Far from the palm trees that permeate Florida, in the foothills of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, then-Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain made a loud declaration in 2012.
The Rocky Mountain Showdown isn’t Florida-Georgia in prestige or talent level. But the Colorado Buffaloes consider themselves the flagship program in the state. They’re the Pac-12 school that won the 1990 national championship. The Rams? CU sees them as a lesser version of South Florida. Decent, but inferior.
McElwain inherited a team that lost 9 of its last 10 games. He’d never been a head coach before, at any level. Within that context, in his first game, playing in the Denver Broncos’ home stadium, he led Colorado State to a stunning 22-17 win. In doing so, he outcoached then-CU coach Jon Embree – much like Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did to McElwain in the 2017 season opener.
“I don’t want to disrespect (former Colorado State coach) Steve Fairchild or anything. It just seems like they believe more this year,” a stunned Embree said after losing to McElwain.
Watching the 2015, ’16 and ’17 Florida Gators, it’s easy to forget McElwain’s pedigree. Outside of a $7.5-million buyout, which seemed steep at the time, McElwain seemed like a reasonable hire by Jeremy Foley. Promising, even.
Juxtapose that with the knowledge that Florida’s offense has regressed since Will Muschamp’s tenure, and football doesn’t make sense. The idea of firing someone – offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, maybe? – starts to sound much more reasonable.
Florida Gators: Offensive ineptitude
We forgive you, Impatient Gators Fan. The Swamp, birthplace of the Fun ‘n’ Gun, once a playground for Tim Tebow, is as known for offensive fireworks as any SEC stadium. It’s incomprehensible that Florida hasn’t ranked higher than eighth in the SEC in scoring offense since 2009(!).
The Gators’ national rank since then, by year: No. 43, No. 71, No. 78, No. 113, No. 56, No. 100, No. 107, No. 81.
I’m going to make a statement, and you’re going to recoil. That’s understandable.
Here it is: Jim McElwain is good for Florida’s offense.
I understand what you’re thinking right now. Ask someone if Krispy Kreme doughnuts are good. Then stick them in a room and make them eat week-old Krispy Kreme doughnuts for eight years. Show them a warm, freshly-glazed doughnut, which is obviously delicious, and ask them how it tastes.
That’s where you are, Florida fans. Stuck eating cold, decomposing doughnuts. There’s only one reaction that a normal human being will have in this situation. So, you are pardoned for any four-letter words you’re now directing toward me.
Jim McElwain can fix the offense
Given enough time, though, McElwain will get it together on offense.
I’m not sure Nussmeier is the answer (he wasn’t at Alabama or Michigan). But if McElwain had only given Will Grier and his dad a bear hug, told them that they were both special and handed Grier the starting quarterback job, the offense already would be competent. Maybe even good.
That’s easier to see in hindsight. And complicated by the fact that Grier put the Gators in a bad spot when he incurred a year-long suspension due to a positive test for a performance enhancer. And then maybe acted like a petulant, spoiled child. But Grier is averaging 343.5 passing yards per game for West Virginia this year, seventh in the nation, ahead of Heisman frontrunner Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson (Louisville). If he’s playing quarterback for Florida this year, this is a very different team.
McElwain also is without Jordan Scarlett, his starting running back entering the fall, and Antonio Callaway, an All-SEC type receiver, due to allegations of credit card fraud.
Recruiting the right players, keeping them out of trouble and keeping them on campus are responsibilities of the head coach. McElwain has some culpability there. Also, it shouldn’t be totally up to the quarterback to make sure the offensive line knows who to block, as it has seemed given the difference in the offense when Florida played a healthy Luke Del Rio.
Despite all those missteps and hardships, Florida put up 38 points and 467 yards against Vanderbilt after jolting into gear a few times late against Kentucky. It has taken a few games, but there’s real progress.
The team has discovered how to get the ball to Kadarius Toney in space. That Malik Davis can be a superstar in this conference. That Lamical Perine knows how to convert fourth-and-1. That Tyrie Cleveland is a hell of a deep threat. That occasionally mixing in the tight ends and Brandon Powell can keep defenses guessing.
I don’t know if it’s Feleipe Franks after another year or two of coaching, or true freshman Jake Allen, or someone who isn’t in Gainesville yet. But if McElwain gets two more years (I know, you’re cringing and don’t want to wait any longer), he’ll find a competent quarterback and make him good, or find a good quarterback and make him great.
