Jim McElwain trotted to midfield with his head held high, shook his former boss’s hand, shared a few words with him and then walked off the field with the body language of a man who had done all he could do.
Because there was nothing else he could do.
Already way ahead of schedule in his first season at Florida, McElwain guided his program to an SEC Championship Game on the strength of a solid defense and just enough offense. But when his Gators got there, and took their shot at the Alabama, they fared no better than most, falling 29-15 in the schools’ eighth SEC Title Game meeting.
Given the Gators’ offensive struggles since Treon Harris replaced Will Grier, though, it’s something of a miracle that this one was even close.
The Tide got on the board first by blocking a Johnny Townsend punt out the back of the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 lead, a mere preview of the ugliness that was to come. Florida actually put together a solid drive on its next possession on two nice throws by Treon Harris, but it ended by Alabama blocking Austin Hardin’s field goal attempt, and the Gators regressed back to punts on their next two drives. There was the briefest, faintest glimmer of hope when Antonio Callaway took a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to put Florida up 7-2, but that was followed up by back to back three and outs.
And then finally, Florida’s defense- its one saving grace- simply wore down, and crumpled.
After adding a field goal to make it 7-5, Alabama got the ball back near the end of the first half. Jacob Coker lofted a deep ball in the general direction of Calvin Ridley, who went up and beat Vernon Hargreaves for the ball to come down with a 55 yard reception. That put the ball on the shadow of the goal line, and Florida’s vaunted defense on the brink of collapsing. Derrick Henry plowed in two plays later to give Alabama the lead for good, and even though it wasn’t even halftime yet, it felt like the game was over. Florida had won every game it won with Treon Harris at QB because of its defense, and now that the defense had just been badly beaten, where else was there to turn in terms of hope?
That premonition was proved correct as the game went on. Alabama rolled up 437 yards of total offense on the day, including a 32 yard touchdown pass from Coker to Ardarious Stewart over two Gator defenders and an 82 yard touchdown drive following it. This defense has been put in unenviable positions over and over again this year, and they finally broke after being overused in one too many games. It mattered not the least that Treon completed a Hail Mary to CJ Worton for a touchdown, as it was 29-7 at that point and the game’s outcome had already been decided.
Harris finished with his usual dreadful stat line, going 9-24 with an (awful) interception and 165 yards- and 92 of those yards came on two plays. Those are outliers; throw them out and his stat line would read 7-22 for 73 yards. He also made the boneheaded play of the year, catching a deflected pass and then trying to throw it again with all the common sense of a four year old playing in his backyard. But I’m not amused by his mind-boggling naivety given all the other blunderful plays he’s been responsible for this year. I’m also not fooled by Worton pulling down a Hail Mary and Callaway hauling in the one decent throw Harris made all day into thinking that he actually earned all those yards in his final stat line, nor is anybody else who watched this game with an objective attitude.
But if McElwain had a better quarterback to play, he would have played him long ago. And so as he walked off the field, he knew he’d done the job he signed a contract to do. He had done what he could with the team that he was given.
Now comes the fun part: reconstructing the team he was given the way he wants to. Keep your eyes peeled for recruiting news in the coming days and weeks, as National Signing Day is only two months away. Then it will come time to develop the talent that he signed. And, you know, play games on future schedules with it. This should be a substantially more enjoyable journey to behold than watching Harris attempt to Hellen-Keller his way down the field, and wear down the defense to its breaking point in the process, and I implore you all to hold on and just wait a little while longer.
The bottom line is this, though. Blame whoever you’d like- Harris, the offensive line, the wide receivers, Grier for getting himself suspended or even Muschamp for leaving McElwain with nothing- but Alabama was the better football team, any way you want to slice it. The blame game at this point is irrelevant. Nick Saban would have called a much different game if Florida had Grier and the ballgame would have played itself out in a totally different manner. Given the wide variety of ways in which Alabama has won games this year, I’m still not sure Florida wins even if Grier is eligible and comes into this game red hot. It would certainly have been fun to watch a Grier-led team take its shot at big, bad Bama, but it’s not as though beating them would have been a given (FSU, maybe.)
But without Grier- and I think many Florida fans will agree with me- Florida had absolutely no shot whatsoever in this game unless Coker threw a pick six and Florida blocked a punt for a touchdown on top of the Callaway punt return TD they already had. The Gators’ regular season ended exactly the way we all knew it would with Harris, and so there’s no reason to develop any additional feelings of anger or hatred toward anybody you may blame for the way the season ended based on this game. We may have teased ourselves with hope, but deep down, we all knew it was futile.
Now all we can do is regroup, hope for the best in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, and then watch as McElwain hits the reset button. He’ll recruit better players, find a new quarterback this fall, and then get back to doing what he signed that contract to do- coach his team to the best of his ability on game day.
But with a team he’s more capable of winning with.