December always brings out the thoughtful reflections on the past year. Not to be trite, but 2016 has certainly been one of the most fascinating and frustrating years many of us can remember. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, the negativity has infected your soul and spirit no matter which side you are on. If you’re of the belief that we are headed in the right direction, that a strong foundation exists and we just need to make smart tweaks and additions in order to continue our path back to greatness, you’ve still been weighed down by the mudslinging and cracks in the façade of togetherness. And if you’re of the belief that rather than build on the successes of recent years, we need to strip the whole thing down and rebuild it from the bottom again, then you’ve been leading the charge of attacks on social media and in real-life conversations with friends and families. If we thought Thanksgiving was tough for us to be together around the dining room table without killing each other, just wait until Christmas.
No, you didn’t mistakenly click on Politico or The Atlantic. We’re talking about something much more important than the political and societal future of the United States of America. We’re talking about a divided Gator Nation. Whichever side you are on, the goal is to “Make The Gators Great Again.”
Two years in, Florida head coach Jim McElwain has done something no
Gators SEC coach has ever done in winning a division title in each of his first two seasons. Mac supporters point to 10 wins last season (most ever by a first-year Gators coach) and those two titles as evidence that he’s building the program back up. They’ll talk up 18 wins in two seasons after only 11 in Will Muschamp’s final two. The Gators are 11-1 at home under Mac and 2-0 over Georgia. Florida lost its starting quarterback in the middle of the season both years and suffered some other significant injuries as well. Gainesville only hosted five games this season and despite losing a sure W on the schedule, Mac still guided the team to eight wins (so far) this season. These are all fine, fair points. But as we’ve discovered over the past year, there are truths and then there are fake truths.
Mac detractors will tell you the SEC East is a dumpster fire and those two SEC East titles are as impressive and meaningful as the two Missouri won in 2013 and 2014. The Gators won 10 games in 2015 but short memories forget about the following one-possession games that
should could have gone the other way:
Gators’ Close Calls in 2015
vs East Carolina: 31-24, late 4th quarter, ECU deep in Gators territory; Florida wins on a QB fumble and the famous Jarrad Davis tackle of Alex McAllister
at Kentucky: a 14-9 win in which Kentucky had the ball with a chance to take the lead numerous times in the 4th quarter after Florida was completely inept on offense most of the game
vs Tennessee: Gators go an ungodly 5/5 on 4th down conversions, including 3/3 in the 4th quarter punctuated by Grier to Callaway on 4th and 14; UT missed a game-winning 55-yard FG just right
vs Vanderbilt: the worst kicker in Gators history, Austin Hardin drills a 43-yd GW FG in a 9-7 abomination
vs FAU: flashbacks to the low point of the program and the loss to Georgia Southern, only this time Florida somehow escapes with 20-14 win in OT
Mac’s first season just as easily could have been a six, seven or eight-win performance. Of course, winning close games is the sign of a good coach and a good team, right? To some extent, that’s true. The Gators first loss of the McElwain era was on the road at LSU the week of Will Grier’s suspension. By all rights, the Gators had very little chance in this one. Yet they fought and were in the game until Les Miles fooled seemingly only Florida’s coaches in calling a fake FG to win the game. Mac said the loss was “a badge of honor” because of the trickery, failing to understand the Gators had seen Miles do this time and time again over the years. To this point, this is the only loss for McElwain at Florida that was close.
What about losing games that aren’t close? The final three games of the 2015 season were a compilation of some of the worst football the Gators have ever played. UF was outscored 97-23 in drubbings by Alabama, Florida State and Michigan, a stretch of embarrassment that minus the Muschamp era hadn’t been seen in Gainesville since 1988 (a four-game losing streak by a combined 83-23 score). In 2016, all four of Florida’s losses have been by double digits, with an average score of 39-17. Since that overtime win over Florida Atlantic, McElwain’s Gators are 8-7 and have been outscored 312-303.
When trying to evaluate Jim McElwain as a coach and a leader of a program, two seasons is hardly fair. If you look at the recent history of Gators coaches in the modern era, McElwain doesn’t inspire much confidence. Some of this is unfair as well. Comparing any newly-hired coach to a legend is not right. Even Steve Spurrier had his ups and downs. In his first season, the Gators were blown out by Tennessee and Florida State. In 1991, they lost big at Syracuse. And in 1992, back-to-back blowouts on the road at Tennesee and Mississippi State were very discouraging. But Spurrier immediately ended Georgia’s dominance in the rivalry with a 38-7 blowout win in ’90 and had three wins over top-5 teams in his first two seasons. Urban Meyer had an awful first-year loss at Alabama but lost only two more by double-digits (and none by more than 12) until the beginning of the end against Bama in 2009.
Spurrier and Meyer aren’t the only coaches who outperformed McElwain, though. Looking at the Ron Zook era doesn’t favor him either. The Zooker’s teams went 12-4 in the SEC his first two years despite sharing a division with a top-10 Georgia team both seasons. The Gators were blown out four times in Zook’s first two seasons but also toppled two top-5 teams in Tennessee in Georgia in 2002. The final Zook season featured no blowout losses and three either-or games that Mac has been so
lucky good in. An awful personal foul call on Dallas Baker, the referees’ failure to restart the clock and the Vols kicker executing on a 50-yard kick at the gun had nothing to do with Ron Zook’s coaching. Against LSU, Florida led 21-7 and lost on a TD pass with 30 seconds left. Zook lost both and Mac won two almost identical ones (UT in ’15, LSU in ’16).
