It really happened.
Florida really lost to an LSU team that got shelled by a mediocre Mississippi State team and couldn’t beat Troy from the Sun Belt.
To quote a former Gator coach, there’s some noise developing in the system. Because Jim McElwain’s tenure suddenly resembles Ron Zook’s a lot more closely than any other coach in recent memory. He’s not the abject failure Will Muschamp was, but he’s nowhere near as successful as Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer were. And regardless of what you as an individual thinks the bar should be for a football coach at the University of Florida, those two are the bar. Fail to match their levels of success or at least come reasonably close to doing so, and you’ll lose your job fairly quickly, as Zook and Muschamp both found out.
Maybe the rest of the year will prove this theory wrong, but judging from the results we’ve gotten so far, this was never a game that should have been cause for concern. Florida started off the season on a rocky note against Michigan, but won its next three games against SEC opponents and actually seemed to have found itself in the second half of its most recent game, against Vanderbilt. The Gators didn’t look like a juggernaut by any means, but they looked good enough to at the very least put up a fight against Georgia for the SEC East crown. LSU, for their part, looked extremely vulnerable in a tense 35-26 win over a Syracuse team that lost to Middle Tennessee State and then the ultimate ignominy of losing to Troy at home.
But not only was this game a major cause for concern, Florida had to fight back in the second half to keep LSU from utterly running away with it. The Tigers scored first on a 30 yard jet sweep by Russell Gage (a play that Florida never did figure out how to stop) and held a 10-3 lead at halftime, along with every other statistical advantage. The tension mounted when LSU went flying right down the field again to start the second half to score again and take a 17-3 lead.
Florida, to its credit, rallied back with back to back touchdown drives of 75 and then 76 yards, both of which were capped by short runs by LaMical Perine. But on the PAT following the second one, holder Johnny Townsend spun the ball down and Eddy Pineiro shanked the kick. That left the score at 17-16 late in the third quarter, and not only did Florida not score again, they didn’t even cross midfield again.
It came down to a fourth and three with just under two minutes to go. Feleipe Franks threw late over the middle into a sea of Tigers, and it fell incomplete. End of game. End of momentum. In the wild world of the SEC East, the one thing that didn’t come to an end was Florida’s hope of returning to Atlanta for a third straight year- the Gators still somehow control their own destiny- but any hopes of a College Football Playoff berth (which at Florida should be the goal every year) evaporated as well.
The kicker was, this loss was a total team effort; Florida did pretty much everything wrong that a football team can possibly do wrong. The tackling, or lack thereof, was atrocious. They didn’t get pressure on QB Danny Etling. They were frequently badly out of position on defense. They couldn’t block for Feleipe Franks more than one out of every five times he dropped back. Franks missed chances to connect with open receivers by either heaving inaccurate missiles somewhere within fifteen feet of them or simply not throwing it to them at all. Freddie Swain caught a pass for a first down and promptly lost it by running back behind the sticks. Great field position was routinely wasted. McElwain elected to punt on fourth and half an inch near midfield rather than let his bulky quarterback try to fall forward for a first down. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was outcoached by LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, and Florida DC Randy Shannon was outfoxed by LSU OC Matt Canada. The Gators simply didn’t deserve to win, any way you want to look at it.
And as LSU players ran off the field Gator Chomping on loop, reality began to settle in. The time has come to wonder where this program is going under Jim McElwain.
You can’t fire McElwain midway through the season after the one in which he won his second consecutive SEC East title for a million reasons, not the least of which is that UF would be on the hook for a fortune in buyout money. Few coaches in the country would have been able to inherit the mess Will Muschamp left and mold it into SEC East winners- and then do it again the next year with an even more depleted roster just to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. On top of that, McElwain appears to be recruiting as well as he ever has, with top flight playmakers like Jacob Copeland, JaMarr Chase and Iverson Clement to complement Matt Corral- who just might be the best high school quarterback in the country. And his players and recruits seem to all love him, for which there’s also something to be said.
But all that only goes so far, only covers up so much losing, and only works for so long.
Let’s start by stating what most of us can agree on: losing to a team that lost to Troy is completely unacceptable. Oh, sure, it doesn’t carry the same raw shock power of losing to an FCS team like Will Muschamp did. It’s also not that far behind it, either, at least in terms of embarrassment. Time could easily prove that this is the worst LSU team of the new millennium, with a loss to Troy and a 30 point thrashing against Mississippi State already on its record and with SEC heavyweights Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M still to play. And Florida lost to it. At home. Against an interim-turned-permanent coach who still has a losing record as a head coach after five and a half years.
