Yes, it’s early.
We still have no idea how the next 11 weeks will play out. Like last year, teams that look like early title contenders could fade into the abyss, and teams that aren’t on anyone’s radar can make a run to the College Football Playoff. For all we know, Florida and Tennessee are in the latter group.
But ahead of their SEC opener matchup on Saturday, it seems like Florida and Tennessee have coaches who desperately are in need of early statements.
Butch Jones, of course, is still trying to shed the notion that Tennessee is no longer Florida’s little brother. Sure, his Vols finally stopped the skid last year, but it was Florida that represented the SEC East in Atlanta. Again.
And Jim McElwain might own consecutive East crowns, but patience appears to be running out for him to turn around Florida’s offense. The fact that McElwain will enter Saturday still in search of his first win in 2017 is unfamiliar, though not entirely his fault. Still, it adds intrigue to what’s always one of college football’s most intriguing matchups.
Two coaches enter Saturday in hopes of picking up the all-important opening SEC victory. Maybe a convincing showing can squash the notion that both coaches reached the dreaded plateau at their respective programs. So the question is obvious.
Who needs a win more?
The case for Jones
For many, there were two SEC coaches who entered 2017 on the hot seat: Kevin Sumlin and Butch Jones. While Sumlin certainly appears to have a hotter seat than Jones heading into Week 3, we can agree that Jones isn’t in the clear just because his team beat Georgia Tech in the opener. Taking down the Yellow Jackets in double overtime didn’t get Tennessee any closer to a return trip to Atlanta.
That, ultimately, is what is expected of Jones or whoever coaches at Tennessee. He still obviously hasn’t done that. Jones couldn’t do that last year when he snapped Tennessee’s 11-game losing streak against the Gators. Lose Saturday and suddenly the Vols find themselves chasing in the division race yet again.
Jones is also desperate to prove to the college football world that his team can actually stop the run. Even though they won, allowing 535 rushing yards to Georgia Tech didn’t quiet those concerns. Losing and letting up 300-plus rushing yards to the Gators wouldn’t bode well for the rest of SEC play. You can’t win in this league if you can’t stop the run.
And if Tennessee can’t pick up a win against Florida, look at how the Vols’ SEC play continues:
- vs. Georgia
- vs. South Carolina
- at Alabama
Lose to Florida and suddenly a 1-3 start to SEC play looks all too real. That’s the last thing Jones wants to see.
The case for McElwain
While some are under the impression that neutral-site non-conference showdowns aren’t that important, well, they’re wrong. McElwain’s offensive stinker against Michigan only added to the growing army that believes he can’t lead Florida to Urban Meyer-type heights.
There’s also something else working against McElwain. Besides the fact that his team was trounced on a big stage vs. Michigan — Florida’s steak of 27 straight season-opening wins ended — Hurricane Irma prevented McElwain from getting that feel-good, bounce-back win in Week 2. If Florida loses to Tennessee, it’ll be searching for its first win of 2017 in the fourth week of the season.
When the Northern Colorado game was canceled, the Gators’ chances of regressing definitely increased. Just getting to nine victories with that remaining schedule means Florida has to win those coin-flip games like Tennessee.
And if Florida can’t score points against Tennessee’s Swiss cheese run defense — at home, no less — the Gators could be in some serious jeopardy of getting whipped again by Florida State or any dominant SEC defense.
Division titles or not, that would be a tough pill to swallow for McElwain heading into the meat of the schedule.
So, who needs it more?
I’ll go with McElwain. There are three issues that McElwain has that Jones doesn’t have right now:
- McElwain’s team fell apart in the second half in its neutral-site opener
- The suspensions loom
- Florida’s quarterback situation is still a mess
There’s also the fact that McElwain will be in front of the home fans Saturday. Jones isn’t hearing any boo birds if his team is still stuck in single digits in the fourth quarter. McElwain is.
This feels like a possible breaking point for Florida, especially for a fanbase that’s ready to see the Gators rise above their 10.25 offensive points per game in their past eight contests vs. ranked foes. If Florida wins and puts up 30 points in the process, suddenly that Michigan debacle feels like a lifetime ago.
Perception is formed in rivalry games. McElwain and Jones can do a lot to help themselves with a statement victory in The Swamp.