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After ending 2015 on low note, Florida aiming higher this season

Florida surprised many in 2015, improving by three wins and winning the SEC East to boot. But the way the Gators finished the season—0–3, outscored by opponents 97–24—is weighing heavily on them as the 2016 campaign approaches.

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HOOVER, Ala. — Months later, Florida’s 2015 season seems even weirder than it did as it was happening.

When Jim McElwain made his SEC Media Days debut last year, one of the first questions he answered involved the length of time it would take to make Florida a national title contender again. No one brought up the idea of the Gators making it to the SEC Championship Game. At this time last year, the thought of Florida playing for the SEC title was utterly preposterous.

Then the Gators won the SEC East.

Under normal circumstances, that achievement would preface the kind of hype Florida generated in the days of Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer. The division title would have been considered a logical step toward an even greater future. But neither McElwain nor the Florida players who came to SEC Media Days on Monday to preview the 2016 season acted as if the East title was anything to celebrate. Perhaps they remain too traumatized by the end of last season, when the Gators and their barely functional offense went 0–3 against Florida State, Alabama and Michigan and averaged 4.1 yards a play while losing by a combined score of 97–24.

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The team voted against making rings to commemorate the East title. McElwain, meanwhile, still shakes his head at the memory of the 41–7 bashing Florida took from Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. “It’s very disappointing the way we finished,” McElwain said. “The way we threw an egg in that last game has made this off-season awful difficult. It was a lack of competitive spirit.” Besides, it might be considered an acceptance of the slide if a program with two national titles in the past 10 years begins getting too excited about division titles. “That’s relative as to where you’re at,” McElwain said. “I don’t think it’s ever good feelings at a place like the University of Florida, because the expectations are that we should have been better than that. To be honest, that was one of the allures to the job.”

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The Gators looked ahead of schedule until the middle of the season, when the NCAA hit quarterback Will Grier with a one-year suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. After that, the bottom would have fallen out if not for the relative weakness of the rest of the SEC East. Soon-to-be-fired Georgia coach Mark Richt’s perplexing decision to elevate third-string quarterback Faton Bauta to the starting job only for the week of the Florida game probably handed the Gators the division title. Florida scraped by Vanderbilt and South Carolina and then got throttled by three superior teams at the end.

It’s easy to blame the dropoff on Grier’s suspension, but the truth is Florida State, Alabama and Michigan probably would have exposed Florida’s offense anyway. The Gators were young and thin on the offensive line, and as injuries mounted up front, not even the schematic smoke and mirrors McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier employed earlier in the season worked. A miscast Treon Harris at quarterback didn’t help, but Brett Favre might have struggled behind the banged-up, patchwork line Florida trotted out at the end of last season. “It was tough. It was disappointing,” offensive tackle David Sharpe said. “We could have finished much better than we showed.”

Sharpe, Florida’s left tackle, played through a foot injury at the end of 2015 because the offense might have been even worse—it’s theoretically possible—without him. He was supposed to sit out the Vanderbilt game, but he wound up playing anyway in the 9–7 escape that clinched the East title.

So what now? Tennessee, which hasn’t beaten Florida since 2004, is the likely favorite in the East. Georgia probably will be picked to finish ahead of the Gators. That’s fine with them. Linebacker Jarrad Davis made a point that seems strange on its surface but makes far more sense when we remember that most of the current players were in middle school the last time Florida won a national title. Last season’s early success, Davis said, was a surprise. Most of the players hadn’t experienced it, so they didn’t know how to respond. “It’s something that definitely shocked us coming off the 2013 and 2014 seasons,” Davis said. “It was new. It was new territory. So you’ve got to learn how to handle it.”

It isn’t all mental, though. The Gators also need to block better. Sharpe and Davis believe the three linemen forced to play as true freshmen in 2015 (Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan) learned from being thrown into the lineup and will enter 2016 with a far greater understanding of the level of competition they’ll face. “We get bashed all the time about how good they are or how bad they are,” Davis said. “They know what they need to do. They’ve been working all of-fseason. Those are my brothers. I’m so proud of them. You sit back and look at them, and you know it’s going to be different this year.”

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That should bode well for likely starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, who should enjoy better protection than Grier or Harris got. It remains unclear when or if top receiver Antonio Callaway and Harris—who likely will be playing receiver—will be back. (The pair was suspended from the team in January for undisclosed reasons.) Though everyone at Florida has been tight-lipped about the case involving the two, their fate is in the hands of Florida’s office of student judicial affairs. McElwain would not hazard a guess Monday as to when their situation will be decided.

Defensively, Florida might not drop off as much as its draft day losses would suggest. The decisions by Davis and safety Marcus Maye to return mean there will be no leadership void. Though Florida lost first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, fellow corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson should combine to form one of the nation’s best tandems. Meanwhile, 260-pound sophomore defensive end CeCe Jefferson could be the Gators’ next elite pass-rusher. 

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If it sounds as if Florida is laying in the weeds with a chance to be better than the 10–4 team that won the SEC East last year, that’s probably because the Gators are doing just that. The catch is that Tennessee and Georgia should also be better, and that 2015 Florida team got lucky at times. So it’s possible the Gators could improve on the field but decline in the standings. Or maybe they just might win the East again. No one expected it last year, either.

Florida players see no reason to celebrate that title, though. They went splat to end the season, and they hope this year they can show what they learned from the experience. “You can’t really say that it was a great season,” Davis said. “It’s not the season we want to have. If you’re going to run a race, you’re not going to end a race like that.”