With the announcement of an almost complete coaching staff on Monday, Jim McElwain began putting his stamp on the Florida football program. It’s a good staff that has history in two critical areas – player development and recruiting – that hints at long-term development rather than a quick fix approach. Now that’s not to say that McElwain can’t plug enough leaks to have a successful first season at the helm of the SS Gator but the recent five-year history of the program (37-26 record since 2010) begs for putting in a strong foundation that can get the Gators back into championship contention and sustain the success over a long period.
To put it in nice terms, the last five years have not been kind to the Florida football brand. The Urban Meyer that tried to keep the Gators on a successful roll in 2010 wasn’t the Urban Meyer who went 57-10 in his first five years. In retrospect, he would have been better off to stay retired the first time than try to make a go at it while dealing with health issues, too many new faces on the coaching staff and a rift between players who had been part of championships and a #1 recruiting class. There was a measure of chaos in the program when Meyer left and Will Muschamp certainly dealt with the chaos better than he did with bringing Florida back to sustainable excellence. One good season in four just doesn’t cut it at Florida and we never saw development on both sides of the football. Muschamp coached the Gators like a defensive coordinator, which is to say he maintained a level of excellence on that side of the ball while the offensive side took a serious hit.
We could spend the next 12 months arguing about what Meyer should or shouldn’t have done and how Muschamp just wasn’t ready for prime time as a head ball coach. All that would accomplish is to state the obvious – Florida football has reached a critical juncture and the task facing Jim McElwain isn’t going to be easy. His task is going to be similar to the one Steve Spurrier faced in 1990 when he took over a program still burdened by NCAA sanctions, an offense that had to use the handicapped spaces when it was parked and just a 26-21 record to show for four previous seasons.
McElwain doesn’t have to deal with any NCAA sanctions – Florida hasn’t had a major violation in any sport since Jeremy Foley took over as athletic director in 1991, the only SEC school that can make that claim – but he does have to deal with an offensive image quite similar to the one that Spurrier inherited in 1990. Do you remember the Amedee-ville Horror of 1988 and Whitey Jordan’s death by a thousand snores offense in 1989? This is what the last four years have seemed like.
McElwain’s track record suggests that he has the ability to see a defense, envision the right play and then get athletes into the right spots to make it happen. This is what he’s going to have to sell the next few months. The Gator Nation will get behind him because that’s what the Gator Nation does with every new head coach. They’ll stay behind him if he can start turning the heads of kids and letting them know that the Florida brand – the one forged by Spurrier and the Urban Meyer of 2005-09 – is alive, well and ready to reclaim the future.
1. LSU: The Tigers return 16 starters plus both special teams guys. The defense was good but will be better with a new coordinator. Lea Miles’ relationship with John Chavis was getting testy so it was time for him to go. The offense could be outstanding if Brandon Harris turns into the quarterback Miles thinks he can be or else Everett Golston transfers in from Notre Dame. Nobody in the league has more dangerous skill weapons than the Tigers with Leonard Fournette and wide receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre.
2. Tennessee: The Vols return 19 starters from a team nobody wanted to play after November 1. Now that they have a quarterback in Josh Dobbs, the offense will be dynamic, especially when he’s got healthy wideouts to throw to. The defense racked up 35 sacks and is bringing in maybe the best D-line class in the country.
3. Arkansas: This is a very dangerous team. They return 15 starters plus both kickers. The offense returns two 1,000-yard backs, four offensive linemen from what might be the biggest line in the country and quarterback Brandon Allen, who was the SEC’s most improved offensive player in 2014. The defense held Texas to 59 total yards in the bowl game and 18 of the top 22 on the depth chart are back.
4. Alabama: Nick Saban probably is giggling at the fact that the pressure will be off the Crimson Tide. They lose nine starters on offense and three key starters on defense. They will be breaking in four new offensive linemen, three new wide receivers and a quarterback. Figure they’ll still finish in the top ten.
5. Georgia: The Bulldogs will return only 11 starters but one of them is Nick Chubb, which is why the offense will still put plenty of points on the board. The defense loses a lot but there are a lot of experienced and talented young bodies to step in. If Georgia finds a quarterback and the play in the secondary improves, the Bulldogs will be in the SEC East hunt.
6. Auburn: Auburn will break in a new quarterback but that shouldn’t slow down the offense. Gus Malzahn is always going to put points on the board. Will Muschamp is going to have to perform a parting the Red Sea miracle with a defense that was a sieve the last half of the season when the Tigers couldn’t get anyone off the field.
