Following the Gators’ 35-28 loss to LSU, Florida had one game put in front of them that stood above all the rest: the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Not just because it was the next game, mind you, but because it was the only game in which a loss carried potentially devastating consequences (a loss would have handed control of the SEC East back to Georgia).
So when Florida won that game 27-3, it was more of an escape than a joyous occasion. Yes, the Gators clobbered their co-biggest rival for the second straight year, and essentially locked up the SEC East… but it was clear from the way Florida played that there was work to be done. It was only because of five Georgia turnovers that the Gators’ often downright sluggish offense didn’t hurt their chances to win the game. Then again, the Gators did have something to celebrate. Because… well, scoreboard. It didn’t matter then.
It might next month.
As you may have heard somehow by now, Florida has all but officially clinched a spot in December’s SEC Championship Game. There’s really not much in the foreseeable future that could happen to possibly take anything away from what Jim McElwain’s team has accomplished in his first season, but that doesn’t mean the Gators shouldn’t still strive for the sport’s ultimate prize as long as it’s still within their grasp. It’s just that Florida has some stuff that needs fine tuning if they expect to win that SEC Championship Game and reach the College Football Playoff.
Having survived the rivalry game against Georgia, McElwain and Doug Nussmeier have to hit the reset button with their offense. The offense needs to be simplified a fair bit until Harris gets his footing, and then when he does, they can open it back up. But Harris’s 8-19 stat line against Georgia was only that good because his receivers saved him by making some really nice catches on off target throws. On top of being inaccurate, he has struggled with making all sorts of decisions quarterbacks need to be good at making: what type of pass needs to be thrown to maximize the chances of getting it to your receiver, when to step up in the pocket vs. when to run away, going through his progressions and selecting which receiver he has the best chance of getting the ball to, etc.
And despite everything I just said: I still truly believe that Harris is a really talented and potentially dangerous dual threat QB. That’s what really pisses me off about him. He shows flashes of greatness as a passer (like the bomb across his body to Callaway against Georgia) but they’re so few and far between that it’s impossible to trust him, plus when he isn’t making incredible plays like that, he’s one hopping wide open receivers or overthrowing him. It’s clear now that Treon Harris doesn’t possess the same skill set that Will Grier does, but Harris does have the ability to hurt defenses as a runner that Grier only sort of has. It’s also clear that for whatever reason, Harris has either suffered a major hit to his confidence or is very inaccurate as a passer (or a combination of the two). Running the same offense with Harris that they ran with Grier won’t work because Harris simply does not carry the clear and consistent threat to beat teams with his arm that Grier does.
So let’s rewrite the playbook. Let’s not put Harris in positions he isn’t comfortable with. Let’s utilize the talent he does have (running) as opposed to pretending that he’s another Grier and calling plays as such. He isn’t built to come out throwing from five wide sets forty times a game. Rather, Harris is most dangerous in a run-pass option offense. Let’s roll him out of the pocket with a tailback running a few yards ahead of him serving as either a blocker or receiver, depending on how the defense plays it. Let’s call more QB draws and fewer passing plays with multiple options for each receiver to run so Harris doesn’t get confused. Above all, let’s use him for the things he’s good at, instead of trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
This very well may call for Mac to significantly simplify or rebuild the entire offense, but that’s OK, because the Gators have time. Florida’s got three relatively easy games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic that, even if the offense struggles mightily, the defense can bail them out should they have to. Those are the games in which Harris and the offense need to establish some rhythm and continuity of some sort so that they are rolling along come the rivalry game with Florida State. Harris makes mistakes against Vandy? Oh well, Florida’s defense will force a three and out and he’ll get the ball back within 90 seconds. It’s just that I’d rather those mistakes be in an offense he’s comfortable with so that I’m not worried he’ll make the same sort of mistakes again.
I have faith in McElwain and Nussmeier to manage Harris as they see fit. They have him for the rest of the season, and there’s an SEC Championship and possibly a national championship to play for in the near future. All that’s been done up to this point can be thrown away. Florida’s 99.99% sure to achieve their preseason goal of playing in the SEC Championship Game, and so now they can step back and restart their season against Vanderbilt with a new goal looming ahead in the future. With the SEC Championship Game set as the Gators’ target date to have everything clicking, they have a few games to work on the offense, establish meaningful reps and improve week by week, snap by snap, until there start to be real consequences for mistakes in that SEC Championship Game.
But remember one thing. Whatever happens- even if Harris throws five picks in the SEC Title Game- it’s better than anything we ever had under Will Muschamp. So we should be grateful to McElwain for that, above all else. And while we as Gator fans have no reason to ever concede losses, we should keep that in mind as the season winds down to its conclusion.