It isn’t like this loss was an isolated incident of ineptitude, either. Florida looked really, really bad in a season opening loss to Michigan, and only marginally better in subsequent nail biters against Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. It took Tennessee’s failure to not defend against the one thing that could possibly beat them on the final play of the game and Kentucky’s failure to defend Florida receivers, period, for the Gators to scratch those two out, but wins are wins. And somehow, Florida got three of them despite not really deserving two of them. But the flip side of that coin is that the Gators have been toying with fire week after week, and yesterday, they finally got burned.
It gets worse.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the Gators aren’t done losing yet this year. Four of Florida’s remaining six opponents (Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU) are either comparable to or better than LSU, and it’s totally conceivable that for all their struggles, Missouri could beat the Gators up in Columbia, too. Lose all five of those games, or even four of them, and Florida isn’t making a bowl game thanks to the cancelled game against Northern Colorado. Don’t let the 3-2 record fool you; the schedule doesn’t get any easier, and it’s going to be an absolute battle for this team to get to six wins and be bowl eligible. Can they do it? Sure. Will they? I’m not exactly in possession of a surplus of evidence that tells me they will, as they may have already exhausted their luck budget with their first three wins of this season.
Now, I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know for a fact that Florida doesn’t rebound from this loss with six straight wins, including one over a top five team in Georgia and a streak-snapping victory over FSU, to roll back to Atlanta. I don’t think they do, but I don’t know that they don’t. So while this remains a theoretical possibility, however unlikely, I can’t bring myself to jump on the Fire McElwain train yet. Given that he’s won back to back East titles, he deserves the opportunity to try to coach this team out of the hole it’s dug for itself- much like he did last year after a seemingly fatal loss to Tennessee.
But at the very least, the chances of him doing so are most decidedly not good. And thus, he is on the hot seat, not because he lost one game to an LSU team that’s probably going to finish in the bottom of the SEC West, but rather because the outlook for the remainder of the season suddenly looks much bleaker than it did before that loss. If Florida can’t beat LSU, how does Florida plan to beat teams better than LSU?
I realize that the term “hot seat” can mean a dizzying number of things depending on who you ask, so I’ll give you the definition that I always use:
Hot seat: A coach who is on the hot seat finds himself in the position of needing to win more games than betting experts predict him to in order to keep his job, or needing to win games more quickly and immediately than his average counterpart in the sport. This coach is not necessarily in immediate danger of being fired, but if things continue to go the way they were going to put him on the hot seat in the hot seat in the first place, this is subject to change. Think of him as the guy who gets called into his boss’s office, is told that things need to change and improvements need to be made by a certain date, and is placed on a “Performance Improvement Plan.”
…which is bad, but significantly less bleak of a state for a coach to be in than this…
Dead man walking: a coach who is completely and utterly in over his head, has totally lost the fan base and team and there is absolutely nothing he can do to save his job short of reaching the national semifinals or winning the SEC. For this coach, it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll be fired.
We are not at that latter stage for Jim McElwain- at least, not yet. That seems to be a better label for Butch Jones than McElwain. But forget that for now. We are squarely in the vicinity of the above definition of hot seat. And you don’t have to agree with me that this is the end-all-be-all definition of the term hot seat, but at this point, it’s pretty difficult to argue that the words in the first quote bracket following the words “hot seat” don’t pretty much pinpoint Jim McElwain’s status.
Because think about it for a second. To reiterate the earlier point, after losing to LSU, Florida could very well be underdogs against Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina and FSU. Losses to all four of those teams put the Gators at 5-6 on the season and at the mercy of their APR score regarding whether they make a bowl game or not- coach firing territory. Make no mistake, if Florida finishes 5-6, Mac is a dead man walking. He may survive the season, but that would put him in a hell of a position in 2018 where he’d have to win more games than is realistically possible, and would put Florida AD Scott Stricklin in the ultimate rabbit hole of scrambling to figure out how much loyalty he should show to a coach who had his best years of his tenure at the start of it.
Anyway, it’s going to take an upset of one of those four aforementioned teams (or at least one of them completely imploding) just for Florida to finish 6-5, which itself isn’t good, but at least isn’t apocalyptic. Win two or more of those “Florida will probably be the underdog” games, and the Gators end the regular season at 7-4, which suddenly seems like a great goal for this team given all that’s transpired since the credit card fiasco this summer.
On a personal level, I really do like Mac. I like the way he seems to fight for his recruits and players, and I like the way he’s able to build relationships with them and get them to want to run through a wall for him. But unless you care to explain how losing two starters on offense who Florida has found more than adequate replacements for, five defensive players who never would have seen the field and a sixth who might have played ten snaps as a substitute is a legitimate excuse to lose to a team that lost to Troy, there is no rational defense of what happened yesterday.
Get ready to take your last stand, Mac.