If you had told me before the season that the Florida Gators would win their first six games in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, I would have laughed. Many experts had picked the Gators to win 6 or 7 games. The SEC media picked them to finish fifth in the disturbingly bad SEC East. I personally picked them to go 8-5 on the year and that was deemed by many to be optimistic.
But here we are, a few months later and Florida sits at 10-2 after their regular season concluded with an ugly loss to the Florida State Seminoles. A team that was picked to struggle in their division is now playing what is perhaps the best team in the country in the Alabama Crimson Tide next week in the SEC Championship. Their only losses are to FSU and the LSU Tigers. Big wins came against the Georgia Bulldogs, the Tennessee Volunteers, and the Ole Miss Rebels. No matter what happens on Saturday, the Gators will be in a good bowl game and will have just about exceeded every expectation that was made of them before the season began.
Jim McElwain has done a wonderful job of turning this program back into a force, something that was not present when Will Muschamp was the head coach. Not only was the defense stellar, but for a chunk of the season, the offense was great too. The biggest struggle that had never been addressed in the Muschamp years seemed to be fixed in a matter of games. And the grass can only be greener as McElwain has more time to work on the offense with offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
After the FSU game, a lot of Gators fans spoke up and said they weren’t disappointed because they were putting things “in perspective.” Was Florida ever predicted to win 10 games this year? Not by a real college football expert, I’ll tell you that. So in that regard, yes, the Gators finishing the season with 10 games is amazing.
But in college football, you also play with the cards you are dealt. If you find the right configurations, your team can be phenomenal. And even with a loss to LSU, that’s what it looked like the Gators had. People were still thinking at that point that this team was going to win the SEC and crash the College Football Playoff in a development season. So to see this team come out and play horrible offense against the Vanderbilt Commodores, South Carolina Gamecocks, and even the Florida Atlantic Owls was just atrocious. If you can beat Ole Miss by 35, then you can play some football and not have to go to overtime to take FAU, and then get demolished at home by FSU the following weekend.
So, I can see two big takeaways from this season:
- McElwain took this program from pretender to contender in a matter of weeks and they surpassed what everyone expected.
- The Gators, who had a great team, failed when it mattered and regressed to their 2013 and 2014 form in a month.
Everyone will side towards the first takeaway but personally, I side with the second one if I had to pick. You hear about the concept of “playing with house money.” To me, that doesn’t apply when your team needs blown holding calls to escape FAU and then only put up a safety against your biggest rival at home. That’s just bad football and everything before it doesn’t apply. If that’s the direction that the Gators are heading in, then perhaps the rebuilding will be longer than we expected, especially when we consider that QB Will Grier will be suspended for the first six games of next year as well. A lot of players will be leaving for the draft and even with a great recruiting class coming in, you still have to ask if this team is ready to address the questions that they have been facing ever since Will Muschamp was fired. For a few weeks, everything seemed hunky dory but now I think you need to reconsider. This team needs to find playmakers, and fast. The tests will only get tougher.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Matt Weingarten