Does Florida’s Jim McElwain deserve the benefit of the doubt win or lose at LSU

By Adam Silverstein
November 18, 2016
Does Florida’s Jim McElwain deserve the benefit of the doubt win or lose at LSU
Football

Image Credit: ESPNI

There’s been plenty to criticize head coach Jim McElwain about in his two seasons leading the Florida Gators, and we have not been shy to do just that. But entering Saturday’s home-turned-road game against the LSU Tigers, it is important to put some perspective on what is about to transpire and what McElwain has done to this point in Gainesville, Florida.

Should Florida lose to LSU, as most expect, the Gators will drop their long-held lead atop the SEC East standings and be forced to look for some help from Missouri or Vanderbilt in knocking off Tennessee to send Florida back to Atlanta.

That would also mark another loss to a ranked opponent by McElwain, who is 1-5 against such teams entering Saturday’s game compared to 16-1 against unranked teams with that first loss coming on Nov. 5. It could also signal yet another late-season collapse for UF, which is 3-7 in its last three regular-season games (and the 2015 SEC Championship Game) combined dating back to 2013.

McElwain’s time with the Gators has not been easy. He took over a depleted offensive roster with an incredibly thin offensive line. He stepped into a situation where Florida lacked the infrastructure to compete with most other top programs nationally.

He watched as the star quarterback Florida fans had been waiting for years to emerge finally did so … only to be suspended for using a banned substance just as it looked like the Gators might actually, somehow, be national title contenders again. He was forced to completely rebuild the quarterback room from scratch. He dealt with an emerging playmaker facing incredible scrutiny while accused of sexual assault. And he’s tried to build up both the offensive line and offensive playmaking positions with an infusion of youth despite not having a quarterback who could take advantage of the latter.

McElwain has faced all of this, and yet, the Gators are 11-1 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium over the last two seasons, advanced to their first SEC Championship Game since 2009 last year, and somehow have the opportunity to get back to Atlanta in their hands again, as unlikely as that might be.

That 1-5 record against ranked opponents could fall to 1-6 on Saturday, and if it does, every loss would come with McElwain playing his backup quarterback, while the one victory came with his starter playing.

McElwain will also be playing a road game when he should have a home game. He’ll be trying to score against an LSU defense that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game this season. And he’ll be trying to win against a preseason national title darkhorse that has been rejuvenated under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

Oh … and he’ll be going after the Tigers without the Gators’ three leading tacklers, starting quarterback, starting center and a number of other key players.

“Every game you got to win to take a step forward,” McElwain said Monday. “… Every opportunity you have — and I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s the truth — it’s about taking advantage of an opportunity and testing who you are and not being afraid to put yourself out there. That’s what we got to do.”

It’s not all bad news for Florida, though. Even though the Gators are down key players — McElwain admitted he’s never been part of a team that’s seen so many important players go down in a two-week span — he sees younger players energized at the opportunity to play and injured starters staying involved and helping them develop. “That shows we’re growing up as an organization,” he said.

Florida also saw graduate transfer QB Austin Appleby step up in a major way last week against South Carolina. Save for a couple fluke turnovers — a dropped snap from the third-string center and deflected interception — Appleby was efficient and accurate. He got the ball to the Gators’ playmakers and showed some chops running the run-pass option, which opened up lanes later in the game for sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett.

Through all the adversity, McElwain has remained optimistic about Florida, its chances this season and where he sees the Gators going in the future.

“I’m excited about where we are at this point. The two losses, obviously, is not something you go into a season expecting or thinking that are going to happen, but they did,” he began. “Here’s what I like: I like our mindset. I like the way the young guys have responded and started to really take ownership. That’s good to see. With where we’re at, those guys not looking for excuses, it was exciting. …

“We got a long ways to go, but we’ve established some things about how the way we’re going to go about it. There’s some things we obviously need to get a lot better at, and we will, but the one thing is these guys care. It’s fun to see.”

The most fun thing for Florida fans is winning, which McElwain has not yet proven he can do at a high level since joining the program. But if the Gators do actually beat the Tigers — a win over LSU would propel Florida to a second straight division title and yet another appearance in the SEC Championship Game — McElwain will have most certainly earned the benefit of the doubt. And even if Florida doesn’t win, considering what McElwain’s gone up against, maybe he has anyway.

6 Comments

  1. DC Gator says:

    Adam, this article is exactly what we needed. I hope we beat LSU tomorrow and it would be a great win for the program and Coach, but it’s going to be a tough one to pull out. If we lose, it shouldn’t put a damper on the season for all the reasons you stated above. If we get to the SEC Championship for the second straight season, that’s awesome. I don’t think the result will be any different though. Bama is still Bama.

    Bottom line, we’re better than we were last year and last year we were better than the year before. Gator fans want greatness, and they want it right away. I love my school and of course I want our programs to be successful, but we need to be realistic and understand where we are in the world right now. Del RIo isn’t Grier. We still need a QB, hopefully Franks or Trask can become the guy. Or Allen when he gets on campus. What I’m seeing this year, and what we saw last year was just how depleted our offense had become under Muschamp. It takes time to build that back up. It’s not just about one or two guys. It’s about have solid guys at every position, and solid backups at every position. We’re getting there. Clearly not as fast as some fans would like, but let’s give Mac time to build his program. We weren’t going to win the title this year. Plain and simple, we aren’t that good right now. But we are better and we’ve gotten great production out of our freshmen both years. The program is moving in the right direction. We need to ride this out and see where Mac can bring us.

  2. Michael Jones says:

    Very nice, even handed treatment, Adam. I agree with DC Gator and liked his well-written comments too.

    If we win today, and I’m not expecting it as I think we are just out-manned, it would be a heck of a victory and an accomplishment by McElwain. I think it takes awhile to get us back to where we want to be. Muschamp left some good defensive players but really devastated us on offense. It takes more than two years to get a program back on track. Mac is heading in the right direction and, to answer Adam’s question, yes, I think he still definitely deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    Go Gators!!!

  3. docgator says:

    Best, most rational commentary I’ve read in a long time. Much better than, “We fail to totally suck all the time”. Like everyone else, I long for the glory days that really weren’t all that long ago. It’s not that we get stupidly impatient….it’s that it’s painful for us to watch the Gators play this way. We’ll never get used to 3-and-outs, we’ll never get used to the Gators being essentially irrelevant and disregarded. But we forget that even Alabama went through this several years ago too when they had a coach over his head. We’ve had two of those, each followed by a great coach who, once he got settled in, brought us back to national prominence. Let’s not forget that we’ve got one of those now, too.

  4. MAR says:

    Agreed with both of y’all above. However, didn’t Jim Harbough take over a depleted program as well at about the same time as Coach Mac? If we get off the bus like we did against UM in the bowl game or against Arky 2 weeks ago, it will be hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t matter what talent we had in those games. Those teams were poorly coached and severely lacked motivation. UM did not have that much better of a team than UF, and we got embarrassed in our home state.

    Just typin for comparisons. I just hope we at least show up today and give ourselves a chance to win. No more of that UM or Arky crap. True he should get the benefit of the doubt, and I like the direction, but I hope we never look like that again. Go Gators!

  5. Philkakid56 says:

    Wow. We’re in year two of what was obviously a rebuilding process, the coach is w-a-a-y over.500 during his tenure here, and THAT question is already being asked?? Does he deserve the benefit of the doubt? Talk about short memories! Muschamp lost to Vandy and an FCS school in the same year, went 4-8 and he got the benefit of the doubt. Puh-lease.

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