For many, LSU’s 17-16 victory over Florida in Gainesville elicited the first major question marks regarding the future of the Gator football program under Jim McElwain.
The reality of the situation is that we’re nowhere near the point where McElwain is getting fired. We’re talking about a guy who has won back to back SEC East titles despite inheriting a mess from his predecessor, remember, which is quite an accomplishment regardless of how weak the East was. Because of the way many interpreted me proclaiming McElwain was on the hot seat, let’s make this very clear: I don’t want Jim McElwain fired as a result of the loss to LSU, and it isn’t going to happen even if I did. When we reach that point, it will become obvious. So that’s the end of this debate for now.
But having said that, things need to change.
First and foremost, the offensive play-calling duties need to be stripped from Doug Nussmeier. Now. Not after the Texas A&M game, not after the regular season, not after the bowl game, but now. Before more games are lost due to his ineptitude. There doesn’t need to be some huge guillotine dropping press conference for this, but there are several ways to quietly tell your coordinator that he’s been demoted effective immediately and that he will be unemployed at season’s end, giving the assistant coach you feel is best qualified to run the offense a legitimate trial run to do so, and all while keeping it in house. It’s going to be tough for McElwain to do this, but two and a half years of watching Nussmeier-led offenses provides sufficient proof that there will never be improvement. And so Nuss has got to cede the play-calling responsibilities if McElwain wants a fighting chance to right this ship.
As a general rule of thumb, I always want to be fair to coordinators and give them the benefit of the doubt until after a season has ended. I think there’s something to be said for coordinators who can make week to week adjustments and learn as they go, even in their third year. But my last morsel of patience with Nussmeier ran out on this third and six call against Kentucky:
Alright seriously, what kind of stupid play call is this? It's 3rd and 6, dude. It worked this one time, but it probably never will again. pic.twitter.com/r1dpUe8aap
— #InAllKindsOfWeather (@AllKindsWeather) September 27, 2017
This is an instance of an explosive athlete making a tremendous play, and the play working despite the play call, not because of it. Against a fundamentally sound defense, this is a negative play ten times out of ten. I spent my spare time in the last couple of weeks trying to find a dumber play-call in the last decade or so than that flare to Brandon Powell seven yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third and six with five minutes to go in a game in which Florida trailed by a touchdown, and only this third and goal fake dive pitch back to LaMical Perine late in the game against LSU last year comes close.
What a brilliant call this was by Nuss. I mean we could've just had Appleby fall forward for the touchdown here but this works too, I guess. pic.twitter.com/57h0Wt512U
— #InAllKindsOfWeather (@AllKindsWeather) October 9, 2017
These less-than-intelligent play-calls would be forgiven if they were isolated incidents, but the truth is that Nussmeier frequently seems in over his head for entire 60 minute periods. As I’ve pointed out on numerous prior occasions, Nuss calls some of the most creative and well thought out opening drives to begin games, because he has six days to script, edit and tweak those drives. When defenses adjust and defend against what Nuss has previously shown them, Nuss can’t make adjustments of his own, and proceeds to call the remaining three and a half quarters of the game right into the teeth of the waiting defense. And the offense goes nowhere.
We’re now in year three of Nussmeier’s stewardship on offense, and this is every bit as much of a problem as it was in year one. There is no longer a rational argument that the offense will ever look better with Nuss at the controls than it does right now, because if there haven’t been improvements made in the two years since Will Grier dominated Mississippi, how long are we supposed to wait? How long should an offensive coordinator who gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year be given to show the slightest bit of improvement?
Mac, I beg of you to give somebody else the play-calling duties. That somebody could be running backs coach Jauan Seider, or it could even be you. I’m not even telling you to fire Nuss, at least not in the middle of the season. I am telling you that the if the Gators are going to beat anybody on their schedule other than UAB and Missouri, the play-calling has to change hands. Failure to figure this out for yourself will spell doom for you, because if you remain too loyal to Nussmeier as your play-caller for too much longer, you may ultimately go down with him.
But there’s an even bigger problem than who calls the plays: the guy who runs them.
