COLUMBIA — It’s sort of like a relationship that didn’t work out — the next time, you go for something completely different. At least that’s how it feels in the case of Florida football, which after four seasons of watching Will Muschamp’s defensive grind-it-out style, flipped the keys to its program over to a new head coach who harkens back to its past.
Time will tell if Jim McElwain can take the Gators to the heights they enjoyed under Steve Spurrier, but the immediate parallels are there. Both were college quarterbacks (though of vastly different abilities) both broke through at schools not exactly known as football powers (Spurrier at Duke, McElwain at Colorado State) and both came to Gainesville with a reputation for slinging the ball in record-setting fashion.
Now, that’s not to say another national championship is nigh at Florida. But to a fan base cultivated on the Fun-’n-Gun, watching the Gators play defensive-based, unimaginative football had to be grating. If you’re going lose, at least do it with some style, right? McElwain’s last team in Fort Collins averaged 498 yards per game, and ranked seventh in passing. No matter what happens this season, it should at least be fun to watch.
It should be noted that Muschamp hardly left the cupboard bare, leaving behind the bones of a top-25 defense which anchored a .500 season in SEC play, not something to dismiss. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and linebacker Antonio Morrison are hardly bad players to build around. Offensively? Well, that’s another matter, and it’s the reason McElwain now has the job.
Head coach: Jim McElwain (First season at Florida, 22-17 in three seasons overall)
Returning starters: 13 (Seven offense, six defense)
2014 record: 7-4 (4-4 SEC, third in Eastern Division)
Scoring offense: 30.2 points scored per game (56th nationally)
Scoring defense: 21.2 points allowed per game (24th nationally)
Series: Florida leads 24-8-3
Opposing beat writer: Robbie Andreu, Gainesville Sun (@RobbieAndreu)
Last meeting: South Carolina 23, Florida 20 (OT) on Nov. 15, 2014 in Gainesville. The game that saved USC’s season, preventing the Gamecocks from suffering their first losing record in over a decade. Everything that had to go right down the stretch did — Gerald Dixon blocked what would have been a clinching field goal, Carlton Heard blocked a punt, Mike Davis scored a late tying touchdown and Dylan Thompson took advantage in overtime by dashing into the end zone to secure the Gamecock’ second-ever victory in the Swamp.
1. The quarterback is an unknown. Ex-Notre Dame QB Everett Golson chose Florida State. Skyler Morninweg transferred to Columbia, Jeff Driskel to Louisiana Tech. Treon Harris doesn’t seem the right fit. Who’s going to play quarterback for the Gators this fall? Will Grier appears to be the frontrunner, but Jack Del Rio’s son has walked on, so who knows. This could be an unknown until Florida takes the field Sept. 5 against New Mexico State.
2. Defense will still carry this team. McElwain’s first season might look a lot like Muschamp’s last, given the personnel remaining in Gainesville. Hargreaves is a star, and Morrison is expected to be recovered from a knee injury suffered in the Birmingham Bowl. Dante Fowler may be in the NFL, but when it comes to sheer talent, the Gators have more on the defensive side of the ball.
3. This will not be a quick fix. At least, it doesn’t show any signs of being. No real option at quarterback, an offensive line decimated by graduation and NFL departures, a glaring lack of playmakers at the skill positions. This team isn’t coming out of the gate averaging 498 yards per game. Sometimes new coaches can rally a bunch of leftovers and defy expectations. That might be Florida’s best-case scenario, at least for next season.
Week before: At Tennessee
Next week: The Citadel
On the horizon: That team from Pickens County