It has been a tough month or so for the Gator Nation. Florida fans were forced to watch the death throes of the Muschamp Era. The basketball season has gotten off to an inauspicious start. Soccer and volleyball both fell short in their respective tournaments. The Gator football recruiting class is by far the worst I have seen at this point in the process since I have followed recruiting. The euphoria over new head coach Jim McElwain’s first press conference has faded away to the realization that Will Muschamp has left behind a bit of a rebuilding project which may take some time if this signing class cannot be turned around in a massive way. Usually when your football team is coming off of a mediocre season there is at least the upside that there probably weren’t enough outstanding performances to lead to many early departures to the NFL, but Gator fans have already heard the news of a few departures and are still awaiting word on at least one more. It is difficult right now to find many things to feel positive about for the Florida faithful.
Amid news that Muschamp has taken a defensive coordinator’s job within the conference at Auburn and is currently raiding the Gators coaching staff and chasing Florida’s few remaining big hopes on the recruiting trail, the fan base has all but forgotten about the less than awe inspiring bowl opportunity in Birmingham AL. Turnout for that game promises to be minimal at best. There is little mirth in Gatorland this holiday season. It might be time to lace that eggnog with something that packs a little punch. Many Gator fans seemed to think that getting rid of Muschamp would solve all of their problems. Those of us who argued in favor of giving Will every possible chance to salvage his job did so knowing that firing him would just make the hole deeper before the possibly long process of climbing out of it could begin.
I was suitably impressed with McElwain’s presser. He appeared to be comfortable, confident and ready for the task at hand. Now, he must start making things happen. As important as it is to hire the best possible coaches for his staff, the simple truth is that time is rapidly running out on filling out this recruiting class. A recruiting class as lacking as the Gator class is currently will be hard to overcome. If the roster was fairly loaded with talent across the board already, one disastrous class could be absorbed but that just isn’t the case. There are some glaring holes in the current roster. There is no depth at linebacker of offensive line. There seems to be a dearth of playmakers at wide receiver and next to nothing at tight end. Prospects are disappearing off of the board with each passing week and it will be difficult to convince kids to commit to a team when they have no idea who will even be their position coach.
Most of the top prospects have already committed elsewhere. Several more will announce at the All-Star games. With the dead period, there will be very little opportunity for McElwain to make his case with these players before those games take place. Yes, it is possible to flip prospects after they commit but it will be hard to fill out an entire class with such signees. Florida currently sits with a mere seven commitments and none of those are blue chip prospects. The class is ranked at an embarrassing 97 by Rivals as I write this. To make matters worse, some of the top talent that was rumored to be leaning toward the Gators has begun to look questionable for the good guys. While there is still a chance that the staff can put together a solid signing class in February it is also quite possible that this could be a class that would disappoint even Vandy fans. I don’t think it will end up that bad but Gator fans must steal themselves for that possibility.
Now, that I’ve rained heavily on your Christmas Parade, let me point out some things Gator fans NEED to keep in mind. The Florida football team IS still an elite program. It is nestled nicely in the middle of one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country. Unlike Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain does appear to actually understand and be capable of the process of being a head coach. If he assembles a solid staff around him, future success is all but assured. The real question is how much time the turn-around will require. If the staff could somehow salvage a top 15 recruiting class, the climb out of the hole could be as early as 2015-2016. A class ranked 20-30 would probably mean 2016-2017 before the corner is really turned. If the unthinkable happens and the Gators are forced to sign a bunch of Plan B or C guys just to get warm bodies on the roster this could be a long process with short term signs of success knowing that a down year or two are likely ahead when this hole in recruiting comes home to roost. Only a top three type class in 2016 could lessen the blow if that happens.
So there you have it Gator Nation. There was a reason why some of us clung so desperately to hope against all evidence that Muschamp and his staff could pull this thing out. We were quite aware of the probably side effects of a coaching change. I cautioned repeatedly about what such a change could do to this recruiting class, but eventually keeping the staff was going to be just as damaging to recruiting as keeping them and Foley did what could not be avoided. If McElwain is the right hire, and I think he is, there is certainly reason for optimism down the road. But, depending on how recruiting goes from here, this thing could get worse before it gets better. Patience may be needed while the new coach assembles the necessary tools and implements for the climb back into the light.