Once known for fielding one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation, Florida football is now more accustomed to three-and-outs than big plays.
Sitting at Sully’s House, the gathering spot for the Windy City Gator Club, Florida’s alumni chapter in Chicago, on Saturday night, one thing was evident: the Florida football brand is no longer fun to watch.
“It’s not right that the Gators can’t field an offense,” expressed a friend who didn’t attend Florida but wanted to join in on the festivities.
A brand known for revolutionizing offense, one that had become must-see TV for even non-Florida fans, is now painstakingly boring. The program once coined Fun ‘N’ Gun can now be described as Three-And-Out.
There’s no overlooking the positives Jim McElwain has brought during his first two seasons in Gainesville, both on and off the field, but the wins don’t erase the underlying issues, specifically how McElwain plans to advance the Gators’ offense.
Questions have repeatedly been asked, but neither McElwain nor offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have been able to provide an answer, with the former oftentimes reverting to folksy, sometimes smug responses. As such, Florida fans have been provided no reassurance that there will ever be progress.
“I’m always just waiting for the bottom to fall out now,” exclaimed a Gator at Sully’s before kickoff.
And that’s precisely what happened in Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday evening: the bottom fell out. The Gators failed to convert a single third down, going an unacceptable 0-for-12. It was a stat line that, while forged by a combination of factors, is indicative of the lack of coaching. Despite being down by one score at the half, Florida never appeared to be in contention. It was only a matter of time before running back Dalvin Cook and the Seminoles split things wide open.
McElwain has been thoroughly out-coached by counterpart Jimbo Fisher in his first two seasons. While talented, the ’15 and ’16 Seminoles are hardly the most formidable teams Fisher has fielded since taking over. The Gators, however, have yet to score an offensive touchdown against them during the McElwain era.
Florida has now lost by a combined score of 58-15 to FSU the past two seasons, and with a game looming against No. 1 Alabama, could be staring at a late-season collapse for the second straight year. The Gators fell by a combined score of 56-17 to the Noles and Tide last season, and enter Saturday’s SEC title game against Alabama as 24-point underdogs.
To evaluate McElwain and his staff is to wade through a sea of complications.
Florida has obviously taken a huge step forward under him, an immediate upgrade from the abysmal Will Muschamp era. Appearing in a second straight conference championship game – a first in Southeastern Conference history for a new head coach – McElwain has put the Gators back on the SEC map.
But how much of it is fool’s gold? How much of a step forward has the program actually taken?
That answer depends on what expectations reside in Gainesville. A general consensus is that anything less than competing for national championships – meaning being competitive against the biggest programs, such as Florida State – and producing an enjoyable-to-watch product, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is unacceptable.
Albeit ridiculously high, a standard has been set in Gainesville, thanks to Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer – two of the game’s great offensive minds. When considering the bottomless booster pockets and supply of elite talent within a short drive, it’s not an unrealistic standard.
While McElwain has brought the wins back to Gainesville, he’s yet to accomplish either of the aforementioned, the latter being specifically why he was targeted and hired by former athletic director Jeremy Foley. McElwain was praised as an offensive guru, capable of resurrecting the program who revolutionized offense in the 90s under Spurrier.
Yet, through two full regular seasons at the helm, the Gators are no better offensively than under Muschamp. Florida currently ranks No. 114 in total offense this season, and last year finished No. 112 in the nation. Under Muschamp the Gators were No. 96 (’14), No. 115 (’13), No. 104 (’12) and No. 105 (’11). There was a point in time when it was inconceivable for Florida to have one bad year of offense, let alone more than a half-decade of futility.
The sample size is now large enough to begin to draw conclusions regarding McElwain, his offensive prowess, and whether or not he has the answers to change Florida’s trend of having one of the nation’s worst units. Even with the injuries – every team faces them – and lack of talent at the quarterback position, consisting of a group of players McElwain handpicked himself. As mentioned previously, to go 0-for-12 on third down is more than a talent issue, particularly when 95% of coaches in America would likely trade for Florida’s roster, based solely on talent, if given the opportunity. It speaks of a coaching philosophy that isn’t adapting to the skill-set on hand.
“Obviously we believe in balance,” McElwain said in his introductory press conference two years ago. “Yet some games, based on what the defense has taken away, you need to have the versatility to do the other thing. That’s really where it evolves …. Whatever works. I’ve seen some pretty good stuff that’s worked here in the past. We’ll get that going.”
Good thing Florida fans didn’t hold their breath for said versatility and evolution.
Regarding being competitive against the top programs, under McElwain the Gators are now 2-6 versus ranked opponents. In those six losses, Florida has averaged 15.5 points per game, and been beaten by 18 points per game.
These issues are only magnified by McElwain’s demeanor. He’s not helping himself out with his smartest-guy-in-the-room responses to simple questions.
“I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta,” McElwain stated after being asked on Monday about how he was hired to fix the offense. After a brief pause, he continued “How many years I’ve been here? Okay.”
While true, McElwain has taken up a deflection tactic that is driving a wall between he, reporters and the Florida fan base. For a guy who carries as much bravado as he does, answering the simplest questions regarding his speciality shouldn’t be an issue.
But maybe that’s the issue. Maybe McElwain doesn’t have an answer.