In Year 3, McElwain era looking like failed Muschamp era
Jim McElwain was blunt when assessing where the Florida Gators program is following a puzzling, disappointing 17-16 homecoming loss to LSU on Saturday in The Swamp.
“The idea is to win games,” McElwain told assembled media. “We didn’t do that. That’s the reality right now.”
Three years into the McElwain regime, however, that reality poses broader questions.
Winning games has been tough for the UF program of late. The Gators are 6-5 in their past 11, and just lost at home to an unranked opponent for the first time in McElwain’s tenure. McElwain is 22-10 through 32 games as Gators head coach. He started 6-0, then Will Grier failed a PED test and things have been a struggle since. For perspective, Will Muschamp, the man McElwain replaced, was also 22-10 through 32 games at UF. Ron Zook was 20-12. Both Muschamp and Zook were fired for failing to win enough.
Why isn’t Florida winning more football games? Why, in Year 3, is there so little margin for error, even playing at home against a subpar LSU team coached by Ed Orgeron?
Each question begets more questions.
Jim McElwain was brought in to remedy Florida’s half-decade of offensive malaise following the departure of Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer. Most thought he would. Nick Saban, for whom McElwain served as offensive coordinator for two national championships, called McElwain “maybe the brightest offensive mind he’d be around in coaching.” At his introductory press conference, the Florida head coach bragged his dog Claribelle could run his offense effectively.
Maybe this created unfair expectations, maybe not. But why, for the third consecutive season, is Florida’s offense mired in something due south of mediocrity, languishing outside the top 100 in America in total offense? Why, after three years of football, are coaches who developed the likes of Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron and Garrett Grayson still unable to develop a high-level SEC quarterback?
On defense, some regression was anticipated.
Florida has lost 11 defensive players to the past two NFL drafts, with seven taken in the top three rounds of each. Another player — Brian Poole — went undrafted but started the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons. Nationally, only Alabama has seen that kind of elite-level talent exodus. Combine those colossal personnel losses with the devastating season-ending summer injury to All-SEC safety Marcell Harris, and anyone could look at Florida defensively and think, “this group will take a step back.”
Still, there’s a difference between a natural drop-off and unforced errors. For Florida to be among the worst tackling percentage teams in the SEC (12th) is frustrating for Gators fans, as is giving up 6 of 14 third downs to a pedestrian offense like LSU. The Gators rate highly nationally in third-down conversion defense (23rd). Why was it so hard to get off the field in key spots against a LSU perimeter run scheme they knew was coming?
These questions aren’t new for the Florida program.
Instead, they’ve swirled like ghastly specters around this program for the better part of a decade, eroding the foundation for excellence left by Steve Spurrier and Jeremy Foley. The offensive and quarterback issues have lingered through multiple coaching staffs and several offensive coordinators. They’ve continued even as infrastructural and facility problems, which both Muschamp and McElwain complained about loudly, were addressed. Infrastructure improvements, highlighted of course by a state-of-the-art weight room and beautiful new indoor practice facility, have resolved the internal limitations on excellence off the playing field. Why can’t the coaching staff get things right on the field?
Gator fans are understandably frustrated.
There’s a line of argument being advanced this week that The Swamp isn’t itself anymore, not as loud and as fierce as in the halcyon days of Spurrier and Meyer. That’s mostly nonsense. Gators fans have continued to come and provide tremendous environments, whether against Tennessee in 2015 and 2017 or LSU Saturday or before another crushing loss to Florida State in 2015. The problem isn’t the fans — it’s the product. It’s amazing what scoring touchdowns would do. Ask Ole Miss about the environment in 2015. Ask yourself whether Florida lighting up the scoreboard had something to do with it.
Florida football alums are frustrated.
Tired of it…can't even tell you how many talented offensive players I have seen come through UF during my time…not a personnel issue.
— Bryan Cox Jr (@BEECoxx) October 7, 2017
They’ve practiced and played with the offensive personnel that Florida hasn’t maximized for several years. They’ve see Jordan Reed make Pro Bowls and Jacoby Brissett start pro football games and the likes of Mike Gillislee, Frankie Hammond, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson active on NFL rosters and they wonder why Florida’s coaches can’t figure it out schematically.
Florida’s locker room is frustrated too.
“Our guys want to win badly,” McElwain told the media Monday. “I’m sure they’re frustrated.”
There’s more to turning around a program than being frustrated and wanting to win badly, though.
To be sure, this coaching staff and these players have suffered more than their fair share of bad breaks. Maybe they could have handled the Will Grier situation differently, and maybe plenty of that is on Grier and his family too. But the reality is, that blow devastated what could have been a championship 2015 season and continues to haunt this football program.
Florida has lost three home games because of hurricanes under McElwain, and given the youth at quarterback, it’s difficult to suggest this year’s hurricane game wasn’t costly.
Injuries are part of football, but Florida has been hit savagely. The Harris injury was devastating to this team, from a leadership and football standpoint. Losing quarterback Luke Del Rio, another leader who knows the playbook and protections, to a season-ending injury was costlier than most will admit.
And there’s the “credit card 9” and the attendant criminal investigation that has hovered around this program all season. Most accounts suggest it fractured the locker room and, more obviously, it hurt the depth chart. Florida probably beats LSU with one of Antonio Callaway (suspended) or Tyrie Cleveland (hurt) available. With neither, receivers No. 3 and 4 had to become Nos. 1 and 2. That’s tough on any program, let alone one still figuring out what it wants to be on offense.
Just like with the young defense, the “next man up” mantra makes for great motivational fodder, but it’s not always realistic. Injuries and suspensions have hamstrung this football team.
At 3-2, 3-1 in the SEC, Florida would seem to still have plenty to play for this season, especially with a quality but beatable Texas A&M headed to town Saturday night and Georgia looming. But it doesn’t feel like they do. Instead, this feels like a coaching staff at the crossroads, trying to keep the center from falling apart, hanging on for dear life at a proud but frustrated program, now staring at Year 8 of an endless rebuild.