Gators’ goal? Kick in SEC door

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ON THE COVER Florida coach Jim McElwain will decide this coming week who the Gators' starting quarterback will be: Malik Zaire, left, Luke Del Rio, middle, or Feleipe Franks. [Photo illustration by Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

Florida’s goal is the same every season: win the SEC East, make it to Atlanta.

It’s the same this year, only with an addendum.

Win the East, make it to Atlanta — and win the SEC Championship Game.

In Jim McElwain’s first two seasons, the Gators seemed content just to make it to Atlanta for the first Saturday in December, where, almost predictably, Florida has been overwhelmed by Alabama both times, getting outscored by a combined 83-31.

Now, in Year 3, a relaxed and confident McElwain thinks the Gators are talented enough, mature enough, man enough to take the next step and become a championship team — an SEC championship team (and maybe beyond).

“I do. I feel like we’re at that point now,” McElwain said. “No, I’m not going to give you Joe Willie Namath (a guarantee of winning a championship). That’s what you want. That ain’t happening, because right now we’re not at the Joe Willie Namath where I can go ahead and guarantee. I do know this: We’re OK, and we’re more than OK. We’re pretty darned good.”

The Gators were just OK in McElwain’s first two seasons. Just OK enough to somehow get by (and to Atlanta) with a crippled offense and a crunching defense that covered up many of the warts generated by a non-productive offense.

It’s been quite an accomplishment, winning the division in back-to-back seasons with a team that was so suspect and short-handed on one side of the ball.

It’s been OK. But OK isn’t good enough at Florida, McElwain said.

“We’ve been OK. Whatever,” he said. “Been to Atlanta and all that stuff. But we’re not good enough. Pushing through average is what I want to get done, and we’ll see. I’m not making any predictions, but that’s what we have to do.”

In an effort to get there, McElwain and his staff have put the Gators through a difficult preseason camp where the goal was to put the players in uncomfortable situations and see how they react. Sweat the small stuff, with an emphasis on executing every little detail, and maybe bigger and better things will come in Year 3, McElwain reasoned.

“They understand that just being above average (isn’t good enough),” McElwain said. “A lot of times people go through life OK being above average. It’s not a bad thing. That means you’re probably maybe winning a little more than you’re losing. You’re probably putting more in your bank account than you are taking out. And there’s a lot of people that live comfortably and really good, long lives being just above average.

“In this game, being a Florida Gator, I don’t expect that. Above average is what it is. I think the next step is understanding the courage it takes to really step above and put yourself out there in understanding, you know what, this is the next step. And so that’s what I’m looking for. We’ll find out. That’s the beautiful thing. But I know our guys understand.”

They do. And there are reasons for optimism.

The offense seems to have the elements — strong line, plenty of playmakers at receiver and running back — to be successful if the quarterback play is improved, which the coaches are anticipating with more overall talent at the position.

The defense lacks proven depth at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Gators appear to have enough talent to play close to the high standard that is well-established on that side of the ball.

The kicking game could be one of the best in the nation with place-kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend.

Overall, this could be McElwain’s best and most complete team, one that’s capable of getting back to the SEC Championship Game and maybe making a more competitive run at Alabama (or whoever represents the West).

“I’ve got to tell you, the offensive line is dramatically improved, and I am so excited about that,” McElwain said. “I think the depth at the wide receiver position now allows us some unique weapons.

“Now, we’re going to have to stay healthy, but so is everybody else, right? That’s not an in-or-out deal. I think our running back room is real. Time will tell. And I’m excited about the competition at the quarterback position, and we’ll get that ironed out.

“I can finally say the strength of our team is our offensive line, and I feel pretty good about it.”

There does seem to be a positive buzz in and around the program heading into the season. Whether that translates into more wins and a more productive offense remains to be seen.

The Gators seem confident that they can take that important next step toward a possible championship.

“We have the best talent in the country and I think we are the big dogs in the SEC and we’re looking to take the challenges from whoever comes up,” quarterback Malik Zaire said. “This team is pretty confident. This team has a lot of potential. We’re just trying to make it happen.

“There’s a lot of talking that I can try to explain on what I think is the advantage we have over a lot of teams. But I think when it comes to Sept. 2, you’ll see the work that we have put in leading up to that point. Our confidence is the biggest thing going in, and everybody believes. As long as you’ve got guys that believe, I think it’s going to be good for us moving forward.”

Everybody knows the goal: win the East, get to Atlanta — and win this time.

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or robbie.andreu@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.