ARLINGTON, Texas – A decade ago, a singular singsong chant doubled as the soundtrack to college football. It reverberated through SEC championship games in Atlanta, BCS title games and made Gainesville, Fla., the center of the college sports universe. “It’s Great/To be/A Florida Gator. It’s Great/To Be/A Florida Gator.”
In the 1990s, Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun offense turned Florida into an incubator for offensive innovation. And in the 2000s, Urban Meyer’s pair of national titles in 2006 and 2008 ushered the proliferation of the spread offense into the mainstream. Florida had a distinct identity, megastars like Tim Tebow and a relentless buzz that accompanies a pair of national titles.
Less than a decade later, it ain’t easy being a Florida Gator. It’s actually become downright hard to watch. No. 11 Michigan manhandled No. 17 Florida, 33-17, at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, the season opener for both teams but the continuation of a recurring nightmare for Florida’s impotent offense.
Florida mustered just nine first downs, 192 offensive yards and went 12 consecutive offensive possessions without scoring. The Gators played two quarterbacks (Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire) and pondered a third (Luke Del Rio), averaged less than half a yard per rush and got manhandled in the trenches. Michigan stonewalled them with a defense that returned just one starter, linebacker Mike McCray. And he didn’t even start.
Florida coach Jim McElwain succinctly identified the reason for the putrid performance. “They physically took it to us,” McElwain said. “They beat us every which way they could up front and we never had an answer.”
And along the way, he unintentionally told the story of why the nexus of power in college football has shifted out of the SEC – outside of Alabama, of course – in college football. The Meyer era in Gainesville coincided with the arrival of Nick Saban at Alabama to spur the rise of the SEC. Amid that run of seven SEC teams winning a national title, the SEC hallmark became domination in the trenches. It would have been almost unfathomable to hear a Florida coach use so many variations of the word “whoop” to explain a Big Ten opponent’s physical dominance. A McElwain sampler:
“Plain and simple, take your whooping. And I’m taking it.”
“Well, their guys were bigger and stronger. They whooped us. I mean, plain and simple.”
“The plan was pretty well foiled by getting physically whooped by big, strong guys. And that was disappointing.”
Michigan played valiantly with 17 new starters, Don Brown reaffirmed his status as the country’s best defensive coordinator and Jim Harbaugh exhibited his greatest skill – conjuring a competitive spirit in a team. But with Michigan so young and its quarterback play still in flux – Wilton Speight threw two pick-sixes and got pulled for John O’Korn to briefly “reset” – the takeaways from Florida for this game appeared a lot cleaner.
The biggest being that McElwain enters his third season with the same Neanderthal offense that the Gators have exhibited in the six years since Meyer left. Consider that the best Florida has finished in the NCAA total offense standings in that time is No. 93. The past two seasons under McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier the Gators have finished No. 116 and No. 111 nationally out of 128 teams. Considering the talent base, tradition and location, it’s inexcusable for Florida to be so bland, unimaginative and ineffective on offense. It would be like Wisconsin trotting out 230-pound offensive tackles or USC struggling to recruit quarterbacks.
McElwain’s job is by no means in danger, but something needs to change. Should he start calling the plays? Does he need to be more involved in the offense? Is Nussmeier an early season coordinator causality? (Think Brian VanGorder at Notre Dame last year). “It isn’t back to the drawing board,” McElwain said, a bit tone deaf to the finger paintings being produced for a fan base accustomed to Monets.
McElwain declined the excuse that the Gators played without their two most dynamic offensive players, receiver Antonio Callaway and tailback Jordan Scarlett. They were among the 10 players suspended for the game, mostly for their role in a credit card scam. “That had no impact,” McElwain said, “on the outcome of the game.”
Florida fans better get used to playing without Callaway, as his history of off-field indiscretions leaves it unlikely that he’ll be suiting up for the Gators anytime soon. (Paging Lane Kiffin, who looks like he could use some help.) And Scarlett won’t look much better than Mark Thompson (13 yards on 5 carries) or Lamical Perine (8 yards on 7 carries) if he’s running into a seawall of defenders.
Ultimately, the biggest task of McElwain’s third season was to make sure that Florida didn’t put another slop soup offense on the field. And the Gators’ opening game certainly has familiar broth boiling.
Here’s the reality of McElwain’s situation in Gainesville. He’s won the SEC East both of his seasons and rightfully earned a contract extension. But there’s nobody in college football that views this Gator program as a threat to dethrone Alabama in the SEC or reach the College Football Playoff. McElwain is 19-9 overall and has done well to be the tallest Lilliputian in the SEC East in consecutive years. (And then lose to Alabama by an average of 26 points in the SEC title game). There’s no sign these Gators will break out of their upper middle-class neighborhood. Florida fans and administrators have come to expect swanky penthouses.
Instead of Fun ‘N’ Gun there’s a quarterback jamboree, as redshirt freshmen Franks (5-for-9 passing, one fumble) looked overwhelmed and back-up Malik Zaire (9-for-17) is the same undersized and ineffective whirling dervish we remembered from Notre Dame. Zaire fumbled in the end zone on Florida’s second-to-last possession, a fitting coda for Saturday’s quagmire.
McElwain even admitted after the game that he pondered third-stringer Luke Del Rio. There’s an old football truism that says if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. And three? That signals a full-fledged identity crisis. “It’s something we definitely have to do, no doubt about it,” McElwain said about finding an identity. “It’s one of those deals, it’s disappointing.”
The singsong serenades of the past decades have been replaced with groans, sighs and sad trombones. McElwain spent an off-season preaching about a unit that needed to evolve and an offensive line that he thought would turn the corner.
But after getting physically and schematically whooped, a school known as an offensive innovator and incubator has become a paragon of ineptitude. In two weeks, Florida hosts Tennessee in what was once a bellwether game for national title contention.
This year, Florida needs to prove that The Swamp is the nickname for its home stadium and not the location of its offense.
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