Don’t go to 2:19:00. Don’t do it.
Even big dumb Will Muschamp football beat four ranked teams in 2012. McElwain has two wins over ranked opponents.
The Mac supporters in Gator Nation will point to other coaches around the country that have turned their programs around after some slow starts. The first is James Franklin. He has been at Penn State for three seasons now and the first two were slow going with the the Nittany Lions clawing to identical 7-6 records. Including this season’s blowout at Michigan, Franklin’s teams have also dropped seven double-digit decimations, the same number as Mac’s Gators. Penn State’s magical 2016 made Happy Valley happy again. The win over Ohio State coupled with the B1G championship all seemed so improbable a year ago. Definitely food for thought with McElwain and how long Florida’s administration should allow him to rebuild the program.
Chris Petersen (who we famously penned a love letter to back in 2010) took over a Washington program that was average under his predecessor Steve Sarkisian and promptly went 8-6 and 7-6 in his first two seasons. There were some blowout losses, too, for Petersen with five of the 12 by double digits, not as bad as we’ve seen in Gainesville in 13 months but still not great. The Pac-12 was good and especially the Pac-12 North with powers Stanford and Oregon. So these first two seasons were definitely met with some disappointment in Seattle but there was an understanding that the program’s overhaul was a process. In year three, of course, Petersen and the Huskies are in the college football playoff.
While I don’t like comparing coaches at different programs, there are certainly reasons for optimism in what Franklin and Petersen have done. The biggest reason for alarm in these comparisons for the anti-Mac brigade? Both Franklin and Petersen recruited quarterbacks right away who came in and transformed their offenses into explosive attacks. Trace McSorley redshirted a year because Franklin had the luxury of NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg. Jake Browning, though, started as a true freshman. Both of them had sensational seasons and will probably end up top-10 in Heisman voting. And this leads us to the biggest reasons for concern for the Jim McElwain era.
McElwain has absolutely been hamstrung by what he inherited at the quarterback position. Will Grier appeared poised to break the curse of Tim Tebow before his suspension and ultimate transfer. Treon Harris was never a SEC-caliber quarterback. This season rather than turn the reins of the offense over to either true freshmen recruited by Mac and his staff, the coach went with two transfers in Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby. After injuries and struggles, McElwain still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of playing a freshman. College football in 2016 is a lot different than college football 20 years ago. True freshmen are often thrust into action and expected to compete at a high level. Jalen Hurts is an outlier in looking at the performance of true freshman QBs, but even Jacob Eason and Shane Buechele at Texas had their moments. Jake Browning took his lumps at Washington last year before becoming an elite passer this season. Either Mac was too scared to trust his freshmen or they weren’t ready, which given that both were early enrollees last spring doesn’t say much about the staff’s ability to get them ready or to evaluate their potential.
Obviously Grier’s failure was the key in all of this. Mac supporters will say that if Grier doesn’t screw up, Florida is probably set at the QB position for three years. There is clear progress with the offense and no way Florida gets blown out like they have in their past seven losses. Some of those seven are probably wins, too. All good arguments and believable. On the flip side, college kids are notoriously unreliable and Mac and his staff had to prioritize finding good QBs and getting them ready in case disaster struck. Two other issues in pointing to Grier: 1) McElwain didn’t recruit him, he’s a Muschamp signee and 2) Mac could have convinced him to stay and return to the field halfway through this season. It would have been a tough pill to swallow but given the QB situation since Tebow, it was something he should have considered.
In addition to the disputed “facts” of how you look at statistics, records and game results and comparisons with other coaches, there is the on-field subjective analysis that makes evaluating a coach even harder. Play calling is an easy thing for fans and experts to second guess. The 4th down at FSU on the opening drive and the ill-advised pitch at LSU on the goal line after Scarlett and Perine had gashed the Tigers all the way down the field are just two recent calls that drove many to question Mac and Doug Nussmeier. We’re all so much smarter from our seats in the stands and our couches when plays don’t work. At the same time, offensive and quarterback gurus get held to higher standards. Florida’s offense has not been in the top 100 in total offense in either of these first two seasons. There have been long stretches where Florida’s top playmakers Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell and Jordan Scarlett haven’t received touches. For that matter, why did it take so long for the Gators four-headed running-back committee to be settled? Jordan Scarlett is a special runner and most of us saw it well before Mac and Nuss. Lamical Perine is the clear second choice and Jordan Cronkrite is the best third-down option. Mac wasted too many games and too many touches trying to figure out what seemed obvious.
None of this is likely to change minds out there. Gator Nation will remain a divided land filled with those on one side screaming at those on the other side to just see clearly. Often times, things are not as bad as they seem. This is true of what we see in our current situation and what we see coming in the near future if we don’t get our way. I’m on the side of believing that McElwain is not the answer and ultimately we will have to move on from him. I see the “facts” that tell me he’s been lucky on the field despite being unlucky off it. I don’t believe you can be blown out this much and still be a good coach. Good coaches will lose big but when they do, they use it as fuel to spark their team away from mediocrity and toward greatness. All that said, I respect those who see hope in him and think that he’s the right man to get us back on top of the SEC and eventually the country. This includes many of my friends here at Our Two Bits. The bottom line is Jim McElwain will remain Florida’s coach at least for the 2017 season and all Gators fans should hope, well into the future. His success is our success. And unlike our split society and real-world divisions, Gator Nation is united firmly behind our desire to win football games and truly be great again.