Kan Li / Scout

Gators' preparation for 2016 has already begun

ORLANDO – One play certainly didn’t beat the Florida Gators in Friday’s Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Michigan made too many plays and Florida missed too many opportunities to say that one play was the 9-inch stiletto to the heart for the Gators, but one play probably defines the debacle that was the 41-7 beatdown suffered at the hands of the Wolverines.

It happened on 4th-and-7 at the Michigan 20 on Florida’s first drive. Having already missed two touchdown opportunities, the Gators sent in walkon and dental student Neil MacInnes for what appeared to be a 37-yard field goal attempt. That it was MacInnes – Jim McElwain called it “pulled the dentist off the IR” – should have been your first clue what kind of day this was going to be. MacInnes was only in the game because Austin Hardin, whose season has been several short peaks and far too many very deep valleys, sprained his ankle during Florida’s Thursday afternoon walk through.

“Yeah, you heard me right,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said when he offered up the reason why MacInnes was in the game during his post-game remarks. The look on McElwain’s face said plenty without any further explanation.

Even with a healthy Hardin, McElwain knew going into the game that field goals and extra points were going to be adventurous. Without Hardin, there were three options and none of them seemed very good. Option one was to let MacInnes kick, but with an ACL tear that required a brace on his plant leg, McElwain explained anything outside the 10-yard-line was a kick too far. Option two was to line up the offense and go for it but that didn’t seem like such a good idea against Michigan’s outstanding defensive unit. Option three was to try to catch the Wolverines off guard with a fake that might result in a first down or – if by some miracle the Red Sea that was Michigan’s defensive line parted – a touchdown.

It was kind of like Let’s Make a Deal only Monty Hall wasn’t there to emcee the decision.

McElwain chose what was behind door number three but instead of a first down or touchdown, Johnny Townsend’s shovel pass was picked off Channing Stribling, giving Michigan the football at the Florida 27.

“Should have probably just gone for it there rather than try the shovel pass,” McElwain said.

In retrospect, yes, he should have gone for it, but it did indeed seem like a good idea at the moment. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh admits it caught him by surprise although his special teams guys obviously had a feel for what was coming.

“I can’t say that it wasn’t a good call … I was surprised by it,” Harbaugh said.

If Michigan’s special teams unit had been surprised and the play worked for a first down or led to a touchdown, we might be talking about a genius moment for McElwain and a brain dead moment for Michigan.

Instead, we’re left to talk about one more time when what could go wrong did go wrong in the second half of the season. The 6-0 start had folks thinking we were watching a miracle unfold before our very eyes. Six wins. That’s as many wins most experts figured the Gators were good for in 2015.

Then Will Grier was suspended by the NCAA for use of performance enhancing drugs and from that point on, it seemed there just wasn’t enough good news to go around. Still, the Gators won 10 games and they beat Georgia even after the Grier suspension. Not a lot of people expected that.

“What did you pick us for, four wins?” McElwain asked a reporter who wanted to know if the coach thought the season was a success. When the reporter replied six, McElwain added, “It was six? I appreciate you.”

That the Gators won 10 games is a surprise and a success story but it also magnifies the 4-4 finish that included three straight losses at the end. The Gators had their sixth win by mid-October so anything more should be considered a bonus, but good starts raise expectations and raised expectations make 4-4 finishes hugely disappointing.

The focus should be on the 10 wins overall not the 3-game losing streak at the end or the 4-4 finish after the Grief suspension. That UF could get to 10 wins tells you that McElwain and his staff can work wonders even when they have a roster that is pockmarked with far too many holes at critical positions such as quarterback, offensive line and yes, placekicker.

A 4-4 finish is a testament of what happens when depth issues catch up with you and the smoke and mirrors you used to hide your flaws early on are no longer effective.

Put in proper perspective, we should consider the losing streak and the 4-4 finish a cry for help because the Gators need help and lots of it if they’re going to turn themselves into consistent contenders for both the SEC and national championships.

McElwain could have spent the 15 minutes he talked with the media after the game complaining about a lack of effort and focus by his team against Michigan and Lord knows, there were as many mental breakdowns in the secondary and missed tackles in one game as we’ve seen in any two previously this season. But rather than call out the Gators, McElwain simply attributed the beatdown to Michigan’s superior physicality.

“They out-physicalled us, no doubt about it, and I mean – I hate to state the obvious all the time – but they did a great job with their pad level and really took it to us on both sides of the ball,” McElwain said.

That is a call for help any way you look at it. School starts again on Monday and that means the returning players need to get in the weight room to become the bigger, faster and stronger players who can whip a team like Michigan on every level.

New players can and will be added, too. Quite a few newbies will be starting classes Monday and McElwain and his staff are set to close out one of the better recruiting classes in recent memory. What this means is the holes in the roster are about to be filled.

“We’ve got a bunch of new guys coming in here at the break,” McElwain said. “We'll add a total of 28 to maybe 30 coming in this class.  So, you know, the guys that are coming back got to do a great job of indoctrinating the new guys into how we do it and our expectations.”

If you saw McElwain’s face in the media room, then you know he wanted much, much more than what he got from the Gators Friday afternoon, but if you listened to him talk, then you also understood that once the clock struck zero at the end of the fourth quarter, the Michigan game was already in his rearview mirror. More than anyone else, McElwain knows every one of the flaws that were exposed by Michigan and what has to be done to make sure nothing like this happens again. It wasn’t one play or one thing that beat the Gators but a whole host of troubles that he has already begun to address. 

One season is over. Preparation for the next season has already begun.

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