10 worst things to happen to Florida in nightmarish 2017 season
GAINESVILLE — Back in the sweltering heat of summer, at SEC Media Days, expectations were high for the Florida Gators.
After reaching, but falling short in Atlanta the past two seasons, Florida thought the 2017 football season would be about finally “kicking the door down in Atlanta” and finally challenging Alabama for the SEC Championship.
By the end of October, those lofty aspirations had vanished, vanquished by a perfect storm of suspensions, injuries, questionable coaching and yet again, poor quarterback play. Jim McElwain was out as head coach a day after a humbling 42-7 loss to Georgia and six days later, under interim coach Randy Shannon, the Gators quit on the field at Missouri, routed 45-16 by a Tigers team that was winless in SEC play.
With three games left to play, what in the summer had the makings of a dream season has played out as a nightmare.
Here’s a dizzying list of the 10 worst things to happen to Florida this season.
10. Malik Davis lost for season against Georgia
Davis wasn’t the most highly-coveted running back out of the state of Florida last year, but based on his performance, maybe he should have been. The freshman running back from Tampa tallied 526 yards through the season’s first 7 games, averaging 6.7 yards a carry.
At a program that has spent years looking for difference-makers on offense, Davis had the feel of a burgeoning star, one of the lone bright spots in a season gone wrong.
His season-ending knee injury against UGA added injury to a day filled with insult.
9. Speaking of Georgia, Florida was crushed at the Cocktail Party
All week, the Florida-Georgia game was hyped as a rivalry where anything can, and does, happen. Knocking off an unbeaten UGA team was Florida’s chance to salvage a broken season.
Instead, the game was all but officially over in the first quarter.
Florida trailed 21-0 after eight minutes and Georgia, long dominated in this rivalry, sent a message that under second-year head coach Kirby Smart, the script may be flipped.
8. Tyrie Cleveland injured against Vanderbilt
If Florida’s football team had one consistent hero in a strange September, it was Tyrie Cleveland.
The sophomore from Houston was on the receiving end of a 60-yard post pattern to beat Tennessee at the buzzer- what we called “The Heave to Cleve”- and then played a pivotal role a week later in Florida’s fourth-quarter comeback win at Kentucky.
But Cleveland rolled an ankle against Vanderbilt and was all but absent from Florida’s three October losses, missing two entirely. It showed, as Florida’s other receivers struggled to get separation against LSU, Texas A & M and UGA secondaries that no longer had to account for Florida’s best vertical threat.
For a Gators offense starved for playmakers, losing the best vertical one before the October gauntlet was crushing.
7. Bad PAT vs. LSU
LSU arrived to The Swamp reeling following a humbling homecoming loss to Troy. The Gators had momentum, winners of three straight after an opening-day flop against Michigan.
A Gators win here might have sealed an early fate for Ed Orgeron at LSU, and propelled Florida toward Atlanta.
A defensive battle appeared to be turning Florida’s way late, as LSU struggled to slow the Gators power running game in the second half. Then, when Florida scored to pull within one, it botched an extra point.
The guilty culprits?
Two of Florida’s best players, of course. Johnny Townsend — an All-American punter who botched the hold — and All-American candidate Eddy Pineiro, who missed his first extra point as a Gator.
The result of the game sent LSU and Florida on different trajectories for the remainder of the season.
6. Gators quit at Missouri
It’s one thing to compete and get beat, as Florida did at home in tough losses to Texas A&M and LSU.
It’s another to have your doors blown off, as an outclassed Gators team did against UGA.
It’s another altogether to quit on the field and embarrass the university and football program, which is what Florida, by its own admission according to linebacker David Reese, did at Missouri this past Saturday.
The 45-16 loss to a team that entered the game winless in the SEC was one of the worst Gators performances in history, and a sign of the culture of losing creeping into the program in Gainesville.
5. Luke Del Rio breaks his collarbone against Vanderbilt
Florida managed to beat Tennessee with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks under center but was in dire straits at Kentucky, down 13 in the fourth quarter, when Jim McElwain turned the football team over to the cerebral veteran Luke Del Rio, a former walk-on.
Del Rio led Florida on two key scoring drives and saved the day at Kentucky, and had Florida moving the football against Vanderbilt before a punishing hit by Vanderbilt’s Jonathan Wynn broke Del Rio’s collarbone on impact.
Del Rio was lost for the season, and Florida’s offense has looked lost ever since, because …
4. Feleipe Franks hasn’t been ready for prime-time
Franks was a highly-touted, rocket-armed All-American prep quarterback, and a big recruiting win for Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier out of Crawfordville, Fla.
But for all Franks’ physical tools, critics felt he was a project on the field, under-coached in high school and untested against small-school competition.
The skeptics appear to be correct.
Franks had the worst October of any quarterback in the Power 5, averaging only 4.4 yards an attempt while throwing for only 273 yards in 3 starts. He added three interceptions to the mix, and was benched by interim head coach Randy Shannon ahead of the Missouri game.
3. “Death Threats” Accusations Hurt team focus, seal McElwain fate
McElwain’s seat was certainly warming after two consecutive home losses in October, but most felt that with an elite recruiting class on the way and after winning two SEC East title in his first two seasons, he’d certainly get a fourth year.
Then, the week of a critical rivalry game, McElwain made remarks about their being death threats against Gators players and families, only to clam up and refuse to elaborate when pushed about the context.
The comments reopened a longstanding wound between McElwain and the UF administration, and sent a week that should have been about focusing on the Bulldogs into a spiral of speculation and controversy about McElwain’s future.
McElwain was fired a day after his distracted Gators were slaughtered by Georgia in Jacksonville.
2. Marcell Harris tears Achilles’ just after SEC Media Days
Given the colossal personnel losses to graduation and the NFL Draft over the past two seasons, the Gators’ defense always figured to have some growing pains in 2017. It’s simply not possible to lose 10 players to the NFL in two years and not take at least a brief step back.
But the good news was Florida was talented up front and had an All-American candidate at safety in Marcell Harris, whom NFL analyst Todd McShay called “the SEC’s best tackler and run-stopping safety” in the summer.
Shortly after media days, however, Harris was lost to a torn Achilles’.
Florida’s defense has struggled to tackle (12th in the SEC in tackling percentage) and stop the run (77th nationally) since, and these things aren’t coincidence.
1. The Credit Card Nine
Much of the hype surrounding this Florida team centered on all the weapons at McElwain’s disposal.
With Jordan Scarlett leading the running game and All-American Antonio Callaway in the passing game, this figured to be the year where even a competent quarterback could score at will.
Instead, Scarlett and Callaway were among nine players (more than 1/10th of the Florida players on scholarship) suspended during two-a-days for their role in a credit card scheme that defrauded the University of Florida and various private citizens of thousands of dollars.
Before Florida’s crucial season opener at Michigan, McElwain had already lost his top two returning playmakers indefinitely.
The trickle-down effect crushed Florida in the passing game, allowing defenses to key on Cleveland and forcing receivers who were terrific options as three and four to become solid options at one and two when Cleveland was hurt.
And it wasn’t just the loss of Scarlett and Callaway that has hurt Florida.
The Gators’ linebacker depth was eviscerated by the loss of James Houston and highly-regarded linebacker Ventrell Miller in the scandal, hurting Florida’s run defense and impacting Florida on special teams, where, one assistant told me, Florida was counting on Miller in particular to help cover punts and kickoffs.
From a football standpoint and a culture standpoint, the “Credit Card Nine” sent Florida’s 2017 season into a sideways death spiral before it even began.