New Grass, Same Dance…
It’s almost here. The time of year that alumni and college frat bros, dads and football fans around the country have been pining for since January this year. In 77 days 1,848 hours 110,880 minutes and, if you are a true college football fan, 11 Saturdays, toe meets leather as the NCAA college football season begins. There are many questions that must be answered in this pivotal season:
Can Ohio State win the College Football Playoffs in a repeat performance of last year’s outstanding performance? Who will be the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes?
What will happen to Florida State and Oregon without Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota? Can Georgia finally get over their postseason hump?
Can the SEC prove that they are still the perennial powerhouse they have always been? and, if not the SEC, then who?
To me, the time leading up to the beginning of the season is the busiest and most exciting period. Following the recruiting process, hearing projection after projection from top sports networks and the unexpected developments that can occur throughout the entire ordeal makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop with all the articles I could write.
For the last five years however, one negative in the field of positives is pulling my hair wondering what will happen to my beloved Florida Gators! Wondering if we can ever return to the days of glory when Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier were the head honchos in Gainesville. However, my headaches have never been lighter than going into this season, with all its uncertainty and mystique.
Out with the bad and in with the untested seem to be the Gators motto this season. The Will Muschamp era, with all its high hopes and lackluster performances, has ended. Jeff Driskel is gone and it seems like the Gators have a chance to start anew, with no baggage to weigh them down.
The school has hired former Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain, who displayed great potential at the helm of the Colorado State program, hopes to bring that same success to Florida. The question is, can he really do just that? It’s not uncommon in the sports world that coaches and players with great potential become eventual busts. At this time in NCAA football, with the SEC East being as volatile as it is, can McElwain change the program for the better and lead my treasured Gators back to the promised land?
By The Numbers…
If you’ve read my previous articles, you know I have to do a section detailing the numbers behind he news (call it the baseball in me). So, how were the Gators in Muschamp’s last season as head coach?
The team posted a final record of 7-5, with a 4-4 record in conference play.
They were 106th in passing yards (179.9 per game), 43rd in rushing yards (187.7 per game), 56th in points for (30.3 per game), and 20th in points against (21.1 per game).
What do these numbers mean? It means that while our defense remained as solid as it has always been, our offense was one of the worst in college football. Even though much of the blame can go to Driskel, not all of it was his fault. His top receiver, Demarcus Robinson, was the only Gator to have over 50 catches, posting 53. The only other Gator to come close to that number was Quinton Dunbar with 21.
In fact, Robinson was THE sole receiver, catching 7 of the 18 touchdowns thrown by Driskel (38% roughly), netting close to 1000 yards (810) and averaging 15 yards per catch. When Robinson went down to injuries, the Gators receivers’ already shaky hands (much of Driskel’s mediocre numbers were due to an incompetent receiving corps) couldn’t pick up the slack. The run game was just as bad, although due mostly to the lack of an adequate front line, allowing both Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor to only average five yards per carry.
The Muschamp era was marred with underachievement. We as fans understood that there would be a drop off (you can’t easily replace Urban Meyer), but we were assured that Muschamp would be able to continue the winning tradition we were accustomed to having in Gator Nation.
2011 went as expected, with the team posting a 7-6 record. Then 2012 came, and that was supposed to be the year. The Gators went 11-2, were near the top in many statistical categories, and finished 9th in the final AP poll. The Gators were back, right?
Looking back at that year, I now call it the Miracle Season. The offense was statistically terrible and it was an uphill battle every offensive possession. It was the defense that won many of those game, and the defense posted more points scored than the offense! Led by Matt Elam, Jonathan Bostic, Loucheiz Purifoy, Dante Fowler Jr., Jelani Jenkins, Dominique Easley, Micheal Taylor, Shariff Floyd and Antonio Morrison (a defensive coordinator’s dream), the Gators dominated the pass rush and run defense, carrying the rest of the Gator bum squad in a backpack to the Sugar Bowl. Then when all of those talented young men got drafted, as what should have been expected, the program took a steep, deep, terrible spiral to the bottom of college football, posting a 4-8 record in 2013. Finally, with the 2014 season being a major bowl (Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, etc.) or bust year, Muschamp couldn’t deliver the goods, and was subsequently fired.
The new questions are:
Can the program put all of its past woes behind it?
Can this new head coach finally balance the Gator’s system?
Can he Gators finish the year at the top of the SEC for the first time in a LONG time?
The Good, The Bad, and No Ugly…
There are several reasons why the Gators could have big success on the football field this year. Firstly, they have a new coach. Not saying that, despite my previous thrashing, Muschamp wasn’t entirely a bad coach, but the game changed from a focus on making an immovable object to most coaches building an unstoppable force.
