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Depression set in for Jim McElwain early Saturday evening in Arkansas. The Florida Gators coach stood at his postgame press conference following a 31-10 loss to the Razorbacks seemingly dumbfounded at what he had just seen on the field.
Florida, which needed to win two of its last three games and was at full health entering the contest, not only got blasted by a team that had just lost a game 56-3 to Auburn two weeks prior but also got absolutely decimated by injuries to key players in the game.
“I’m very disappointed. The locker room is disappointed. … I just feel horrible for the Gator Nation just the way everything kind of played out,” he began. “… I understand what we let slip away.”
It was a familiar scene for a team that spent decades rarely experiencing losses let alone such devastation.
After admitting there were “a lot of positions we got to evaluate moving forward,” quarterback included, McElwain closed by saying what was on everyone’s mind: “We’ve got a long road.”
Indeed, a long road filled with the potential for wrecks and wrong turns — starting Saturday.
The Gators will be without a minimum of five starters — three of the four best players in the defensive front seven plus the center and quarterback — on Saturday. All were injured against the Razorbacks.
Florida, which continues to suffer through offensive issues that McElwain was hired to fix, will go up against the very man who was run out of town for creating those problems in Will Muschamp. He brings a surprising and steadily improving South Carolina team to Gainesville.
And while the Gators have the better offense in every statistical category at this juncture of the season, the Gamecocks are averaging nearly 30 points per game over their last three since moving to a true freshman quarterback. In other words, South Carolina is trending up while Florida (19.5 points per game over its last four) is going in the exact opposite direction.
Isn’t that special?
Asked about the offensive woes this week, McElwain admitted the Gators aren’t struggling a little bit but “a lot of bit.”
In giving an answer as to what was most disheartening about Florida’s loss to Arkansas, McElwain spent more time breathing and pausing than actually delivering a reply. “How long do we have? … Yeah … [Deep breath] … Probably just the way they took it to us, you know, physically. … That was really disappointing.”
While redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio faltered — he will miss an extended period of time with a shoulder injury that McElwain says should have kept him from playing the second half — McElwain put the blame on his shoulders.
Well, his and the collective shoulders of the offensive line.
“[Criticizing creativity is] natural. When things aren’t going well, that’s where you point,” he began. “… Part of what you have to do is you still have to be able to do some things up front that doesn’t disrupt exactly what you’re trying to get accomplished to get a rhythm going. We didn’t do a very good job of that. We’ve done that at times, and we’ve got to be able to do that for us to be successful.
“We continue to get parts here and we got to get the parts to work together. That’s where it is. That’s a natural thing for people. I get it. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been on both ends of that where they’re ready to put you in Ferris Bueller’s parade and then they’re ready to hang you after a loss. I get it. That’s the business we’re in.”
There will be no parade for these Gators if the 11-point favorites (the line opened at -15) beat the Gamecocks. That’s expected. Actually, forget “expected.” It’s demanded. This isn’t just a must-win game for McElwain, it’s a must-not-lose game.
Florida did not hire McElwain to lose on Senior Day inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Not to the coach the Gators fired. Not when UF’s spot atop the SEC East is on the line. Injuries be damned. Those aren’t an excuse for a coach who began his tenure by saying he could win with his dog at quarterback.
“[We’re] staying the course. We’ve got a plan. Our guys understand it,” McElwain said. “There’s some tweaks here and there that you do in reevaluation of every week. This week’s no different.”
But that’s where McElwain is wrong. This week is different. This week is a true test of his ability as a head coach, not only to lead a team but create a winning gameplan in the face of adversity. This week is a referendum on where the program stands after nearly two full seasons under his wing.
Florida has taken a small step back defensively, a small step forward offensively and is not faring nearly as well as the Gators traditionally do in recruiting.
If McElwain falls to Muschamp, he won’t be treated as drastically as he suggests, but you can bet that his seat will begin heating up a lot quicker than anyone expected.