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.