No matter how long the Jim McElwain era lasts at Florida, there might not be a more eye-opening day in his tenure than September 2.


In a span of about eight hours, the Gators’ football boss will get plenty of visual evidence on whether his program is as far along as his preseason-opening verbal chutzpah (“We’re more than okay. We’re pretty darned good.”) would suggest.

The first Saturday in September should be telling. Two games being played 782 miles apart will serve as a barometer for how close Florida is to being that elite program McElwain envisions in Year 3, something he strongly hints at without flat out guaranteeing it’ll happen.

“No, I’m not going to give you Joe Willie Namath, that’s what you want,” said McElwain.

What the Gators’ boss wants more than anything is to move up from a Top 15-20 program into that upper echelon contending each year for a College Football playoff berth. We won’t have to wait long to start gauging where Florida might stand in the national landscape.

Playing Michigan at Cowboys Stadium – albeit a rebuilding Wolverines’ team under Jim Harbaugh, the same blueblood program that routed the Gators in McElwain’s first season at the Citrus Bowl – is a pretty good measuring stick for openers.

UF has few question marks outside of quarterback and how its secondary will adjust without injured safety Marcell Harris. If it can’t take care of business against a Michigan squad having to replace 17 starters, we might start to wonder if an SEC (L)East three-peat is doable.

About an hour after the UF-Michigan game is over, Florida State and Alabama will match up in a possible No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. No two Gator rivals have dominated McElwain’s team with more ease the past two seasons.

Granted, there are a lot of decent programs who have absorbed thrashings by Alabama and FSU in recent years. There’s no shame in being overmatched by those powerhouses. But if you’re striving to be like them as a perennial national contender, then you can’t be a pushover.

McElwain sent an unmistakable message last week about how annoying it’s become to see the Gators bullied by the two schools who represent UF’s biggest obstacles to blueblood status. While he didn’t mention FSU and Alabama by name, McElwain made it clear by his disdain for being “above average,” how his expectations for the program standard have been ratcheted up in his third season.

“[The players] also understand that just being above average, you know, a lot of times people go through life okay being above average,” said McElwain. “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 comfortable and really good, long lives being just above average.

“In this game, being a Florida Gator, I don’t expect that. Above average is, hmm, it 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.”

Translation: the Gators’ boss is tired of being a second banana to Alabama and FSU, either on the field or the recruiting trail. It’s not okay to get thumped 41-7 by Michigan in a bowl game. He finds it unacceptable being a second-tier program, well below the track of Ohio State, Clemson and the aforementioned standard-bearers.

Every college football power in the last quarter century has ascended to perennial top-10 status by a head coach’s fourth season or less. To do that, McElwain must find a quarterback and start pushing the right buttons to jump-start what has been a consistently mediocre offense.

If that doesn’t happen, then the Gators’ ceiling will be somewhere above average. We should find out in 2017 whether Florida can take that step up to elite. September 2 will be a good indicator of how much McElwain’s program, if at all, has closed the gap. (904) 359-4540