ORLANDO — Jims Harbaugh and McElwain had already turned around two historic football powerhouses to respectable teams in their first seasons at Michigan and Florida respectively.
The Citrus Bowl pitted the two first year head coaches against each other in a bowl game that would have seemed improbable when the season began and it served to show just how far the two teams have come and how far one of them still needs to go.
The Florida Gators were a no-show on Friday in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. McElwain didn’t question his team’s effort or their willingness to play, but he did admit the obvious — Florida got punched in the face early and didn’t have an answer for the Michigan Wolverines.
“They out-physicaled us guys, no doubt about it,” McElwain said after the game. “And, I mean, I hate to state the obvious all the time, but they — they did a great job with their pad level and really took it to us on both sides of the ball.
Florida’s season can really be put into chapters. There was the team that started 6-0 and plastered then No. 3 Ole Miss. Then there was the team that was 4-4 the rest of the season. That team lost their final three games, needed a late field goal to beat Vanderbilt and overtime to beat FAU. Florida walked into the Citrus Bowl battered and bruised, a shell of the team they were when the season began.
Even the Florida Gators defense — a unit that came into bowl season as one of the top-five units in the country — looked shell-shocked against a balanced Michigan offensive attack. Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Senior receiver Jehu Chesson hauled in five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. Michigan used Florida’s speed and aggressive style of play against them, something they game planned for.
“That was a lot of scouting that our coaches had done. “Their corners, their secondary they’re fast. They’re really good players,” Rudock said. “We just felt we could potentially get them on a double move, and our coaches said, yeah, it’s going to happen. And Jehu ran a great route.”
All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves fell victim to two Chesson double moves, one resulting in a wide-open touchdown.
In a sense, the outcome of the game — Florida’s most lopsided loss since falling to Nebraska 62-24 in the 1996 National Championship game — made sense. The Gators had not played inspired football down the stretch and despite not wanting to admit it during the season.
“You can’t ever take a step back. We were pedal to the metal for like the first six weeks, seven weeks, eight weeks,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “After that Georgia game, it just went downhill from there. 9-7 Vandy, that’s not supposed to happen. 14-20 overtime at FAU, that’s not supposed to happen. Get blown out at home against FSU, that’s not supposed to happen.”
Michigan was the better team on Friday in the Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines were better prepared and better coached. They finished their season on a win, with celebrations in the locker room and a trophy to bring back to Ann Arbor. Florida left disappointed, angry and hurt. A three-game losing streak will scar McElwain’s first season in Gainesville but the head coach was unexpectedly chipper in his post game press conference.
“Maybe that’s my fault about being upbeat,” McElwain said when questioned about his demeanor. “Yeah, I’m disappointed. We’re all disappointed. But you also got to learn from disappointment, and we will.”
Florida’s season is done. The recruiting dead period is still in affect but McElwain and his coaching staff have been relentless on the recruiting trail. The Gators have one of the top-ranked classes in the country and will be able to bring in a huge class. In his first full season and year of recruiting, McElwain believes the future is bright because of the players he has returning on the roster as well as the influx of talent that will soon be in Gainesville.
“We got a bunch of new guys coming in here at the break. We’ll add a total of 28 to maybe 30 coming in this class,” said McElwain. “The guys that are coming back got to do a great job of indoctrinating the new guys of how we do it and our expectations.”
The slow finish won’t temper expectations in 2016, as fans will expect McElwain and the Florida Gators to make a return trip to Atlanta. That will be the Gators’ expectations as well, and they won’t forget the way Michigan handled them in the Citrus Bowl either.
“We’re going to go into next year strong,” Tabor said. “We play [Michigan] in two years to open up, so that will be on our mind.”