Call it a fluke if you want. Maybe dumb luck. Perhaps a break. Or an accident. But what is now clear one week after Florida’s gutty win over LSU made it look like the Gators were a program on the rise is that Florida remains mired in the inconsistency and disastrous offensive play that got Will Muschamp fired.
Sure, the Gators proved the doubters wrong and won the SEC East again. They will be advancing to the SEC Championship Game in back-to-back years for the first time since Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow were in town.
But those crowns are at least somewhat fraudulent. They come during a time when the SEC East — as evidenced Saturday and all season — is at one of the lowest points in its history. And they come from a team that looks mostly unchanged — at least on the field — from the one left by the embattled coach loved by the Florida administration but loathed by the fans.
Head coach Jim McElwain has achieved this success by riding some truly superb defensive recruiting by his predecessor. Muschamp was fired not because he couldn’t recruit or coach that side of the ball but due to the fact that the Gators were so inept schematically and understaffed personnel-wise on offense — not to mention the overall lack of confidence in the coach — that a change simply had to be made.
That’s why McElwain was hired. For his plan, yes, but more specifically for his offense.
Yes, there have been hiccups — scratch that — some hiccups, some unmitigated disasters. McElwain took over a team without an offensive line. He developed the quarterback Florida had been begging to find for over five-plus seasons only to see him suspended for using a banned substance. His top playmaker, a three-star freshman looking like a breakout star for the Gators, was suspended the entire offseason while dealing with a distracting legal issue. He entered a season with two transfers (a former walk-on and a flame-out at Purdue) and two freshmen at quarterback. He lost a transfer playmaker who was supposed to be a difference-maker the first game of the season. And he’s seen his “chosen” quarterback injured twice (three times if you include his confidence) while his somewhat-improving offensive line has been decimated by injuries.
Those are the reasons. Or the excuses. Whatever you want to call them.
But here are the facts.
Unlike a number of other major college football programs — Alabama, Georgia, Florida State and Texas, just to name a few — McElwain seemingly had no interest in trying to win with a freshman quarterback when it has been perfectly clear the transfers were not working out. That either speaks to an issue of recruiting — not finding players talented enough to play right away — or development. And considering both signal callers enrolled early, well, as McElwain himself likes to say, they’re not even freshmen anymore.
McElwain can keep saying the future is bright for the Gators, but how can that be the case when the side of the ball he was hired to fix is worse than it was in Muschamp’s final season?
Oh, you don’t believe me? While Florida has improved to 82nd nationally in passing offense (106th in 2014), it is down to 98th in rushing offense (43rd), 89th in scoring offense (56th) and 103rd in total offense (96th).
Even if you take opponents, schedules and injuries into consideration, that’s at best a dead heat.
Then compare that to what some coaches like Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech), Pat Narduzzi (Pitt) and Dino Babers (Syracuse) have done to fix offenses at programs with historically less talent. And that’s just in the ACC.
If you want to throw out the hard numbers, you can just use your eyes. You saw Florida go 0-for-12 on third downs against Florida State. You’ve seen UF struggle to score in the second half at Tennessee, post 13 points at Vanderbilt, go for just 10 at Arkansas, and squeak by with 20 and 16 in wins over South Carolina and at LSU before putting just 13 on the board at FSU. Actually, special teams scored all 13 with two field goals, a fumble return touchdown on a punt and an extra point.
Florida is also 4-4 against its rivals under McElwain (0-2 vs. Florida State, 2-0 vs. Georgia, 1-1 vs. Tennessee, 1-1 vs. LSU), with one win against a ranked rival in those eight games and only two victories over ranked opponents in as many seasons.
So what happens next season when Muschamp’s defensive recruits are basically all gone? There have been some bright spots with McElwain-recruited players on both sides of the ball, just not the kind of young players that necessarily scream out that they’re going to be sure-fire stars the way guys did under Muschamp and Urban Meyer before him.
The Gators’ poor play has been the main reason recruiting has been slow for McElwain — wins and success help with momentum and interest — but it remains accurate that his first full class ranked 12th nationally, while his incoming crop is currently 18th behind Washington (same number of commits) as well as Miami, Maryland and South Carolina (each with 5-6 more).
Georgia, where Kirby Smart put together a Muschamp-ian first season, is currently third. Alabama is first, LSU fifth, Texas A&M ninth, Auburn 11th and Tennessee 12th … putting Florida in at eighth in the SEC and behind both of its nonconference rivals in Florida State and Miami.
The recruiting momentum swung sharply to the Seminoles when Jimbo Fisher took over, but Muschamp at least held his own defensively. McElwain is not exactly swinging it back in the Gators’ direction these days.
No, Saturday was not a good night for Florida football.
The McElwain era, while resulting in new facilities and raised optimism for the program, has not yet delivered on the folksy coach’s boisterous promises and trust-me-I-have-a-secret-plan-it-will-work attitude.
Not when the offense continues to fail to make progress and the same questions are being asked for the sixth straight year. And not when 2016 is beginning to mirror 2015 except with an additional regular-season loss — to Tennessee, for the first time since 2004.
There are fair excuses to be made but there are also reasonable achievements expected to be met, just as there were under Muschamp.
Let’s just say that McElwain still has plenty of work to do.