Jim McElwain transforms Florida quickly into championship contender
The SEC was delivered a clear message on Saturday night: The Florida Gators are back.
There is no room for doubt after a 38-10 win over Ole Miss. It was a performance for Florida led by quarterback Will Grier, but it was a beatdown so thorough and convincing that it could have been orchestrated by Ronda Rousey.
The fact that Ole Miss had trouble scoring is not unexpected. Defense was the one thing ex-coach Will Muschamp knew how to provide, this year’s results at Auburn notwithstanding. There was plenty of talent and attitude left over on that side of the ball. Ole Miss had to know its scoring opportunities might be at a premium.
However, it is the offense for Florida that is the true revelation. If the Gators’ current offense is not quite Steve Spurrier’s “Fun and Gun” attack of the nineties, it is at least fun. And that on its own is an upgrade from last season.
No one was ever going to describe the Muschamp era as fun. He was the guy standing on the sidelines in Gainesville, Fla., who always carried a look that seemed to suggest he just found out his car had been towed. Muschamp produced pessimism the way Detroit produces pickup trucks. After a while, Muschamp’s bad mood became contagious.
New coach Jim McElwain is fixing all of that fast. He is providing a reason to be cocky again for a fan base known for its self-confidence.
And frankly, the fact that things are happening so quickly should not really be all that surprising for a couple of reasons.
First of all, Florida never stopped being a premium program. A Cadillac is still a Cadillac, even if the person driving it slams it into a ditch.
But more importantly, when positive change happens in college football, it almost always happens quickly.
In 2014, Urban Meyer won a national title in just his third year at Ohio State. He did so by beating Oregon and coach Mark Helfrich, who was in just his second season with the Ducks. In 2013, Jimbo Fisher won a national title at Florida State. He was in only his fourth season with the Seminoles at the time. The team Fisher beat was Auburn, which made the championship game with first-year coach Gus Malzahn.
This is a common story in modern college football — young, dynamic coaches quickly becoming catalysts for rapid success with the teams they coach. And McElwain may be the latest example.
Of course there is still a lot of football left this season, but very little evidence would suggest that a Florida team that looked this impressive against Ole Miss will falter. A road trip to Missouri next week should be no problem at all. The following week at LSU certainly presents a challenge, but even if that turns into a loss, the College Football Playoff dreams for Florida would still be very much alive, because the only real threat in the SEC East is UGA — a team with such a long history of losing to the Gators that it views Florida the way a bug views a windshield.
In other words, it is more than a possibility that McElwain could have Florida in three months where Will Muschamp could not get it in four years — back in Atlanta with a chance to claim an SEC championship.
If for some reason that title does not come this year, it seems likely to come sometime soon after that. The Swamp has returned to its familiar position as one of the toughest venues in college football, and the message painted onto the stadium’s orange walls — “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” — feels more true true this week than it has in a long time.