7. Ole Miss: The Rebels return 17 starters, 20 of their top 22 on offense and 16 of their top 22 on defense. So why aren’t they ranked higher? Until someone steps in and proves he can replace Bo Wallace at quarterback the Rebels are going to be off the radar. The Rebels will have two first team preseason All-America selections in left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
8. Texas A&M: The Aggies will score points no matter who is playing quarterback. That is a fact. Can they stop anybody? That is the big question. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was let go and replaced by John Chavis, who crafted top defenses at Tennessee and LSU. There is no shortage of talent to work with. The Aggies will start the season on the fringe of the radar.
9. Mississippi State: There is a lot of returning experience although the Bulldogs did lose 13 starters. The O-line has been gutted but they played a 10-man rotation. The defense loses six starters but the Bulldogs typically played 25-28 defensive players every game. They won’t be as good in 2015 as they were on either side of the ball last season, but any team that has Dak Prescott at quarterback has to be viewed as dangerous.
10. Missouri: Defensive ends Shane Ray (early to the NFL) and Markus Golden (graduated) are gone but they aren’t the big losses on defense. The big loss is coordinator Les Steckle, who became the head coach at D1AA Missouri State. Missouri is going to score plenty of points but they’ve got a lot to replace on the other side of the football.
11. FLORIDA: Think of the Gators as a blank canvas, particularly on offense. Jim McElwain doesn’t have a lot to work with but he’s been in that position before and pulled rabbits out of the hat. Florida’s strength will once again be on the defensive side of the ball. Until the offense catches on and catches up, the defense will have to carry the load.
12. South Carolina: The good news is the Gamecocks return most of the two-deep on defense. That’s also the bad news because South Carolina was atrocious. Steve Spurrier still hasn’t made a move to replace Lorenzo Ward as his defensive coordinator. If it’s status quo on that side of the ball it will be a long year. The offense will score points because Spurrier will figure out ways to get the ball in the hands of Pharoh Cooper, who will be the SEC’s most versatile weapon.
13. Kentucky: Kentucky was greatly improved in 2014. What did that get the Wildcats? Three more wins than 2013 and a six game – not a 10-game – losing streak to end the season. They will be improved again in 2015 but so will most everybody else. Getting bowl eligible is a good goal and that could happen if Patrick Towles continues to improve.
14. Vanderbilt: Derek Mason will be his own defensive coordinator. He’s brought in Andy Ludwig, who called the plays at Wisconsin, to coordinate the offense. This is a necktie on a pig. Looks better. It’s still a pig.
There are premature reports that Jameis Winston has already made up his mind to return to Florida State next year but his dad said Tuesday that no decision has been made and none will be announced until next week after Oregon and Ohio State play for the national championship. Even with the crappy game against Oregon and all those interceptions this season, Winston will be a top five pick if he leaves for the NFL. If he stays and has another 18-interception season or finds more off the field trouble his draft stock will drop like a rock. Conventional wisdom says he goes but Winston doesn’t always go conventional. This is the same guy who thought he could walk out of Publix without paying and the same guy who very well might have gotten away with rape. He thinks he’s invincible so maybe he stays. It would be a dumb decision in all probability, but we’ve seen enough of the not so bright Winston mind at work in the past couple of years so don’t count it out.
Before they ever played a game last year, Kentucky’s basketball team was labeled one of the greats of all time and a 40-0 season was predicted. Didn’t happen. So this year, with even more McDonald’s All-Americans on hand and a team taller than any you’ll find in the NBA, they’ve been talking 40-0 again. The 0 nearly became a 1 Tuesday night when Ole Miss took the Wildcats into overtime. That’s the closest anyone has come to knocking off Kentucky and who knows if anyone will be good enough to spring the upset. If someone knocks the Wildcats off one of two things will happen: (1) either the pressure will be off and they’ll go on a tear of pillaging and plundering whoever gets in their way or (2) the loss will be such a shock that they have a hard time recovering. #2 is what happened last year.
With McElwain and his staff hitting the recruiting trail hard these next four weeks, what area do you think has to be the first priority: quarterback, receivers, offensive line?
I didn’t know there was such a thing as jazz banjo until SunFest in 1991 when I saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I’ve had a chance to catch his act a couple of times since and it’s always as fun as it is interesting. It’s worth seeing Bela in person to catch Victor Wooten, one of the more inventive bass players in any musical genre. This is “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo” which is a requirement of any Flecktones concert.