I wanted to wait a little and let the emotion of the season ebb somewhat before critiquing head coach Jim McElwain’s first season. Let’s start out by being at least a little real here. Is there any Gator fan who came into this season thinking they would be unsatisfied with 10-3 and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game? I think not. If you did, you need to get a grip. Where have I heard that before?
Yes, the last two games were ugly. Well, the offense was ugly, the defense was pretty solid in each game until they became discouraged by the reality of the offense. Sadly, this was a formula Gator fans have grown accustomed to over the last few years. Most fans want to hang the lion’s share of the blame for the faltering offense down the stretch on Treon Harris but I really believe it goes much deeper than that. The offensive line was considered a huge liability coming into the season. Many fans believed that the line played well early in the season but that really isn’t the case. Weak opponents and Will Grier’s ability to get rid of the ball very quickly made the line look better than it was. The extremely low yards per carry in the running game should have been an indication all along that things were not well with the O-line. As the season wore on and linemen became dinged up and tired, the lack of depth took its toll and the offense paid the price. Yes, Harris has his limitations, but those limitations as well as his talents could have been applied much differently with solid O-line play.
There is still one game to play in this season. The Gators will face the Michigan Wolverines on New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl. This matchup pits two surprisingly successful new head coaches against one another in McElwain and Jim Harbaugh. It would mean a lot for the Florida team’s psyche to end the season with a victory. For that to happen the offense must be more effective than it has been down the stretch. That is not impossible. The offensive line will get time to heal and rest. This should help them take advantage of a Michigan team that has been gouged at times this season by the running game. If Kelvin Taylor and the two Jordans can get the running game going that should open things up a little for Harris and the passing game. As long as the defense remains focused with so many of them pondering their futures, this is a very winnable game for Florida. Then it will be time to set the sights on next season.
The Gators showed down the stretch that there is still a ways to go before they are true contenders again. Jim McElwain gets an entire recruiting cycle to fill the glaring holes he found on the roster when he arrived in Gainesville. Recruiting is critical for elite college football programs and even a single weak recruiting class can take a team out of national title contention down the road. As I write this, Florida sits at number 5 in the Rivals team recruiting rankings. While that sounds great, filling needs and building depth is what really matters, and it appears that the Gators are doing that if they can close with a few prospects they look good with right now.
The offense clearly needs help. Florida MUST have better options at the quarterback position, better talent and depth along the offensive line and more playmakers to allow coach McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to utilize the entire playbook. With two quarterbacks already committed and ready for early enrollment in January, Gator fans got caught up in the whims of Jacob Eason, a five star quarterback that had been committed to Georgia since he was six, but Eason has opted to stick with his previous commitment. While it is always good to add an elite quarterback recruit, Eason was a luxury and not a need. Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask will be enrolled next month and take part in spring practice. Transfer Luke Del Rio who sat out the 2015 season per NCAA rules will be available in the spring as well. The Gators will not go into 2016 with the same limitations at quarterback that held them back in 2015.
The Gators only lose a couple of offensive linemen to graduation. With a year of experience and development under their belt, it is to be hoped that the group will be deeper and more comfortable in the offense next season. There was only so much that could be done with what the Gators had to work with. I can just hear Mike Summers saying, “Dammit Jim, I’m pushing her as hard as I can, she won’t hold up much longer”. It almost has to be better in 2016. Even if Kelvin Taylor leaves early, the running backs are a solid group. Playmakers must be added or developed for the passing game but a better line and better quarterback play should create opportunities.
Defensively, it is hard to judge just what is needed there until the dust settles on who is leaving and who is staying but, unlike some others, I think this side of the ball will be dominant regardless of who leaves early for the NFL. There is a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and more coming in. Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins has proven that he knows what to do with that talent. I see no reason to expect a drop off defensively. Yes, Vernon Hargreaves will be missed but Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor are elite corners in their own right. The return of Jarrad Davis is huge and it will be important for some of this year’s injured LBs to come back healthy and ready to play. Jon Bullard will be missed but there is a ton of talent along the defensive line even if Alex McAlister ignores common sense and departs for the NFL this year. This should be one of the best defenses in the SEC and therefore the country next year.
The Gators were able to avoid attrition on the coaching staff. The talent level across the board is going up instead of down. The glaring holes are being filled. “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”.