiders' signal-callers. But a rock-star hire he is not, even though the 52-year-old will upgrade Florida's sleepy offense and should get the Gators back in the SEC East mix.
I like both hires and think both men will have success at their new programs. But fans want big names, flashy hires, and these two are not.
3. In case you missed it during this week's swirl of coaching transactions, Bret Bielema said he isn't going anywhere. Arkansas, which won three of five games to close out the regular season, should breathe a heavy sigh of relief. While it felt unlikely that Bielema would bolt Arkansas for Nebraska after just two years, you never really know. An Iowa native with Big Ten roots, he isn't of the SEC and the West isn't exactly a forgiving division to be a part of. But nonetheless, the SEC is a better place with him in it, and not just because of his chest-out attitude and clever jabs. No, he brings a style of football to the conference that it desperately needs. His hard-nosed, between-the-tackles brand brings balance to a growing sea of spread, uptempo offenses. And more importantly, its starting to yield wins. After going two years without a conference win and knocking at the door against Alabama and Texas A&M, Bielema's Razorbacks have broken through. Already stacked with a strong running game, a big offensive line and a defense that prides itself on physicality, all that's missing is a polished passing game. If Brandon Allen can make strides or another quarterback can come in and lift the offense, Arkansas could be a dangerous team in 2015.
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The University of Florida has some serious faith in Jim McElwain.
Florida said Thursday that it would pay CSU a total of $5 million -- $3 million in cash over six years and another $2 million to play a football game in Gainesville in the near future.
McElwain will also pay $2 million to make for a total buyout of $7 million.
McElwain's payment of $2 million is also the largest amount that a coach has ever paid to buy himself out of a contract. The previous record was held by Rich Rodriguez, who paid $1.5 million to West Virginia to get out of his contract and take the job at Michigan.
The total $7 million buyout is seven and a half times the average buyout paid by a school to another school over the past three years. Of the 21 buyouts that were public over that time period, the average buyout was $935,786.
For a total of $6.93 million, schools bought out the contracts of Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Kevin Sumlin, Gary Andersen, Bret Bielema, Chris Petersen, Sonny Dykes, Craig Bohl, Dino Babers, Tim Beckman, Dave Clawson, Darrell Hazell, Dave Doeren and Tommy Tuberville.
But if you want some of the most compelling insight into Florida's new coach, set aside X's and O's for a minute. Talk to the guys who played for him at Alabama and were part of those national championship teams in 2009 and 2011.
“He has a special ability to put things in terms that guys can understand. He's also great at getting guys to buy into the system and understands how to put guys in positions where they will be successful. He's an awesome coach and an even better guy.”
Jones' sentiments echo what William Vlachos, his cohort on some of those powerhouse Alabama offensive lines, said about McElwain in 2011, when the Tide's All-SEC center was finishing up his college career.
“He genuinely has his players' back and never throws you under the bus,” said Vlachos, now a graduate assistant on the Alabama staff. “He knows where he came from, an old-school kind of guy, and made things simple for us.
“He had a great mantra: 'If we're all wrong, then we're all right,' meaning if we don't identify something right or made a wrong call, as long as everyone communicates whatever call was made and everyone executes what was called, then we're good.”
But what really made an impression on Vlachos as a player was McElwain's ability to get the best out of his players.
“He knows a lot of ball, but is a genuine guy,” he said. “He understands people, and it's always about the players, never about him.”
As a tactician, McElwain has made a name for himself, particularly with his ability to adapt.
He's more of a spread guy at heart, but at Alabama he oversaw pro-style offenses that were always physical, balanced and disciplined, a requirement for any offensive coordinator of Nick Saban's.
Not that it's a revelation, but calling plays on offense for Saban isn't the easiest job on the planet. There's a reason Lane Kiffin is Saban's fourth offensive coordinator. But McElwain prospered at Alabama, and his last offense there, in 2011, was the only one in the SEC that season to average more than 200 rushing yards and 200 passing yards per game.
Also keep in mind that both of the national championship seasons with McElwain running the offense at Alabama came with first-year starters at quarterback -- Greg McElroy in 2009 and AJ McCarron in 2011. The game plan McElwain employed in the BCS National Championship to cap the 2011 season called for McCarron to come out throwing against LSU's smothering defense, and Alabama went on to win 21-0, with McCarron passing for 234 yards and keeping the Tigers off balance for much of the night.
In his three seasons at Colorado State, McElwain went back to his spread roots and revolutionized an offense that had been stagnant before he arrived, further proving his versatility as a coach and playcaller.
The Rams were held under 20 points in 20 of their 36 games in the three seasons prior to McElwain's arrival in 2012. This season, they scored more than 30 points in eight of their 12 games and averaged 35.9 points per game. The Rams rank 13th nationally in total offense (497.8 yards per game) and are third in yards per play (7.21).
Quarterback Garrett Grayson is second nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown 32 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Colorado State's top receiver, Rashard Higgins, leads the country in yards per game (149.1) and receiving touchdowns (17).
Especially telling was how quickly McElwain turned things around in Fort Collins. The Rams had won a total of nine games in the three seasons before his hiring in 2012. They've won 16 of their past 20 heading into the bowl game.
The bottom line: Players believe in him and his system, and a big part of that is his blue-collar pedigree.
