McElwain is gone, but these Gators still have plenty to play for in November
GAINESVILLE — Once upon a time, in the sweltering heat of July, the Gators were cool and confident inside the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. This was going to be the year the Gators, two-time champions of the SEC East, “kicked the door down in Atlanta,” or so their head coach, Jim McElwain thought.
Senior All-SEC safety Marcell Harris agreed, telling the lines at radio row that Florida had tasted what a bit of success looked like by reaching Atlanta in consecutive years, but “was ready to get to work and finish the job.” With as many playmakers in the fold as Florida has had in a decade and coming off a dominant bowl win where the core of a young defense shined, there was plenty to be optimistic about in Gainesville.
The longtime, often accurate and venerable college football preview writer Phil Steele even named Florida his No. 1 “surprise preseason national title contender” in the aftermath of SEC Media Days.
Those heady days seem like eons ago now.
Harris tore his Achilles’ almost immediately after the Gators returned from Hoover, thus beginning a cycle of misfortune that buckled Florida’s lofty hopes and dreams. Before Florida even played a game, they lost their top two pieces on offense too, with both Jordan Scarlett and All-American wide receiver Antonio Callaway suspended indefinitely, the subject of an investigation for credit card fraud that enveloped the program in August, when the focus should have been on a tough opener against Michigan.
By mid-October, Florida was 3-3, the season collapsing under the crushing weight of suspensions, more key season-ending injuries to team leaders like Jordan Sherit and Luke Del Rio, and yet another year of inept offense highlighted by the inability of another highly-touted young quarterback to even adequately meet team needs, let alone fan expectations.
Saturday, after an embarrassing 42-7 loss to rival Georgia officially ended Florida’s dreams of a third consecutive SEC East title, Florida was 3-4. By Sunday afternoon, Jim McElwain was gone too, the combination of a series of off-field incidents generating acrimony between the coach and the administration and the continued on-field failures of the offense he was hired to fix creating an irreparable wedge between Scott Stricklin, UF President W. Kent Fuchs and McElwain.
Florida now begins the arduous process of finding another football coach for the third time this decade. That job is on Stricklin and the athletic association and university administration.
The Gators players, along with interim head coach Randy Shannon, have another job, as Stricklin reminded a crowded media room Sunday night. They have four football games left to play for pride, the handful of seniors on the football team and the chance to beat their rival Florida State and reach a bowl game for the third consecutive season and 26th time in the past 27 seasons.
Playing under interim coaches is never easy, but history instructs that things either improve fairly quickly or go south dramatically. There is usually not an in-between.
In 1989, the last time Florida played anything more than a bowl game under an interim coach, things went sideways quickly. Even with Emmitt Smith, Gary Darnell finished the year 2-5, losing to rivals Georgia and Florida State and getting blown out by Washington in the now-defunct Freedom Bowl. Steve Spurrier and dreamy days may have been ahead, but the final month-plus of that year was stuck somewhere between sad and forgettable.
Sometimes, however, the departure of a coach — especially a players’ coach like McElwain — can serve as a rallying cry and foundation for strong finish.
In 2016, under then-interim head coach Ed Orgeron, LSU played much better than it had early in the season under the beloved Les Miles. The Tigers were furious Miles was fired, and rallied to finish 6-2 and win a bowl game in dominant fashion over Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and No. 13 Louisville. Orgeron also succeeded in an interim capacity at the University of Southern California, where he took over a 3-2 Trojans team after Lane Kiffin was fired and again went 6-2 down the stretch, whipping No. 20 Fresno State in a bowl game in the process.
But those might not be terrific comparisons. In addition to the common Orgeron thread, those teams were arguably both better personnel-wise than the current incarnation of the Gators.
A more comparable example for Florida might be the 2015 Miami Hurricanes.
Blasted 58-0 at home by Clemson in late October, the Canes were left for dead under interim coach Larry Scott. But Scott rallied the team, immediately winning a road game over a ranked Duke team the following week and closing the year 4-2, with a strong performance in a tough Sun Bowl loss to Washington State to boot.
Whatever the history, the next four games for Florida under Shannon are important, both for Shannon and what’s left of McElwain’s staff and for Florida’s program as it builds for the future.
Starting Saturday at Missouri, the players should be motivated to close strong. The remaining games are open auditions, and everything they put on film in November will be inventory for the new staff, with most jobs open come the spring.
For Shannon and the staff, it’s a chance to secure their future in the business.
Multiple sources have told me President Fuchs is fond of the man and coach Shannon is, and he might encourage whomever is hired to retain Shannon as an elderly statesman, associate head coach and linebackers coach. Alternatively, a strong finish could help Shannon become a head coach again elsewhere. The same goes for the rest of Florida’s staff, who have to balance the tough job of preparing a football team while also preparing their resumes.
As for the program, missing a bowl game for the second season this decade would be perhaps the best evidence to date that expectations and reality are out-of-joint in Gainesville. And how often do coaches talk about bowl practices being invaluable for young players?
Then there’s the chance to beat Florida State at the end of the season.
It’s something the Gator seniors haven’t done, and it’s a game with massive stakes from a recruiting standpoint. Plus, if Florida can’t beat this reeling incarnation of Florida State, when can they ever win?
After a winless October, Florida’s players lost their chance at any championship and their head coach.
But there’s plenty on the line in November.