In 2008, his first year on the job at Alabama, Jim McElwain turned a liability at quarterback into enough of a game manager that the Crimson Tide went 12-0 in the regular season and held the #1 ranking in the AP and coaches polls heading into an SEC Championship Game won by the Florida Gators, 31-20. That Alabama could win 12 in a row with John Parker Wilson at quarterback speaks volumes about what McElwain does best – develop quarterbacks and turn them into functional catalysts for the offense. Wilson’s stats weren’t great – 2,273 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, 8 interceptions – but they didn’t have to be. His job was to manage the offense and keep the Crimson Tide out of trouble.
In 2009, with untested Greg McElroy at quarterback – he threw 11 passes the year before – Alabama went 14-0 and won the national championship. McElroy’s stats were very good – 2,508 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions – but again he didn’t have to be spectacular. He just had to manage the game and get the ball in the hands of the playmakers.
With A.J. McCarron at quarterback in 2011, Alabama went 12-1 and won a second national championship. McCarron put up decent numbers – 2,634 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions – but it wasn’t necessary to have good stats. His job was to win games.
At Alabama, McElwain ran Nick Saban’s offense, which was all about pounding the ball between the tackles to make the safeties support the run game, opening up the downfield passing game. That’s the way Saban wanted it, that’s the way McElwain ran it. In four years, Alabama went 49-6 and won two national championships. It’s hard to argue with the results.
Here is what we can take from McElwain’s time at Alabama: he made sure the offense operated at peak efficiency because he developed his quarterbacks into great game managers who didn’t give games away. Neither Wilson, McElroy or McCarron were at the top of recruiting lists but they had two things in common – they were smart enough to manage a game plan and had confidence to make plays if and when they were called upon.
Fast forward to 2014, McElwain’s third and final season at Colorado State where the Rams are 10-2. Instead of the ultra-conservative NFL-clone attack that he ran at Alabama, McElwain went with a one-back, one tight end, three-wide attack that produced 57 offensive touchdowns and 497.8 yards per game.
There is a common thread with what McElwain did in 2014 at Colorado State with what went on at Alabama. Although he certainly didn’t have the talent at CSU that he had at Alabama and the style was different, the offense McElwain ran in 2014 was triggered by an efficient quarterback who managed the game well, got the ball in the hands of playmakers like Dee Hart (1,254 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) and Rashard Higgins (89 catches, 1,640 yards 17 touchdowns), and when he had to, made some plays himself.
The offense McElwain will run at Florida might look completely different than the ones he ran at Alabama and Colorado State. In his introductory press conference Saturday, he said, if it takes 80 passes a game to win here that’s what he’ll do. He didn’t have to say that if it takes 80 running plays a game that’s also what he will do but since he’s always been about balanced attacks, figure if he’s running 80 plays a game, it’s going to be close to a 50-50 split between run and pass.
What was common with Alabama and Colorado State will be what is expected of the quarterbacks at Florida. They will be expected to make as few mistakes as possible, manage the game, get the ball in the hands of playmakers and occasionally make a big play. He says he can win with his dog Clarabelle at quarterback. What that tells us is that he’s confidence he can win at Florida whether it’s Jeff Driskel, Treon Harris or Will Grier playing the position. There is no guarantee of spectacular numbers, but you can bet the ranch that they will play the position the way McElwain wants it or else they won’t play.
As expected, the Big 12 Conference has gone into it’s “we was robbed” mode at the exclusion of Baylor and TCU from college football’s first final four. It can be argued that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby ensured that one of his two stud teams wouldn’t make it when the conference elected to break it’s own rules about declaring a single conference champ (in the event of a tie, the head-to-head winner would be the champ) in an effort to get TCU into the final four. Of course, that flopped when Baylor beat then #9 Kansas State impressively, creating a serious controversy that allowed the conference playoff committee to add Big Ten champ Ohio State into the mix with Baylor taking #5 and TCU dropping from #3 to #6.
Bowlsby has been whining that the conference is being punished for not having a conference championship game, but is it punishment when the other four conferences among the Power 5 can showcase their league and their conference champion with a 13th game? That 13th game allowed Ohio State to show how much it had grown since losing to Virginia Tech in the season’s second game and the Buckeyes did it impressively with their third string quarterback.
While nothing can be done to help the Big 12 this year, the conference’s plight has commissioners like John Swofford (ACC) and Jim Delaney (Big Ten) thinking out loud about going to an 8-team playoff. The immediate snag is the deal between college football and ESPN, which goes on for another 11 years, calling for a 4-team playoff. There are those who think the controversy caused by at least one of the conference champs being left out every year will be good for the sport and create more interest but ultimately – and probably sooner, not later – the pressure will be applied to add four more teams, perhaps even making certain that the best school among the other 60 or so teams in Division I has its chance to play with the big boys.
It’s doubtful the playoffs expand to eight teams next year, but figure two years, three years at the most. Once the conferences start realizing their share of the playoff money – it’s going to be enormous – plans will be made to expand. Here is what a playoff would look like this year:#1 Alabama vs. #8 Michigan State
#2 Oregon vs. #7 Mississippi State
#3 Florida State vs. #6 TCU
#4 Ohio State vs. #5 Baylor
Danny Wuerffel on Jim McElwain: Asked about what he likes about new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who reached out and called him on the phone shortly after the Gators hired him, Wuerrfel told CBS Sports, “The biggest thing is winning but as a quarterback it’s really fun to watch a team that can get the ball down the field. I’m hoping that we’ll get some offense moving, some exciting plays to get the spark back. That’s something I’m kind of looking forward to, but you win the games, that’s what really matters.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on former Heisman winner Johnny Manziel: When asked about facing the Cleveland Browns, who plan to start Johnny Football at quarterback this weekend, Lewis noted that the former Heisman winner isn’t exactly the biggest guy in the world: “You've got to go defend the offense, you don't defend the player, particularly a midget.''
Bears Brandon Marshall on QB Jay Cutler’s enormous contract: With three games to go in the regular season, the Chicago Bears have already been eliminated from the playoffs, which has the local media questioning the value of a quarterback who has a 7-year, $126 million contract. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall tried to defend Cutler as a player but when it came to the business aspects of the deal said, “ … as far as a business man, I would have buyer's remorse, too."
It was Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis who coined the phrase, “Just win, baby!” Former Los Angeles Lakers’ star Magic Johnson thinks his old team needs to lose and lose big this year. The Lakers are off to a 5-19 start and aren’t going to get much better, but Johnson thinks rather than try to improve, they should do whatever they need to make sure they stay at the bottom of the heap to have a better shot at the #1 draft pick in the lottery.
“If you’re going to lose, you have to lose because you can’t be in the middle of the pack,” Johnson told ESPN. “You either have to be great or you have to be bad to get a good pick.”
Based on the final poll, if there were an 8-team playoff this year, which four teams would make the semifinals and the finals and which team do you think would emerge as the national champ?
During my three-year exile to Mississippi during my formative years, I was so fortunate to have John Henegan living next door. He’s the guy who explained that “Along Comes Mary” was about marijuana, something we in McComb heard musicians smoked in New Orleans, and that Donovan’s “First There Is a Mountain” was about LSD. He didn’t have to explain Simon and Garfunkel, however. Their music, I did understand, but it was there in Mississippi that it started speaking to me. Today’s music is “America,” the third cut on their 1968 album “Bookends,” which remains among my favorite albums of all time.