Now, let’s preface what I’m about to say with this. I tend not to put too much stock into what a newly hired coach says in his first few months on the job. Most of the time, coaches just try to say things to fire up the fan base and get them pumped for a new era, and the most notable example of this was Lane Kiffin boasting about how he was going to beat Florida and then sing Rocky Top all night long at his introductory press conference at Tennessee. This was despite the Gators being the defending national champions and returning a ton of talent from that team, including Tim Tebow and their entire two-deep on defense. So I’m willing to bet that not even the most optimistic Vols fans truthfully believed it, the same way that I’m willing to bet that not even the most optimistic Gator fan truthfully believed that Jim McElwain could coach himself to a win with his dog at QB.
However, after all that boasting about how successful he is at developing QB’s, it’s time to see some results. If McElwain can win with his dog at quarterback as he claimed right after taking the job, why can’t he win with actual Division I quarterbacks? It’s one thing to hold off judgment on McElwain’s ability to mold QB’s when he’s working with Treon Harris, Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio, because he didn’t recruit them out of high school; rather, his usage of them was more of taking over a project that somebody started. So when these guys struggled, it was only fair to say that they weren’t Mac’s guys, and that he was just doing the best he could with the hand he was dealt.
But Mac went all out for Feleipe Franks and Jacob Eason two recruiting cycles ago, fully intending to make one of them his next start-to-finish QB project after Garrett Grayson at Colorado State. Eason chose Georgia, but McElwain was more than excited about winding up with Franks. And evidently, other schools around the country saw something in him, too; Franks held offers from traditional powerhouses Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, FSU and LSU. There were some questions about Franks, which was why McElwain ultimately redshirted him, but nobody denied his physical talent or his sky high ceiling.
The point of the redshirt was to give Franks time to learn, grow and develop. One full year of learning, growing and developing, and this is what we’re getting from Franks? A guy who still stares down his primary receiver, flings inaccurate ducks at his teammates, flees the pocket at the first hint of pressure at times and doesn’t feel the pressure until it’s on top of him at others? I still have hope for him, but it’s dwindling after his last two starts have produced a grand total of 193 yards through the air. If this is what we’re getting out of him after giving him that redshirt, and he looks this uncomfortable out there, I’m terrified to think what he would’ve looked like without that redshirt last year.
At some point, the problem becomes coaching, and not the individual QB’s McElwain used. And it’s at this point that you remember that Treon Harris wasn’t actually that bad in 2014 under Kurt Roper’s tutelage, and only began to really struggle against Vanderbilt in 2015. The regression from Harris and the general lack of production from Appleby and Del Rio get tacked on to McElwain’s Florida resume now that we’ve seen a half season of a sample size from Franks. The more quarterbacks that struggle under a coaching staff, the more the problem becomes the coaches.
Starting against Texas A&M and then going forward the rest of this year, there needs to be some clear improvement at the QB position. Franks needs to hit the reset button, and just play within himself this Saturday. Hit the quick, easy throws to get into a rhythm, and manage the game. If Franks doesn’t show improvement against the Aggies, it may be time to scrap him and give Malik Zaire a try. If Zaire isn’t considerably better, it may be worth burning Jake Allen’s redshirt and seeing what he can do. And if that doesn’t work? Then we have an even bigger problem on our hands.
A part of me still likes McElwain very much. It goes without saying that I want him to succeed at Florida, not just because he’s the coach of the team I grew up rooting for and always will root for, but because I genuinely like him as a man and the way he fights for his players and recruits off the field. But another part of me is beginning to grow weary of seeing his teams struggle in the same two areas that drove Urban Meyer out of Gainesville and then doomed Will Muschamp. To see the Gator football program continue to suffer from ineffective offensive coordinators and bad QB play when McElwain was hired in large part to fix these exact issues is deeply troubling, and yes, two and a half years of still not finding answers to either means that his job security is less than it was the day he was hired. Which is what I call the hot seat.
And although McElwain is not immediate danger of being fired, nor should he be, we have reached the point in time where he has to start delivering some noticeable improvement.
Or else we’ll be having a much more difficult discussion.