This past offseason, I adamantly stated that Jim McElwain needed two years to get the Gators’ program back on track thanks to the mess Will Muschamp left him, and that we as fans needed to give him two years of leeway.
Looks like we can throw all that out, though. All the talk about two, three year plans of getting Florida back to national relevance is now just a funny memory. Because by beating Georgia, and thus overcoming a hurdle that has tripped the Gators up in three of the four lost years under Muschamp, he has the Gators squarely in the thick of the national championship chase as we move into November.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming this August. I know I didn’t.
Whatever doubts remained about McElwain’s ability to lead a football program vanished this past weekend. There were admittedly some questions about whether he could continue to win games after the devastating loss of Will Grier, and whether he and Geoff Collins could get the defense turned around after getting ripped up by a good but not great LSU offense. And while Florida’s 38-10 blowout over Ole Miss proved that he could indeed coach himself to a win in a big game, he still hadn’t won the really big game yet.
Until this past weekend, when Mac won the biggest regular season game he’ll ever coach in.
Georgia is, without a doubt, Florida’s biggest rival because of the SEC East implications that the Florida-FSU rivalry doesn’t have, and I will defend that against anybody. History says that the loser of the Florida-Georgia game is always, without fail, going to suffer some sort of consequence. Whether that was Florida destroying Georgia’s national championship hopes in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008 or even 2014 to merely ruining their SEC Championship dreams like in 1992, 2008, 2010 or 2014, Georgia’s got an anguished history in this game. But that’s not to say they haven’t ruined plenty of Florida’s seasons, too: losses to Georgia in 1985 and 2012 directly cost the Gators perfect regular seasons, and the losses in 1966, 1997 and 2007 killed three more possible national championships (even with two losses heading into that 2007 game, Florida was ranked #9).
There’s no denying that beating FSU is a must. I hate the majority of that fan base. And it makes recruiting in the talent rich state of Florida so much easier. But other than a brief period in the mid 1990’s, that game has, historically speaking, been irrelevant. You can lose that game and still win the national championship. See the 1996 season for further clarification. And although most Florida fans remember the 1994 season as the year of the devastating non-loss in Tallahassee, guess what? The Gators still won the SEC and reached the Sugar Bowl (where yes, they lost to FSU in a rematch… but the point is, they got there.) More recently, even when this game features two top ten teams, there’s no guarantee a loss will hurt either team; Florida’s 37-26 victory in 2012 merely meant that FSU won the ACC and the Orange Bowl with two losses, and not one.
McElwain will soon learn why beating FSU is of similarly high priority if he hasn’t already, but by guiding his adversity-riddled team to a win over Georgia, he’s checked off three boxes that coaches are judged by. One, he beat Georgia. That in itself is worthy of praise. Two, he’s proven that no matter the circumstances surrounding his program, even as dire as his star quarterback getting suspended for the year, he’s able to coach around that and guide his team to a victory over a solid team in a huge rivalry game. And three, he’s secured the Gators’ first SEC East title since 2009- unless you’d care to go about explaining how a Vanderbilt team that lost to Western Kentucky is going to win its last four SEC games (two of which are against Texas A&M and Florida).
Ever since the SEC split into two divisions and formed the SEC Championship Game in 1992, the goal at Florida has always been to win the division and reach that SEC Championship Game. Will Muschamp not only couldn’t do that in his four year tenure, he seldom even got close to it. There aren’t a whole lot of Gator coaches who coached since the installation of that game (Spurrier, Zook, Meyer and Muschamp) but the ones there were are the standard McElwain must be compared to. And he’s off to a flying start, since he’s about to become the first Head Gator to guide his team there in his first year (to be fair, there was no SEC Title Game in Spurrier’s first year in 1990, but Florida would have been ineligible for it anyway due to NCAA sanctions).
So if you’re looking for a quick conclusion to describe Florida’s 2015 season, here’s one: the Gators are back. They’re back to the top of the SEC East, they’re back in the national championship hunt, they’re back to being enjoyable to watch and they’re back to being a relevant football program.
Had Florida lost to Georgia, the Bulldogs would have controlled their own destiny to Atlanta with only Kentucky and Auburn left to play. The season would have still been considered a rousing success, of course, but it would have left me feeling like McElwain still had more to prove in ensuing years, as he would be 0-2 with Treon Harris as the starting QB and 0-1 against Georgia. After beating Missouri, this was the last game I could have possibly foreseen a loss, and one that would be somewhat damaging to the sterling season McElwain’s club has had so far.
This team is destined for greatness. 11 short months after I was worried that Florida would lose to Eastern Kentucky, I’m now at the point where I can confidently say the Gators should run the table in November and have a legitimate chance to win the SEC Championship Game. And we have one man, above all others to thank for bringing us back to the point where we as Gator fans can all feel this way.
That man is Coach McElwain. And while there’s certainly still a long way to go this season, McElwain has already accomplished what he said he wanted to. He’s restored the order.