McElwain is not one of those guys who has had a football silver spoon in his mouth his whole career. He played quarterback at Eastern Washington and spent 10 years at his alma mater as quarterbacks/receivers coach from 1985 to 1994. He spent the next five years at Montana State as offensive coordinator/receivers/special-teams coach. There were also stints at Fresno State, Louisville and Michigan State and a season in the NFL as the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks coach in 2006.
At every stop, there was a common theme.
“He's one of the most relatable coaches I've ever been around,” McElroy said. “His ability to feature players in game plans and getting players to buy in are a few of his greatest strengths. He's a diligent worker and is fiercely competitive.
“Florida Gator fans should rejoice.”
The Florida Gators officially named Jim McElwain their new head coach on Thursday. The former Alabama offensive coordinator from 2008-11 will replace Will Muschamp, who was a strong recruiter for the Gators.
Florida, however, has only nine commitments in its 2015 class, which is last in the SEC.
With Muschamp’s job in limbo the last half of the season, the Gators found it difficult to land some of the prized recruits who were high on Florida early in the process. Top offensive targets like Ray-Ray McCloud III, Deon Cain and George Campbell committed to other schools, while prospects such as five-stars Byron Cowart, Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson waited to see how the coaching situation played out.
Now that McElwain is on board, Florida will turn its attention to hiring a coaching staff and to recruiting. Several key targets are still on the Gators’ recruiting board. Here’s a closer look at Florida’s recruiting priorities moving forward and some recruits' reactions to the coaching change:
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The hiring of former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain might not have Gator Nation buzzing yet, but the best way to get on that fan base's good side is to find a thumping pulse on offense. Wins, of course, will determine how long McElwain's tenure at Florida will last, but if this up-and-comer is going to turn things around in Gainesville quickly, he'll need to reboot an offense that has spiraled for the past five seasons.
And his résumé shows he's capable. Colorado State's offense has been on the rise since he arrived in 2011, and it currently ranks 13th nationally in total offense (497.8) and 24th in scoring (35.9). Quarterback Garrett Grayson is second in the country in passing efficiency (171.3) and has thrown for a school-record 3,779 yards and 32 touchdowns. McElwain had two Heisman Trophy finalists and one winner -- running back Mark Ingram -- and two national championship quarterbacks as the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-11. In 2011, Alabama led the SEC in rushing (219.8 yards per game), ranked second in total offense (433.4) and ranked third in scoring (36 points per game).
Florida desperately needs an offensive identity. Since Tim Tebow left following the 2009 season, the Gators have failed to finish a season ranked any higher than 10th in the SEC or 82nd nationally in total offense. Scoring offense? Try no better than eighth in the SEC and 43rd nationally.
Florida's offense has been abysmal since the glory days of Tebow and Urban Meyer. The final year of Meyer's tenure was bad, but it was statistically better than the past four years under now-fired coach Will Muschamp. Since 2010, the Gators have yet to finish a season ranked higher than 103rd nationally in total offense. Heading into the postseason, Florida currently ranks 90th in total offense (370.2 yards per game) and 55th in scoring offense (30.5 points per game).
One major reason for that has been the lack of adequate quarterback play. A handful of quarterbacks have come through Florida and failed to do anything substantial since Tebow's departure. John Brantley and Jeff Driskel went from All-American expectations to regressing in their careers. Jacoby Brissett transferred and current true freshman Treon Harris is incredibly raw.
Since 2009, Florida's highest passing efficiency to end the season was 130.4 (68th nationally) during the Gators' 11-2, run-heavy 2012 season. This year, Florida's two-quarterback party ranks 93rd in passing efficiency (118.2).
Depending on what Driskel does with his final year of eligibility, McElwain will have a young foundation to work with. Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier will bathe in McElwain's offense for an entire spring and beyond. Then, there's 2015 verbal commit Sheriron Jones -- the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation -- who will have to see if his style fits what McElwain wants. Keeping Jones certainly won't hurt McElwain when it comes to depth.
The good news is that McElwain is a quarterback guy and he's the main recruiter for quarterbacks. That's his position, so it's all on him. While at Alabama, he turned Greg McElroy into a national championship quarterback and was a big part of AJ McCarron's early development.
Fixing the quarterback position is enormous, but before that McElwain has to make himself attractive to big-time offensive recruits, while keeping the ones Florida currently has committed, especially the four offensive linemen who must help a Florida line that will take a hit in 2015.
McElwain needs to find offensive playmakers, something Florida somehow lacked under Muschamp. While wide receiver Demarcus Robinson proved to be the Gators' best offensive weapon in years, he was too inconsistent to get the offense moving in the right direction by himself. He needs help, and McElwain, who was the primary recruiter for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Dee Hart at Alabama, will likely have to truly introduce himself -- and his offense -- to a handful of elite Southern prospects during his shortened recruiting season because he isn't a major name in the coaching ranks, yet. He'll have to really sell his plan, product and history to guys who probably won't know a lot about him and his Mountain West success.
McElwain is a rising offensive mind at a program that needs to be fixed quickly. That starts with offense, and McElwain must remedy it, and remedy it fast.
Florida AD Jeremy Foley joins Finebaum
End 3rd Qtr Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 10 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
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