HOOVER, Ala. -- The Florida Gators don't quite know how to accept the congratulations.

They won the SEC East with three true freshmen starting on the offensive line. You shouldn't be surprised the result was a school-record 45 sacks, most in the nation last season.

The Gators played for the almighty SEC title after their starting quarterback, who led them to a 6-0 start, showed less class than wisdom by testing positive for a banned substance before the seventh game of the season and earned himself a year-long NCAA suspension. He's since transferred.

In the end, Florida posted one of the ugliest 10-win seasons in the history of double-digit campaigns. All of it was topped off by a three-game losing streak including a 34-point loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.

"Very disappointing the way we finished ...," Jim McElwain said Monday at the SEC Media Days. "What I mean by that is just maybe our lack of competitive spirit. [Michigan] beat our tails, and we turned around and took it."

What other reigning SEC Coach of the Year has uttered that phrase?

While you ponder the answer, considering the Gators' plight. There should be credit for perhaps the best debut ever by a Florida coach. McElwain finished 10-4 in his first season after coming from Colorado State by way of Alabama.

(Urban Meyer had a better winning percentage than McElwain in Year 1, so did Steve Spurrier, but no Florida coach won more games or played for the conference title right out of the gate. Only two SEC coaches have ever won Coach of the Year in their first season.)

But, Gawd, was it ugly. McElwain was hired for his offensive savvy. Even before Will Grier tested positive halfway through the regular season, the Gators had a ways to go on offense. After his suspension, they were excruciating to watch.

We still don't know whether McElwain can recruit as head of an SEC program. At least there are options at quarterback this season. Luke Del Rio might be the answer, or not.

One opposing coach last season said the Florida staff "coached their everloving tails off on offense" to get UF within a sniff of an SEC title.

But is that all there is? Things would be easier if the Gators, say, achieve some balance pairing a top 10 defense with an offense that could average 30 points per game.

"It's tough, but I feel like everybody who has become a champion has had to go through some kind of adversity," said safety Marcus Maye. "If you want to fold when stuff gets hard then you're just going to be like everyone else."

See what we said about the congratulations?

Florida was either the feel-good story of the SEC or the latest victim of a seemingly unending trend. Probably both. You see, it's one thing to win the SEC East; it's another to win the SEC. No East team has done it since a Tim Tebow-led Florida in 2008.

That was before Alabama, Auburn and LSU combined to win the next seven SEC title games by an average of 22 points. The Gators were the victim last year in an admirable 29-14 loss to the Crimson Tide.

Can McElwain scratch his way past that seven-year itch?

Everything Florida does until further notice has to be viewed through an Urban Meyer filter because the former coach is owner of that legacy McElwain is chasing.

"We'll play 'em again tomorrow," Florida left tackle David Sharpe said of Alabama. "But we definitely had some things we could have fixed up on."

Florida may have become the first 10-win program to apologize. The Gators aren't the first SEC East champ banging their heads on a glass ceiling made of see-through titanium.

If the SEC rules the country, the East Division is a junior partner within its own conference. The SEC West sports four of the top five revenue-producing schools in the league. Seven of the top nine highest-paid coaches are in the West.

There is an actual top-tier basketball school in the East (Kentucky).

It all might be so trivial unless the streak was so lengthy and real. The seven-game streak by the West ties the Big 12 for the FBS record for wins by one division (The South Division won from 2004-10).

The difference being, Texas was the lone Big 12 team to win a national championship in that span (2005). The SEC has used its championship game to dominate the sport. (Five national titles by the West since 2009.)

If there was a job listing in the East, come December there would be a disclaimer: chances for advancement are small.

In the division, Kentucky and Vanderbilt take turns being doormats. Butch Jones hasn't won anything yet at Tennessee. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri all changed coaches.

Difference between East and West: Grier is suspended after a positive drug test and Florida's offense goes (further) in the tank. Nick Saban, in his third year of fishing for a starter in August, leads the only team to go to both College Football Playoffs.

Another difference between East and West: Les Miles is on the hot seat with a top five team. Florida has no such expectations. Tennessee is favored in the East but remains on notice. Until the Vols actually do it, skepticism abounds.

"I don't ever think it's a good feeling at a place like the University of Florida because the expectations [are so high]," McElwain said. "I kind of like that, the day-to-day, 'This is what should happen.'"

Sorry to be so pushy in Year 2, Jim, but it's been a while at Florida and in the SEC East. When will it happen?