JACKSONVILLE — The shirts Florida players wore during the week leading into Saturday’s matchup with Georgia made no secret of the Gators’ underdog status: “Leave no doubt,” they read, above a number, 14.5 — the spread of the rivalry game, in Georgia’s favor.
And then it was 7-0 in four minutes, 14-0 in six minutes and 21-0 less than halfway into the first quarter. It took eight offensive plays to turn those shirts into collector’s items. Georgia, not Florida, was disrespected. The spread should’ve been more.
People around Florida’s program have been wearing this shirt this week. The number is the opening line on the game. pic.twitter.com/PbxQ97Ak9V— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) October 28, 2017
Optimism ruled the day for Florida back in 2015, the program’s first season under Jim McElwain, when he led a rudderless program to double-digit wins and a spot in the SEC title game. If he can get this far this early, went the logic, the future is wide open. A harsh truth has been revealed in hindsight: It’s never gotten any better than that.
First treading water — with a satisfactory 2016 season that failed to build on a solid debut — and now drowning, the Gators enter November needing to win three of four against Missouri, South Carolina, UAB and Florida State to secure bowl eligibility. Not in decades has the season finale against the Seminoles been so meaningless.
Someone has to answer for Florida’s mediocrity, and it’ll be McElwain. In his team’s performance and his own series of missteps, McElwain has done himself no favors — he’s failed to capitalize on the goodwill accompanying his debut, leaving the former Colorado State head coach and Alabama assistant in serious danger of seeing his once-promising tenure end after three years of rapidly diminishing results. After losing 42-7 on a neutral field, the end could come as soon as Sunday.
The loss provided the most damning statement to date about his on-field mismanagement. In less than two years, Georgia has first caught up with the Gators, then passed them, and now left them in the dust. The Bulldogs are a realistic contender for the College Football Playoff, wholly deserving of a spot in the top three of this week’s Amway Coaches Poll, and destined to meet Alabama in an undefeated-only, winner-take-all SEC championship game in early December.
Florida is miles behind Georgia. The Gators are sloppier. Infinitely inepter. Far less coherent in terms of an offensive philosophy. In back-to-back years, the Bulldogs have prepared a true freshman quarterback for SEC play. McElwain and Florida can’t find a quarterback regardless of experience. How wide could the gap be next October? And forget about Georgia — the Gators are only a miracle touchdown better than Tennessee.
This is a program that has run off the rails, and not just on Saturdays. There were warning signs even this summer, when a photo surfaced on a McElwain lookalike lying naked atop a shark on a deep-sea fishing boat. It’s just a photo, right? McElwain should’ve laughed it off. It instead became a thing … a silly, stupid thing that could’ve been handled with humor but instead revealed a coach strung so tightly that even a laugh-it-off moment turned deadly serious. Maybe it revealed how this team would wilt under pressure. Florida certainly has.
Then came fall camp, when nine Florida players faced felony charges after allegedly using stolen credit card information to purchase items at the university bookstore and elsewhere. Ten players in total were suspended for the opener against Michigan, a 33-15 loss that provided the first indication that Florida was nowhere near competing on a national level.
Just this week, during his weekly press conference, McElwain tossed out to the assembled media that Florida players and families had received death threats amid the Gators’ poor start. But he failed to go into details, saying, “It goes with the territory.” Later, in conversations with school administrators, McElwain declined to share any details. The university had no choice but to issue a statement only tepidly giving credence to his comments: McElwain “offered no additional details,” it read.
This was his worst moment — and then Georgia handed Florida a 35-point loss. In botching that press conference and doubling down with his bosses, McElwain essentially burned any bridges he had left. There would be no life preserver cast to pull him ashore.
It was almost inevitable that reports signaling the official end of McElwain’s tenure would come before kickoff. According to a report on Saturday morning, Florida and McElwain’s representatives have discussed a workaround for his significant buyout package. While Florida officials shot down that report — “No one representing the University of Florida or our athletic department” has engaged in such conversations, said athletics director Scott Stricklin — it was another wishy-washy show of support for the Gators’ embattled coach.
The best thing Florida can do is cut bait. The McElwain era is over. This team sits in the bottom half of the SEC East Division. It won’t get better. To drag it out does nothing; it only delays the inevitable while tying the university’s hands in its pursuit of the next coach.
But the defining trait to McElwain’s tenure isn’t just the on-field failures, the inability to develop a quarterback, the ceding of the division to Georgia, the lack of any offensive identity, the failures to find difference-making talent, the woeful talent development and terrible personnel decisions — though that alone would be enough.
Instead, we’ll look at McElwain and see a coach who did nothing right. He took his inherited roster and rallied that first team to above-average heights. He then failed to capitalize. On Saturday, for example, the Gators took one hit and quit. Then Georgia poured it on in the fourth quarter while Florida stepped aside. No one was angry. There was no screaming. There was a leadership void. It was the McElwain era in a nutshell.