At some point we might look back on Monday’s Outback Bowl and call it a turning point in the Jim McElwain era at the University of Florida. Sure, Mac has two SEC East championships to show for his two years at the University of Florida but winning the East is like coming in second at a beauty pageant in which there are only two contestants.
Until the Gators kneecapped Iowa, 30-3, Monday, the closest thing to a good non-conference win for Mac was that 31-23 decision over East Carolina in 2015. There were wins over four other non-conference teams the last two years, but UMass, North Texas, New Mexico State and Florida Atlantic would have problems beating an all-star team from a convent or homeless shelter.
No one is going to mistake Iowa as a great team, but the Hawkeyes are solid and everyone who plays them knows how hard they play and how tough they are to beat. The Hawkeyes did beat Michigan back when the Fighting Harbaughs were unbeaten and very much in the national championship picture. They did end the regular season with a crushing win over Nebraska, holding the Cornhuskers to 217 total yards and 10 points while hanging a 40 on a decent defense.
When you throw in the fact the Gators were representing the downtrodden SEC East and came away with what amounted to a TKO over a Big Ten team, it says something.
It says the Gators did a great job of focusing on what’s next instead of hanging their heads after getting dominated by both Florida State and Alabama. A lot of teams would look at a bowl game as a chance to chill after taking a left and a right to the chin from those heavyweights but the Gators didn’t. This Florida football team was all business Monday afternoon and they made it their business to dominate an Iowa team known for its physical, line it up and run over them style of play. Iowa is extremely physical. Florida matched the Hawkeyes blow for blow.
The win says the Gators have quality football players not named Jarrad Davis, Alex Anzalone, Marcus Maye, Nick Washington, David Reese and Bryan Cox Jr. Those guys, who will all play on Sundays, were too injured to play. In their places were guys like Outback Bowl MVP Chauncey Gardner, Vosean Joseph, Jachai Polite, Rayshad Jackson and walkon linebacker Cristian Garcia, who played at someplace called Malone University and Florida Tech before he transferred to Florida. Gardners, Joseph, Polite and Jackson are all true freshmen.
Gardner intercepted two passes and ran one back for a TD. Joseph was in on 6 tackles and he made a couple of hits which might cause trips to the dentist when the Hawkeyes return to Iowa City. Polite had a key stop in the third quarter when the Gators were trying to slow down Iowa on its first drive. Jackson was the next guy to arrive after Marcell Harris made the initial hit on LeShun Daniels Jr. on fourth and one at the UF goal in the second quarter. Garcia played like he belonged and was in on 5 tackles.
Beating Iowa by 27 and holding the Hawkeyes to 226 total yards and only 3 points tells us Randy Shannon is the defensive coordinator the Gators need to replace Geoff Collins, who left UF for the Temple head job. That interim tag needs to come off in a hurry.
“Well, the plan that those guys on defense put together, adding the safeties to the box, actually swapping coverages a little bit and putting linebackers on the edge and putting the corners back to play half field or middle third was something we hadn’t done before, but kept them out of the run game a little bit and allowed us to put more beef up front,” McElwain said.
That’s coach speak for Randy Shannon put together a game plan that was so complicated the Iowa coaching braintrust couldn’t dissect it but it was easy enough that the Gators followed it word for word without any problems.
The win over Iowa also says to recruits that if you come to Florida, Jim McElwain and his coaching staff aren’t afraid to trust you to play even when you’re young and inexperienced.
“You know, this was a – and still is – a heck of a building process,” McElwain said. “We’re headed to building it but we’re building it right.”
Getting this win allows the Gators to start 2017 with a clean slate and a 1-game winning streak. That may not sound like much but remember this: there were 40 bowl games this year and that means 40 teams ended the season with a loss.
Florida knows how that feels because the Gators lost to Michigan last year in the Citrus Bowl and finished the season with a 3-game losing streak.
One game isn’t much but it’s a great place to start.
So, yes, this was a statement game but once you make a statement you have to do the things that back it up. That means working this next month of the recruiting process before National Signing Day as if the world depends on it. If you follow recruiting, then you know the world does depend on it. Coaching helps, but you better have talent and plenty of it.
That also means getting in the weight room and getting a lot stronger and more physical.
“One thing I will tell you, going through this offseason we’ll become a lot more physical up front than we were this year,” McElwain said after the game.
McElwain knows from experience that the weight room, mat drills and offseason drills are also where leadership begins to grow. Guys like Jarrad Davis and Marcus Maye will be gone next year along with several others. Their productivity will be missed but so will their leadership.
New leaders will have to be found.
“You know, good players follow good players,” McElwain said.
Quite a few good players either played their last game as Gators or watched from the sidelines Monday because they were too injured to play. In their place young guys assumed the mantle and made their own personal statements. Now it’s up to them to take the momentum from this win and turn it into positive leadership that will make certain the Outback Bowl win over Iowa will be looked at as the moment when the University of Florida football program took that next big step toward regaining its championship roots.