The offseason is the appropriate time to consider what-ifs, and I do enjoy indulging in that from time to time. Florida football has no shortage of them.
Possibly the most famous recent one is what if Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon doesn’t get injured late in 2007. It was Chip Kelly’s first year as offensive coordinator for the Ducks, and Dixon was perfectly suited to running what was then a truly revolutionary offense at the power conference level. He was on his way to securing what undoubtedly would’ve been one of the largest Heisman wins in history, but he tore his ACL in early November. That flung the Heisman door wide open, and Tim Tebow went through that door to become the first underclassman ever to win the award.
Another that’s recently come back to mind with Karl Dorrell now taking the Colorado job is what if UCLA doesn’t beat USC in the last week of the 2006 regular season. Then-UCLA head coach Dorrell and his Bruins handed the No. 2 Trojans their second loss of the year, knocking them out of the national title race.
If USC wins that game, they go to the national title game and probably beat the snot out of the buffet-bloated Buckeyes. Meanwhile, no one would’ve exchanged a single word about Michigan and Florida because it’d have been irrelevant with no Playoff.
The Gators would have to wait another couple of years for their second national title, the SEC’s national championship streak would’ve been delayed a year, and there might not have been so much SEC-Big Ten sniping in the years following ’06 without the highly emotional Gators-Wolverines debate. Also, would a third (second-and-a-half, really) national title in a row make Pete Carroll get itchy to go back to the NFL sooner?
One what-if that no one talks about — probably because they don’t want to talk about it if they even realize the potential of the scenario — is what if Luke Del Rio doesn’t break his collarbone against Vandy in 2017?
Feleipe Franks had played his way out of the starting quarterback role a week earlier against Kentucky. Del Rio didn’t significantly outplay Franks as a passer during the Gators’ comeback against the Wildcats, but his depth of knowledge about the offense made things go visibly smoother. He could get people lined up correctly and help the linemen with their protections. UF almost certainly doesn’t win that one without Del Rio.
The week later against the Commodores, Del Rio got the start. He led the offense to two touchdowns amid three punts in five possessions, but he broke his collarbone getting sacked on the fifth series. Franks played really well against a bad Vandy defense, and Malik Davis had a career day on the ground. The Gators won, but Del Rio was done for the year.
After torching a bad team, Franks reverted to his bad old redshirt freshman form. He struggled against a very good LSU defense, generating just three scoring drives. The final of them came with eight called runs against just two called passes (an incompletion and a defensive pass interference flag), and Eddy Piñeiro missed the PAT en route to a 17-16 loss. The following week was a rougher showing as he had a worse line against a noticeably worse Texas A&M defense, and UF lost 19-17.
Does Florida win those games with Del Rio instead of Franks? We’ll never know, obviously, but I think the answer is a strong maybe. Del Rio lacked Franks’s considerable athletic gifts, but Franks was very clearly playing before he was ready. The coaching staff never should’ve put him in that situation if it could help it, but it couldn’t really by then with Del Rio out hurt and, as we’d come to see, Malik Zaire being an even worse option.
You know the rest. An off week came after the loss to the Aggies, and a very stressed Jim McElwain said something at a press conference about receiving death threats. Things went very quickly off the rails from there, and McElwain was done in Gainesville shortly thereafter.
Let’s say the Gator offense continued to look more fluid under a Del Rio who made it through the Vanderbilt game unscathed. Florida easily could’ve won its next two instead of losing by a combined three points. The offense still wasn’t great under Del Rio, so McElwain still would’ve been under pressure. However it probably wouldn’t have been enough for him to do the death threats thing, and I’m sure he survives the season with at 6-5 record at minimum. He probably would’ve had to fire guys like OC Doug Nussmeier and S&C coach Mike Kent, but McElwain’s still around in 2018 if those two losses turn into wins.
If McElwain is still Florida head coach in 2018, then obviously it means UF doesn’t hire Dan Mullen in advance of that season. Reporting revealed that Mullen was in late-stage negotiations with Knoxville, albeit stalling to see what happened with UF’s open position, when Scott Stricklin came calling.
Florida’s fourth game of 2018 would’ve been Jim McElwain going up against Tennessee head coach Dan Mullen. I’m sorry if you just threw up in your mouth a little bit.
And, if Tennessee doesn’t hire Jeremy Pruitt after losing out on Mullen, Pruitt probably still would be Alabama’s DC right now. Pruitt was on no one’s radar for head coaching gigs until UT looked at him, in no small part because he has a reputation for being hard to work with. Nick Saban had the clout to keep Pruitt in line indefinitely, but he very quickly wore out his welcome in DC gigs at FSU and Georgia.
After Pruitt left, Saban promoted Tosh Lupoi to DC. Lupoi is known as an ace recruiter, but as an on-field coach, he’s known as an ace recruiter. The Tide went from allowing 12 points a game in 2017 under Pruitt to 18 a game under Lupoi in 2018. Saban fired Lupoi after the season and replaced him with a relative unknown with a thin resume in Pete Golding. Bama’s defense then allowed a half a point per game more in 2019.
Key linebacker injuries hurt the Tide’s defense in ’19, and the offense turning into a quick-strike, big-play unit with Tua gave Alabama opponents more chances to score in 2018-19. Still, I’m confident that those defenses would’ve been better, maybe considerably better, with Pruitt around. I’m not sure he’s head coach material, but he’s a terrific defensive coordinator if you can handle his rough edges.
I’m consequently confident that Alabama doesn’t give up 44 points to Clemson in the 2018 national title game or 34 offensive points to Bo Nix and Auburn in 2019. Clemson might still win that game and Bama might not have made the Playoff as a one-loss team last fall, but the championship races and outcomes did feel the impact of Pruitt’s departure.
I’m sure I could come up with more ripple effects, especially if I was to start plotting out who Florida would hire not if but when, let’s be real, McElwain gets fired during or just after the 2018 season. I think with how things worked out, no one (besides Del Rio, of course) came out worse than Tennessee did. It was after things fell through with Mullen that then-AD John Currie went to Greg Schiano, and after that the coaching search really became a dumpster fire. I guess you can also credit Phil Fulmer’s return to UT to Del Rio’s brittle collarbone.
Del Rio’s injury didn’t affect the Heisman race as Dixon’s ACL did, nor did it do anything for that season’s conference or national championships. It had tremendous knock-on effects if you’re willing to assume he fares better against LSU and Texas A&M than Franks did in reality, though, which is not a big leap of logic. Sometimes small things really make bigger impacts than you think at the time.