Every year in college football, there’s at least one team.
You know. A team that’s been a historical national powerhouse. A team that boasts multiple national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, and a host of NFL stars. A team with a name that recruits itself. But despite all that, a team that’s struggled lately, and is looking to return to national relevance. And most importantly for our purposes, a team that gets a huge early season win that makes it a fair statement to say that team is back.
This year, that team is Florida. Following the Gators’ 38-10 smack down of Ole Miss, the question began to circulate: are the Gators back?
The Gators are certainly back in the national spotlight. It’s impossible not to be after so thoroughly dismantling a team that had 10 first place votes in last week’s AP Poll. But the Gators were also in the national spotlight last year after clobbering Georgia and killing their national championship hopes, yet wound up with a 7-5 record and a Birmingham Bowl win. You see, winning one big stage game doesn’t really undo several years of ineptitude- although it’s a start. And unlike that aforementioned win over Georgia, this time, there’s some real hope for the future of the program.
When Will Muschamp was fired and replaced with Jim McElwain, I wasted no time imploring fans to have patience. I wrote that because of the incredible amount of damage Muschamp had done, McElwain needed two years to rebuild the program before it was fair to start judging him. And I still think that’s true, because we’re not even halfway into his first season yet, and plenty of things could go wrong. Yet despite the mess Muschamp left him- a sub- top 60 recruiting class, six scholarship offensive linemen, very little proven production in the passing game and one competent running back- McElwain has put the pieces together and assembled a real team. And he did so much sooner than anybody could have anticipated.
Florida struggled to start the season, of course, surviving close calls against ECU, Kentucky and Tennessee, but they made enough big plays on both sides of the ball to win each of those games. That’s what you want to see from a first year coach’s team. The Gators didn’t look like a great team in any of those games, but they came through when they were needed most. That’s all you can really ask for, and so I was happy with the 4-0 start. But no way did I expect what was coming the week after the Tennessee win… or should I say, escape.
The Gators looked great against the Rebels. The defense was always in the right position, and the number of missed tackles was cut down significantly. When Chad Kelly was pressured, he didn’t escape like Josh Dobbs did, he went down (OK, so Dobbs is more mobile than Kelly, but still). When an Ole Miss skill position player got the ball in space and a Gator defender was in the area, that defender was the one who made the tackle as opposed to a teammate who would catch up to him several yards downfield. Florida’s offensive line, much maligned after a weak performance against Tennessee, gave Will Grier all kinds of time to throw the ball, and gave Kelvin Taylor some nice holes. And for once, the Gators limited the penalties, getting flagged only six times, and didn’t turn the ball over once.
But there’s a flip side to all of this. Yes, Florida is already well ahead of schedule for the rebuilding process we all scripted in our minds. And that win over the Rebels, plus the way the Gators played in that win over the Rebels, is fantastic- it really is- but it can’t be used to base any long term predictions off of because of the way Ole Miss self destructed.
There will come a time this year, and probably in the near future, where the other team doesn’t give Florida anything and the Gators have to generate all the points themselves. That doesn’t just include turnovers, but also completely avoidable things like missed tackles and being caught out of position defensively, errors that combined to lead to the Brandon Powell touchdown. At some point, they will have to win a football game without getting more help than the nation’s top teams give on an average night (everybody makes mistakes, but the winning programs make few of them and when they do, they come with a minimal cost). That’s the litmus test: to beat a good team that plays sound fundamental football for the overwhelming majority of the game.
Florida hasn’t done that yet. They beat a solid team in Ole Miss, but a solid team that picked this night to made a fatal string of miscues. Again, that’s not to take anything away from the way the Gators played. Will Grier did an excellent job controlling the game, and he was able to do so because his offensive line collectively blocked much better for him than they have in previous weeks. When’s the last time we could say that about (insert Florida QB name here)? And on top of that, the defense played great overall. But the fact is that we don’t know how the game would have turned out if Ole Miss had played a good game, too. That’s the only hurdle this team has to get past in order for them to really, truly consider themselves a national powerhouse again.
Jim McElwain is already miles ahead of where I thought he would be with the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess Will Muschamp started, picking up the pieces he left him and assembling a legitimate football program with them. He’s gotten Florida into the top 25, coached himself to a win over a top five team in his first try, and has his program just one small step away from being able to label it one of the nation’s elite, which of course was his big picture goal upon being hired. So we can throw away the multi-year plan to return to glory we all probably conceived with the realistic parts of our brains before the season began. Florida is way ahead of any schedule for a return to greatness that the average fan could have devised. The win over Tennessee made the Gators relevant in the SEC; the win over Mississippi made the Gators relevant on a national scale. Now it’s time for Florida to keep moving forward, and keep improving, because they haven’t won anything yet.
And if they do? Jim McElwain may be doing his pre-signing day recruiting this winter wearing a national championship ring.