After that rout, it's fair to wonder: Is Jim McElwain even capable of fixing Florida?
What a difference a year makes.
A Gators team that had beaten Georgia teams with very similar personnel by a combined score of 51-13 in Jim McElwain’s first two seasons at the helm in Gainesville was outplayed, outclassed and embarrassed from the opening kick Saturday, falling 42-7 in Jacksonville.
Sony Michel entered Saturday’s game 0-3. He left Jacksonville Saturday evening with an emphatic victory, 137 yards on six carries and two touchdowns, the clear hero of a game that was more or less over after Michel darted 74 yards through the Gators’ vaunted defensive line for a touchdown to make it 21-0 early in the first quarter.
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Prior to that carry, Michel had only 77 yards in three career games against the Gators. None of that historical futility mattered Saturday. Michel, who is from South Florida, would add another touchdown in the third quarter on a 45-yard gallop, giving the Bulldogs a four-touchdown lead and vanquishing for good any lingering dreams of a Florida miracle.
In many ways, Michel’s first long touchdown run didn’t just seal a football game that was largely over just after it began. It culminated a rapid power shift in the SEC East, one that occurred in only 12 months under Georgia’s second-year head coach Kirby Smart.
Outclassed by a powerful Florida defense and a competent offense under Luke Del Rio just a year ago, the Bulldogs were far better in all three phases Saturday. And with Smart recruiting like a snowball moving downhill at ludicrous speed, Gator fans evacuating the building in the third quarter Saturday had to be wondering whether fortune, so long on their side in this rivalry, had turned for the foreseeable future.
It wasn’t an unexpected loss for Florida, especially given the injuries and suspensions that have wrecked what just this past summer most analysts and fans figured would be a promising season.
But in a week where most the attention around the Florida program focused on whether Jim McElwain did or did not receive “death threats” from the Florida fan base, it’s the the way Florida lost Saturday that will be remembered.
Once again, the Gators were listless and wholly incompetent in the passing game, and for the third consecutive loss, it appeared that Florida’s highly-touted Feleipe Franks was regressing. The young quarterback turned in the worst performance of his career, turning the ball over twice and averaging an unthinkably bad 1.5 yards an attempt. On a night the Gators also tackled poorly, committed countless first down procedure penalties and continued to struggle to cover punts, it goes without saying the Gators needed more from their quarterback.
It’s sometimes unfair to hold coaches accountable for things they promise at opening press conferences. You rarely know what type of injuries will occur, or when probation will beckon, or what blue-chip recruit will flame out. But McElwain’s remarks that “even his dog Clarabelle could run his offense” is one he might never live down.
Whatever the misfortune of Will Grier’s PED drug test failure, Franks’ miserable performance Saturday was just the latest reminder of McElwain’s failure to develop a quarterback who, at a minimum, runs his offense as effectively as his dog.
Hard questions now must be asked about the Gators’ future under McElwain.
Even prior to the game, rumors swirled that Florida’s athletic association was engaged in buyout negotiations with McElwain and his agent, Jimmy Sexton.
Source: Agent Jimmy Sexton & UF have been trying to work out Coach Mac buyout, but are “miles apart.” Still working hard on it.
— Darren Heitner (@DarrenHeitner) October 28, 2017
Gators AD Scott Stricklin then said in a statement to ESPN that nobody at Florida has had discussions with McElwain or his representatives about a buyout.
None of these rumors could have helped the Gators’ focus as they prepared for the best version of Georgia since Rex Grossman broke Bulldog hearts in 2002. But how much of that is on McElwain, who attracted so much negative attention to his program midweek with the “death threat” allegations, only to later admit he succumbed to “the same clutter he tells his players to avoid”?
The truth is perhaps McElwain, a West Coast guy with a laissez-faire personality, may want out of Gainesville. Florida’s a pressure-cooker of a job the likes of Alabama or Auburn, one that sent Ron Zook to a fraternity house looking for a fight and sent Urban Meyer to the emergency room.
Even Steve Spurrier, whose devotion to Florida should forever be without question, lamented the brutality of the Florida fan base after his 10-2 team in 2001 failed to reach Atlanta after a brutal loss to Tennessee. “Maybe we’ve gotten too spoiled,” Spurrier said in the aftermath of the regular season. Spurrier won the Orange Bowl, and resigned days later.
Lost in the wilderness for nearly 80 years, Gators fans became entitled after the halycon days of the 1990s and 2000s. Somewhere, somehow, Florida fans forgot to live and enjoy the moment and began to expect the embarrassment and obliteration of every foe, at all times. How fair that lingering expectation has been during the long post-Urban Meyer rebuild is a fair question.
But it is also fair to wonder whether McElwain is an effective answer.
Without question, his first two recruiting classes at Florida were below the program’s fair standard. And while McElwain did win two SEC East titles in his first two years, it’s beyond debate that he did so largely powered by the elite defenses laden with NFL-caliber talent left by his predecessor, Will Muschamp.
McElwain deserves credit for that, of course — and more than Florida fans give him — considering Muschamp won only 10 games in two seasons with the same players. But the fact his offense was stuck in the mud against Georgia in his third year should also be considered. And it’s fair to demand answers why.
What was clear Saturday night in Jacksonville was that Kirby Smart and Georgia are ready to move forward, stake their claim to the East and pose a legitimate challenge to Nick Saban’s imperious Alabama in Atlanta. The Bulldogs are clearly the real thing.
With that in mind, Stricklin has to answer one question of his own. Is McElwain the guy to answer the bell given Smart’s success?
If the answer to that question is no, then Stricklin should consider this sage advice from his predecessor, Jeremy Foley.
“Why not do immediately what must be done eventually?”
If eventually McElwain must go, Stricklin and Florida should move on, sooner rather than later.