Gainesville, Fla. — Florida’s season opener against No. 11 Michigan may be more meaningful for coach Jim McElwain than the 17th-ranked Gators.
Even though McElwain became the first coach to make the Southeastern Conference championship game in each of his first two seasons, his approval rating could use a boost. That’s mostly because McElwain’s offensive numbers have been disappointing during his time in Gainesville.
The Gators fell from 112th to 116th in total offense in 2016 and ranked last in the SEC in yards as well as explosive plays. Florida was 115th in total offense in 2013, the year everything started to unravel for former coach Will Muschamp.
Florida turned to McElwain the following year, believing he would fix the program’s broken offense. Instead, it’s been worse in some regards.
Heading into Saturday’s opener in Arlington, Texas, the Gators have 10 players suspended — including standout receiver Antonio Callaway (again) and leading rusher Jordan Scarlett (again) — and will be starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback.
And given McElwain’s track record in big games — his team hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in two games against rival Florida State and has been outscored by more than 50 points in two league title games against Alabama — talk about McElwain’s failures has grown considerably louder than a whisper.
“I think every game is a huge game for me personally,” McElwain said. “I’m not suiting up and playing. I like the players we have that are suiting up and playing. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is. It doesn’t matter what the competition is. It doesn’t matter what the game is.
“I think anytime you do anything, whether it’s coaching the game of football or shooting hoops or doing whatever you do, it’s the joy of competition, and I kind of like that.”
McElwain is far from the proverbial hot seat. In fact, Florida has given him two raises and two contract extensions in as many years.
He’s responsible for helping get Florida’s football facilities out of the dark ages and closer to respectability in the ultra-competitive SEC. McElwain also was the talk of the town in February after closing strong and delivering his first top-10 signing class . His recruiting prowess has continued since with a five-star quarterback prospect (Matt Corral) committed to coming to Gainesville next year.
But what Florida’s offense does this season, beginning in the opener against the Wolverines, could make all of McElwain’s accolades and accomplishments mere afterthoughts.
“Once we get rolling, I think our offense will be great,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “Once we get it rolling, I think nobody will be able to stop us. If we get it going early against a great team, it’ll definitely boost a lot of confidence for us moving forward.”
Florida hasn’t had much success against ranked teams during McElwain’s tenure.
The Gators are 3-7 against Top-25 opponents, with wins against Mississippi, LSU and Iowa. The losses came against LSU, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida State (twice) and Alabama (twice). The Gators averaged 15.6 points in those seven losses, and 25 of their 109 points came on two punt returns for touchdowns, a defensive fumble return and two safeties.
Of course, offensive woes are nothing new at Florida.
Since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow graduated in 2009, the Gators have floundered to move the football like it did during coach Steve Spurrier’s dozen years in Gainesville or Urban Meyer’s heyday. The Gators averaged 456 yards a game during Tebow’s senior year and haven’t averaged 370 yards a game since. They averaged a measly 344 yards last season.
McElwain expects this year to be different even though he kept offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. McElwain believes quarterback Feleipe Franks will flourish behind an offensive line he calls the “true strength” of the team and thinks there are enough playmakers around him to ease his transition from high school star to college starter.
The reality is the outcome against Michigan probably will have little effect on Florida’s season, especially with the suspensions, so many unknowns on defense and a first-time starter under center. It might, however, have a drastic impact on McElwain’s resume and rating.
“There are no excuses, you know?” McElwain said. “I don’t think we’ve ever made excuses for anything we’ve ever done or anything I’ve ever done. It’s just … whatever hand you’re dealt, you go play it. And that’s what we’re going to do.”