GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The vocal unrest in the Florida fan base is amplifying. Support and confidence for coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are waning by the week, each tough loss bringing into the focus a deflating reality.
This is shaping up as a lost season for the Gators on the field.
They have but one chance to change that now — somehow finding a way to stun unbeaten Georgia in two weeks in Jacksonville, Fla.
That’s the only thing that changes the narrative of the season at this point, and anybody who has watched a little bit of Georgia and too much of Florida this fall knows how unlikely that possibility seems.
The Gators have squandered prime opportunities the last two weeks to script a different story line. Had that botched extra point not led to a 17-16 loss to LSU last week and had the offense and special teams not undermined an overall very solid defensive performance in a 19-17 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday night, the Gators could well be 5-0 in the SEC and 5-1 overall.
But they’re not, and this is the reality. Reality is a 3-3 overall record and back-to-back SEC losses in The Swamp.
Reality is an offense that looks to be going nowhere, ranked in the 100s nationally yet again (105th at 351.2 yards per game), with a redshirt freshman quarterback who looks like he’s hit his rookie ceiling and a stubborn coaching staff seemingly the only ones not willing to acknowledge it.
McElwain wouldn’t discuss whether he will evaluate the position and consider a change from Feleipe Franks to backup QB Malik Zaire, but he did reiterate after the game how hard his team played and how much confidence he still has in it.
“I believe in these guys. I believe in this team and I will continue to do that and we’ll continue to push and get a little bit better,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a lot of ball ahead of us. A lot of good teams. Just going to go take care of business.”
SEC football is a cruel world in which to operate, though. The ultra-fine line between being 5-0 in the league and 3-2 after a pair of losses by a combined 3 points is enough to dramatically swing opinions. Back-to-back SEC East titles are quickly forgotten when the program regresses in a pivotal third year.
The most vocal Florida fans are filling social media with requests and pleas that Nussmeier be replaced (nothing new) and that McElwain go with him (the loudest that such chatter has been for the coach in his tenure).
The players hear this, of course. They can’t avoid it. Nobody can right now. The negativity in the fan base hangs like a cloud over everything.
The handful of players made available for interviews after the game Saturday night tried to combat the critics, while reassuring that no confidence has been lost from inside the program.
“We have a bunch of great leaders in the locker room and, you know, people are going to say what they want to say. I mean, nobody’s really in the locker room with us so that’s the big thing. Can’t listen to the outside sources,” Franks said. “Nobody’s in the locker room with us, so people actually really don’t know. We have a bunch of great leaders in the locker room and we’re going to be just fine.”
Said veteran defensive end CeCe Jefferson: “The mood’s good. There’s nobody fighting and bickering. There’s a lot of coming together and leaders stepping up and leading. Exactly what we need at a time like this. So the mood’s pretty mellow right now.”
And senior cornerback Duke Dawson …
“I mean, one thing we preached after this game — and just all the time — just stand together. Just stand as one unit. Don’t let everybody go to their own little corners or go into their own little groups. Just everybody stand together.”
That’s indeed what the Gators need, because while this may end up a lost season on the field barring an upset of Georgia, there actually is plenty still at stake for this team.
Regardless of whether they hang around in the SEC East a little longer, right their ship and get some help along the way, the rest of this season remains hugely important for the direction of this program in general.
As former coach Will Muschamp learned, once the tide turns against a coaching staff and the recruiting momentum is lost, it’s hard to recover.
So the Gators need to finish this season strong for plenty of other reasons than their place in the standings.
Every other remaining game aside from Georgia looks very winnable, including Florida State. The in-state rivals may have won the last four meetings between the programs, but the 2017 Seminoles are plenty vulnerable.
If the Gators can pick up wins at Missouri and at South Carolina, take care of business against UAB and manage to snap their losing streak to Florida State while winning their final four regular-season games, they’d be 7-4 even with a loss to Georgia.
Win a bowl game to make it 8-4, and McElwain can sell optimism for 2018. He can tout the strong finish, the potential for Franks to take a leap forward in his third year with the program (or for highly-touted QB commit Matt Corral to step right in as the future of the position for the Gators).
McElwain can point to the strong recruiting classes he has lined up for 2018 and 2019, how the program has turned the corner in that regard. And he can partially explain the disappointment of this season as a product of key injuries and the credit card fraud scandal and suspensions that undermined this team. Not that he gets a pass for overseeing a program in which nine players were involved in such an embarrassing ordeal — he doesn’t. But when it comes to on-field results, that will be discussed as a contributing factor.
The flip side of all this is also in play, and that’s what should concern this coaching staff the most.
Lose to Georgia, lose another winnable game later, lose the team and this coaching staff risks also losing recruits and an even larger share of the fan base as well.
So, no, this is no longer just about competing in the SEC East for the Gators, even while that remains a mathematical possibility. More than anything, this is about shaping the big picture.
“We’re going to get this thing back on track immediately,” Jefferson said. “These past two games, that’s not the Florida Gator way and that’s definitely not Florida Gator football. These two losses give us a lot of [motivation] going into the next game.”
Said Franks: “We’re going to be just fine. I know people are going to be out there just talking and talking and downgrading us, but I think we’re going to be just fine. … We’ve got a bye week. We’ve got some time to get some of the guys healthy. We’ll come back healthy this next week. We’ll have a really good hard practice … and the leadership will really show.”
That’s the hope. That’s the need. There is still a ton at stake for this program.