Jim McElwain has a track record for building the latter. McElwain has had an offensive oriented career, coaching quarterbacks, wide receivers and filling the offensive coordinator roles at Easter Washington (’85-’94), Montana State (’95-’99), Louisville (’00-’02), Michigan State (’03-’05), and other stints including quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders before signing on as Colorado State’s head coach. During his tenure there, McElwain created an offensive powerhouse, and after three years of exponential growth, McElwain led the Rams to a 10 win season and there first national ranking since 2003, being placed at no. 21 in the AP Poll by seasons end.
His previous success has brought McElwain the second reason why they could dominate the SEC East: his recruiting class. The Gators roped in the 21st best recruiting class coming into the 2015 season. Notables names such as Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson are among that list. McElwain’s high recruiting class shows the influence his presence has already brought to the program.
Another important fact is that 14 of the 22 recruits signed by the program play on the offensive side of the ball, indicating that McElwain plans to change a system of play the Gators have had for the past 10 years.
The last thing that, indeed should be obvious, is the seeming instability of the SEC. At the moment, the East is anybody’s division to win. Georgia is projected to have a big year, but when are they not? More than likely, they will spend another year wasting a five-star talent running back in Nick Chubb, due to other obvious gaping holes in the offense and defense. LSU could take over, but the past few years have seen Les Mile’s Tigers play very inconsistent ball, which have left them out of many bowl and now CFP conversations. South Carolina is in a major rebuilding process, still reeling over the loss of an overrated linebacker in Jadeveon Clowney,and the bust of the young talent they had at quarterback in Dylan Thompson. The only possible front-runners are Ole Miss and Missouri, and it would be great for the Gators to fish the season in that company.
The Must Haves…
For the Gators to take advantage of the assets the have gained and the aligning of the conditions set before them, there are a few things they must, and I mean MUST, do to ensure victory on a more consistent level. First, they have to develop strength at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions.
McElwain has done a good job at filling the gaps at the running back position (Jordan Scarlett, D’anfernee McGriff, Camrin Knight) and patching up the leaks in the receiving corps (Antonio Callaway, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Kalif Jackson). Florida’s new coach seems to want to roll with Treon Harris as starting QB, but recent reports suggest that Will Grier is putting up a pretty good fight for the job, and both could see significant playing time this year. Don’t get too happy though. You can buy a bunch of seed, but you can’t make it grow without nurturing it. McElwain has to cultivate these players in quick fashion into adequate weapons on the field for this system to work, as none of these players have the skill set to make an immediate impact on the field.
The team also must have a solid offensive line. McElwain has put maximum effort into improving the line that had a difficult time warding off the fast paced SEC defenses that harassed Driskel all season last year. He signed five solid offensive linemen, including a high priority signee and a kid with great potential, Martez Ivey. These young guys will have to be the backbone of the team, as McElwain is more likely to go to the air than to the ground in the coming years.
Conclusion: For Overachievers Only…
At the end of the day, not much is, or should be, expected out of this Gator squad this 2015 season. The most I want to expect out of them is a record over .500. I’m not saying that 7-6 or 8-5 will do, I mean a record like 9-4 or 10-3. If McElwain wants to prove that he isn’t must anther Muschamp, those are the numbers he will have to put up this coming season.
Another achievement on the what I call the “Gator Fan Checklist“, is defeating Florida’s greatest rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs. This game is huge, I’m talking King Kong and Godzilla had a steroid infused baby huge! If the Gators could defeat a Georgia squad who is projected to contest for the one spot in the division, not only would it raise the eyebrows of the writers who create the AP polls, it would also earn the new head coach some brownie points with Gator Nation.
Finally, the Gators must go to a good bowl. Not the New Mexico Bowl! Not the Alamo Bowl! and not the Aunt Rita’s Chicken Fried Soup Bowl! We need Sugar Bowl or a Fiesta Bowl or the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. None of it is good enough now that the College Football playoffs are in full swing, but it sure would show that this new staff means business.
However, like I stated at the beginning of this section, NOT MUCH IS EXPECTED OF THE GATORS! It appalls and sickens me when I hear of fans who believe that a team, from any sport, under new management should perform well. There is an adjustment period, and all I can tell Gator Nation is to be patient or suck it up, because unless the planets align and God himself rains down hellfire on the football fields of America, it is highly unlikely that the Gators will do much this coming season.
All we can do as fans is hope that they still beat the teams they are supposed to beat, because that shows the hallmarks of a team in positive transition. All we can do as fans is speculate, wait our 11 Saturdays, and keep on dreaming.