Late in the SEC Championship Game with a 29-7 lead, Nick Saban saw the last sequence he ever expected unfold before his eyes: a bomb from the arm of Treon Harris, launched from the midfield line, was hauled in by CJ Worton for a 46 yard touchdown.
Of course, that play mattered not the least in the grand scheme of things. Alabama still had a two touchdown lead with under five minutes to go against a Gator offense that hasn’t scored two offensive touchdowns in its last eight quarters of play, and there was little the defense could do other than try to poke the ball out. Which they didn’t. And so Alabama won the game and the SEC Championship, as most expected.
But that bomb from Harris to Worton was more than just a line in the stat book. It was a flickering remnant of the surging Gator team that took the country by storm in October by clobbering 3rd ranked Mississippi and rising as high as 8th in the polls. You know. The team with the Will Grier-led offense that could turn a game-deciding 4th and 14 into a 66 yard touchdown pass and presented the threat of scoring on any given play. The team that came out of nowhere to stake its claim as a national title contender. And the team that had Gator fans excited about their football team for the first time in a half decade.
It took a few games of learning on the fly, but when the calendar flipped to October, it seemed like the Gators had figured things out. Florida finally had an identity on offense, and a real threat playing quarterback to give defenses fits. Stack the box and take away Florida’s running game as so many opponents did to Will Muschamp teams, and Grier would punish you by throwing over the top. Play heavy coverage to try to stop the Gators’ newfound passing attack and the mysteriously improved Florida offensive line would provide Kelvin Taylor a big hole to run through. On top of all that, the Gators’ defense remained as stout as ever. And midway through the season, it seemed as though it would last forever.
We all know what happened next, though. Hours after guiding Florida to a 21-3 road win over Missouri, it came out that Grier had tested positive for PEDs, and was being suspended for one full calendar year. This marked the end that version of the Gators (which going forward I’ll refer to as Team A). The team was then turned over to Treon Harris, which introduced us to the version of the Gators we would see for the rest of the year (Team B). And Treon started out well enough. Florida’s loss at LSU certainly wasn’t his fault, and then two weeks later, he made the plays he had to in a 27-3 blowout of rival Georgia.
But then came the Vanderbilt game, and a promising season turned to hell. Or should I say, returned to the same sector of hell it generally presided in under Muschamp.
The days of going three and out thanks to an inaccurate QB with bad decision making tendencies that Florida fans had become accustomed to under John Brantley and Jeff Driskel returned, only this time, the frustration was amplified several times over. The great defense was still there, but without an offense to complement it, it was suddenly forced to do much more. Harris wasn’t bad in that Vanderbilt game, he was horrible, needing to complete five of his last six passes just to finish with a 50% completion percentage. Florida won that Vanderbilt game 9-7, a score that looks like it was pulled straight out of the Muschamp era, and watching the game only made… well, you get the point. It was Muschamp football all over again.
That win may have clinched the SEC East, but it merely clinched a title that Team A put in the overwhelming majority of the work to earn. After Grier was suspended, all Team B had to do was beat Georgia and win one of their other three games- against LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt- and the SEC East was theirs. Not exactly the toughest of tasks when you consider that Georgia gave Florida five turnovers and South Carolina and Vanderbilt won a grand total of seven games. The title was worth celebrating because it was Florida’s first such achievement in six years, but that game served more as a warning sign of what was to come than a point of celebration.
Two weeks later, Florida needed overtime to fend off a Florida Atlantic squad that came into the game 2-8 and received a hefty paycheck in exchange for coming to the Swamp, presumably to take a beating. Harris was responsible for an ugly interception and a fumble that turned into an FAU touchdown. The Gators’ 20-14 win was eerily reminiscent of another Muschamp trademark- the 27-20 win over Louisiana in 2012 in which Florida needed a walk-off blocked punt return touchdown in order to avoid overtime. And then of course came the FSU game, which featured the worst display of offensive ineptitude yet in a gruesome 27-2 loss. It just kept getting worse and worse, as each game looked more like Muschamp football than the one before it.
When the time came for Team B to play the game that Team A put them in position to reach- the SEC Championship Game- we got the result we expected. Florida lost 29-15, thanks to the offense generating just 180 yards and one touchdown. Sure, go ahead and blame the offensive line for all this if you want, but remember that it’s a lot harder to block for a quarterback who needs seven seconds to do something as opposed to three, and multiply that degree of difficulty by ten to account for the fact that no defense respects the passing game with Harris and thus doesn’t think twice about sending more rushers.
And that’s the epitome of Muschamp football. You know the formula: great defense plus no offense equals ugly games that come down to the defense/special teams to win in the end. That’s a formula that guarantees you won’t win a championship. You can have the nation’s best defense that wins you all the games you need in any given year but one. All your offense has to do is win the other one. And as we saw against Georgia in 2012 and FSU this year, Muschamp football can’t even do that.
This is the blueprint Muschamp left Florida. He also left the Gators with six scholarship offensive linemen, one quarterback of decent caliber (Grier) and only two skill position players (DeMarcus Robinson and Kelvin Taylor) worth anything. The job fell to Jim McElwain to build a championship contending team from those pieces, and he did by turning Grier into a legitimate SEC quarterback, developing freshman wideout Antonio Callway into a star, and taking the pressure off the line by making the defense have to defend the entire field as opposed to just the tackle box. But when Grier got suspended, the foundation of what he’d built was ripped away from underneath the rest, and so the entire thing imploded, regressing back to what it was when Muschamp was here: pure rubble.
Yet unlike the Muschamp days, there’s real hope for the future. Your guess as to why Treon Harris has regressed from week to week is as good as mine, but that’s not important. What is important is that we’ve already seen what McElwain can do with an actual quarterback. There were moments of youthfulness from Will Grier, sure, but from week to week Grier showed signs of improvement. A so-so game on the road at Missouri seemed like a small bit of turbulence in his ascension to greatness given the way he finished the Tennessee game and played against the 3rd ranked Rebels the following week. Thanks to his PED suspension, we’ll never know the heights he could have reached. But whatever happens to him going forward, we do know that at the very least, McElwain is capable of overseeing consistent growth and improvement from his quarterback. And as Grier’s time at the controls has proven, a competent quarterback is all that separates this team from being a championship contender as opposed to the defensively stout but offensively inept Muschamp type team it is without one.
The best news of all? We only have one more game of this Muschamp football to watch. The Citrus Bowl figures to be the last time Treon Harris can ever be referred to as Florida’s starting quarterback. Help is on the way, as the Gators figure to land at least one prized QB recruit (Feleipe Franks Jacob Eason) in this year’s class and another one in next year’s class in Jake Allen. And Will Grier is set to be reinstated after six games next year, so if McElwain struggles to find a consistent QB for the first half of the season, he can then fall back on Grier for the important games (Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU).
All we have to do is survive one more game with Harris, a Citrus Bowl game against Michigan that would be nice to win but that ultimately means nothing, and then we can go back. Back to having a real quarterback and an offense to be excited about. Back to being relevant. Back to being a player in the national title hunt.
Back to being the Florida Gators.