Two premier college football jobs, Michigan and Florida, opened after the 2014 season. The Wolverines let the NFL season play out, then hired Jim Harbaugh. The Gators made a bold play for Colorado State’s Jim McElwain, furnishing $5 million of his contract buyout to extricate him.
Michigan and Florida faced each other last Saturday. The game provided a bellwether of how the two processes under Harbaugh and McElwain are progressing entering Year 3. It was not a good look for the Florida coach.
Both coaches faced similar issues upon arrival. Michigan and Florida both had very good to excellent defenses in 2014 (13th and 6th respectively in S&P+). Both teams paired those defenses with unimpressive offenses (89th and 74th respectively in S&P+). Neither had a proven quarterback.
Harbaugh started from a worse position. While Florida disappointed at 7-5, they still ranked 33rd nationally in SRS, beat Georgia by 18, and had some tough one-score losses. Michigan, 5-7, ranked 61st in SRS. The Wolverines lost to Rutgers and Maryland that year. Not to mention the 31-0 shelling they took in South Bend.
Despite starting from a worse position, Harbaugh sparked an immediate sea change in Ann Arbor. Michigan finished sixth in 2015 SRS and fifth in 2016 SRS. The Wolverines’ offense jumped from 89th to 38th/41st in offensive S&P+ during Harbaugh’s two seasons. Michigan’s defense, under D.J. Durkin and Don Brown, got even better (3rd/2nd in S&P+).
McElwain’s improvement at Florida has been more modest. The Gators ended up 27th in SRS in 2015 and 20th in 2016. Florida’s offense under McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has stayed level (73rd/80th in S&P+). So has the defense (7th/4th in S&P+).
Differences between the W-L records of McElwain and Muschamp might just be their fortune in one-score games. McElwain went 7-1 in those contests his first two seasons. Muschamp went 3-7 over hast last two. Muschamp was 1-6 against ranked opponents his final two seasons. McElwain has gone 2-8 against ranked opponents.
Florida has won two division titles under McElwain. Grasping skeptics have noted Harbaugh has not finished above third in his division. Division titles don’t exist in real life (unless you’re at UNC). Michigan was, quite literally, an inch from winning its division last season (and beat the winner by 39).
The Big Ten East has also proved much tougher than the SEC East the past few years. Michigan plays in the same division with Ohio State (2nd/4th in SRS for 2015/16). Michigan State (2015) and Penn State (2016) had teams finish in the Top 10. No SEC East team finished Top 10 in SRS in 2015 or 2016. Florida has been helped out by the Vols not reaching their potential and Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri getting worse.
Harbaugh and McElwain have faced each other twice head-to-head, last weekend and the Citrus Bowl after their first season. Both games went similarly, with McElwain getting out-coached. Florida’s offense scored early in both games, then didn’t score again. The Wolverines labored a tad more the second time around. But, the two pick-sixes aside, the results were similar.
Having Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway might have helped the UF offense. But, it’s hard to see the two making enough of a difference to overturn the result. So would having stable quarterback play. McElwain deserved a pass at the start of his tenure and after the Will Grier suspension. But it’s fair to ask why that has not materialized in Year 3.
For most, there’s no shame in being out-coached by Harbaugh. But Florida is not most programs. Within recent memory, Florida has been coached by two of the all-time great strategists, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Being outclassed by anyone should be unacceptable at Florida, let alone being manhandled by a Big Ten program.
Florida could still bounce back in 2017. Its schedule, thanks to last year’s swap with LSU, looks quite favorable. The Gators play just three true road games the rest of the way. All three – Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri – are winnable. Florida faces Tennessee, LSU and FSU at home. It’s not certain how good the Seminoles will be without Deondre Francois for the season.
The probable trajectory for the Gators, however, seems to place them about where they were the past two seasons. Formidable defense. Not all that impressive offense. Inconsistent quarterback play. Four losses or so and an SRS ranking in the 20s nationally. Another coach at Florida who had Florida in a similar position his first three seasons? Ron Zook. He didn’t make it to a fourth.
This is not to say McElwain should be on the “hot seat” yet or that he will face any danger this season. With a $12.5 million buyout to whittle down after an extension signed in June, he might remain in Gainesville for some time. But last weekend’s debacle against Michigan might end up being a turning point, where it became clear just how little progress has been made.