If he gets that time – it’s starting to look like a big if, but it helps that he’s 9-1 in one-possession games – Florida’s offense will be great again. It’s possible to question his recruiting prowess, but he’s proven to be a tremendous talent developer. Some of his successes:
- He took a quarterback who chose Colorado State over Miami (Ohio), Eastern Washington and Idaho State, and groomed Garrett Grayson into a third-round NFL draft pick.
- Also at Colorado State, he took a running back transfer from Front Range Community College in Kapri Bibbs, and in his lone season, watched him join Barry Sanders and Montee Ball as the only players in NCAA history to rush for at least 30 touchdowns in a season.
- *CSU wide receiver Rashard Higgins nearly won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver in 2014, if not for Alabama standout Amari Cooper – who made the decision to come to Alabama while McElwain was coordinator there.
- At Alabama, McElwain helped the Crimson Tide win two national championships. He also turned Greg McElroy into an NFL draft pick and the holder of most Alabama single-season passing records, a feat in itself. Mark Ingram won Alabama’s first-ever Heisman Trophy with McElwain as his coordinator, and Trent Richardson took a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist as well.
- His time at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville, Montana State and Eastern Washington is filled with similar success stories.
To repeat: Florida’s offense will become good if McElwain remains head coach. This sounds crazy, but it may even become great. Because of the missteps at quarterback, possibly at offensive coordinator and all the suspensions, that may take another year or two. But if McElwain gets the time, all of that will get much better.
Jim McElwain’s defense < Will Muschamp’s defense
The biggest problem with McElwain? The defense. There have been almost imperceptible regressions in each game this season. And there are storm clouds looming on the horizon. That’s what Florida fans would be worried about, if not for the eight years of offensive torture. Geoff Collins is now head coach at Temple. Worse, most of Will Muschamp’s defensive players are now in the NFL.
Granted, Florida is extremely young on defense right now. But it’s fair to be skeptical that the defense will return to glory. It’s possible that for every step forward the offense makes, the defense will take a step back. The Vanderbilt performance could epitomize where this program is headed.
(We already gave some offensive numbers from that game; Florida allowed Kyle Shurmur to throw for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns. Can you imagine a Gators secondary doing that in the last 4 years?)
Florida Gators defensive players accounted for 5 picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. The defense boasts of 12 NFL selections in the last two years alone. Go back one more year and you can add No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler Jr.
Let’s compare the talent level Florida’s two most recent head coaches have attracted on defense by looking at McElwain’s three recruiting classes against Muschamp’s final three in Gainesville.
|Coach||5-star||4-star||3-star||Avg. Nat’l Player Rank||Unranked|
Data culled from the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Let’s look at the discrepancy in top-end talent a little closer. In his final three classes at Florida, Muschamp recruited 20 defensive players ranked in the top 250 of their respective classes, according to the 247Sports Composite. In his first three classes at Florida, McElwain has recruited just 7 defensive players with the same distinction.
Of Florida’s top 8 commitments in the 2018 class, just one is a defensive player – 4-star safety Amari Burney. The team already has collected four commitments from 3-star defensive players in the class.
It’s easier to protect the optics on defense. That unit has been so good for so long, it’s just assumed that will continue to some degree. And “they’re young” on that side of the ball. But that could be a trap.
McElwain seems likely to keep his job into the 2018 season. Assuming the Gators beat Missouri and UAB, and accounting for the fact that Hurricane Irma canceled a sure win against Northern Colorado, the equivalent of a 6-win season is the very conservative floor for this team.
Manage to go just 2-3 against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State, which seems like a reasonable expectation, and this team would finish the regular season 8-3. Off back-to-back SEC title appearances, that’s not going to encourage Scott Strickland to fire McElwain.
A fan, short for fanatic, is by nature a short-term, emotional creature. That’s a feature, not a bug. Fan enthusiasm is perhaps the SEC’s No. 1 differentiator. And if Florida’s offense continues to languish this season, fans should gripe about the offense. And perhaps Nussmeier should go.
Florida just lost Del Rio for the season and Cleveland presumably for the next several weeks. Georgia’s defense is scary good, and Florida State remains stacked with NFL talent on that side of the football. So a couple more offensive stinkers are very possible.
But this never was going to be a national championship team. So look to 2018 and beyond.
It seems crazy now. But McElwain’s undoing in Gainesville may be the defense. He needs to recruit better talent on that side of the ball now, before it’s too late.
If McElwain can maintain a top 25 defense at Florida, he’ll have a good chance to win a championship. If the offense and defense swap places, like an old-school scale or a see-saw, Strickland will be looking for a new head coach by the end of 2019, if not before.
The post Jim McElwain may get run out of Gainesville because of bad defense appeared first on SEC Country.
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