Can you do it again?
This will undoubtedly be a question from the assembled Gators media this spring, in lieu of Jim McElwain becoming the first Florida head coach to claim an SEC East title in Year 1.
(Steve Spurrier won the SEC championship in 1990, his inaugural year with the program, before the conference had a season-ending title game.)
Yes, McElwain achieved great things with a seemingly rebuilding Gators squad last season, knocking off the likes of Tennessee (Butch Jones needs to hire a ‘2-point conversion’ chart coach), Ole Miss (the Rebels owned a No. 3 national ranking at the time) and UGA, en route to a divisional crown.
Yes, McElwain returned prominence to a powerhouse brand that didn’t have stability at quarterback (Will Grier’s suspension, Treon Harris’s subsequent shakiness) … or an offense which could not, on average, generate more than 24 points per game.
And yes, the 2016 Gators won’t have access to blossoming NFL draft prospects, such as Vernon Hargreaves III, Jonathan Bullard, Keanu Neal or Kelvin Taylor (Florida’s leading rusher — 1,185 total yards, 13 TDs).
The same might hold true for indefinitely suspended players like receiver Antonio Callaway and the aforementioned Harris.
But yeah, coach … can you do it again?
Therein lies the crux of the nebulous question lobbed at McElwain: When a media member or fervent Florida fan innocently poses the query, they might only be thinking of the 10-plus victories, the rivalry rout of the Bulldogs (27-3, on the heels of a tough road loss to LSU) or capturing the SEC East title by mid-November.
Ostensibly, they’re not referring to how Florida needed overtime luck to avoid an embarrassing home defeat to Florida Atlantic (seven days after clinching the division title) … or the one-sided losses to Florida State (25-point home drubbing), Alabama (SEC championship game) and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl (41-7 in Orlando — home-state advantage be damned).
Put it all together, and the Gators were outscored 97-24 in their final three outings. Ouch.
And yet, since all this occurred in Year 1 of a coaching transition, the affable, TV-friendly McElwain remains the sign of hope and (championship) progress in Gainesville.
“Other coaches have told me I really screwed up because now the fan base expects 11, 12, 13 … 20 wins when we go to the playoffs,” McElwain recently told ESPN.com.
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History tells us that Year 2 in the life of a Florida head coach will be an adventure like no other.
**Doug Dickey, the legendary coach at Tennessee during the 1960s, took it on the chin with the Gators early on, dropping from seven wins (1970) to four victories (1971).
**Charley Pell executed one of the greatest turnarounds in SEC history, leading Florida to an 8-4 record in 1980 — just one season removed from the Gators’ 0-10-1 finish (the hapless campaign that time forgot).
**Galen Hall, who shepherded the Gators to a 5-0-1 conference record in 1984 —after Pell resigned, due to an NCAA rules investigation — led Florida to a share of the SEC title in 1985.
**Spurrier became the first Florida coach to garner the SEC title in his first two years (1990-91).
**Urban Meyer won the national championship in Year 2 (2006 — below), thanks to a dominant defense, one amazing hybrid back (Percy Harvin), two viable quarterbacks (Chris Leak, Tim Tebow) and some slick politicking on the Gators’ behalf … before the BCS committee decided between Michigan and Florida, for the right to play Ohio State in the title game.
**Will Muschamp enjoyed his finest hour with Florida in Year 2, guiding the Gators to 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth.
**Heck, even Ron Zook, who spawned the trend of “Fire(InsertNameOfCoach).com” Web sites in the early 2000s, can boast of matching 6-2 records (during SEC action) his first two years on the job.
Which brings us back to McElwain: Yes, Florida fans were all too eager to ignore the late-season swoon and focus on the SEC title last year. But would the same hold true in 2016 … if McElwain experiences a carbon-copy repeat of last year’s glorious revival?
“I thought there was almost a sense of relief from a group of guys that hadn’t been to Atlanta,” McElwain explained to ESPN.com, regarding how the Gators might have reached the point of exhaustion after earning the SEC East title. “There may be one class ever in (recent) Florida history that didn’t at least go participate in that (championship) game. We got a little worn down. That’s all part of the learning curve, I think.”
On paper, Florida has a golden chance to ease into the fall with three doable victories (home outings against Massachusetts, Kentucky, North Texas), before traveling to Knoxville for a high-profile showdown with Tennessee (Sept. 24) — the presumptive favorite in the SEC East.
“(The Volunteers) should be (the favorites). The way they finished and the way we finished, I’d think somebody will pick us to win another four games like they did last year,” said McElwain in the ESPN interview, with a tinge of playful sarcasm. “Because let’s face it, the Gators didn’t finish. I wouldn’t pick us.”
After that, Florida must negotiate a workable conference schedule which includes a pair of ‘trap’ games (@ Vanderbilt, @ Arkansas) and two behemoth matchups with LSU (Oct. 8 in Gainesville) and UGA (Oct. 29 in Jacksonville, Fla.)
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As a hypothetical exercise, let’s say the Gators once again secure the SEC East crown by mid-November, prior to encountering Florida State (in Tallahassee).
Of course, Florida fans would show up in droves to support their football program; but they might also be a little apprehensive about the deja-vu experience of having a divisional title in hand … but being no closer to slaying powerhouses like Alabama and Florida State — perhaps the top-ranked schools entering the fall.
If that’s the case, it would create the somewhat surreal narrative of McElwain being chastised by the masses … for repeating the same feat that was largely celebrated the previous year.
As such, would McElwain be in line for another $750,000 raise? And would Florida officials send out another glowing press release about it?
It might leave McElwain’s camp wondering: Could they do it again?
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.