JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The negativity within the Florida fan base is hard to ignore. Whether it’s because of the stagnant offensive play three years into Jim McElwain’s tenure, the lack of answers at quarterback or the latest off-the-field side story du jour, the frustration is palpable and growing.
SEC Network analyst and former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears, for one, doesn’t understand it.
“(It’s) freaking crazy to me,” he said Friday as the SEC Nation crew prepared to broadcast outside EverBank Field before the Georgia-Florida game.
“I don’t think you’re far away,” Spears added. “You start losing in recruiting maybe you start questioning are we really doing what we have to do to get to the point? They’re not even to that point yet, so I just, college football now is so fickle, man. It is one week and all hell has broken loose. That’s just not the case. You have to play these games. …
“You’ve got 10 guys not playing, you’ve got two of your best offensive guys haven’t played a game this season and you’re still managing to fight and go out there and play. Offensive production hasn’t been what you wanted it to be, (but) Mac has figured out ways to win without it. I really get crazy about that. I believe in giving coaches time. I mean, this is Year 3, so at what point do we say are we going to get into this revolving cycle and be where Tennessee is because that’s where you could go if you decide after two years your coach isn’t good enough to get you where you want to go.”
The frustration within the fan base will be further magnified if Saturday’s game goes how many are expecting, with No. 3 Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) a two-touchdown favorite over the Gators (3-3, 3-2).
Watching a rival with a second-year head coach in Kirby Smart already morphing into a national title contender and establishing an identity while Florida’s offensive issues remain unchanged in Year 3 under an offensive-minded coach in McElwain has eroded the patience of some of the more vocal segments of the fan base.
Spears isn’t alone in his opinion, though, and the words of his SEC Nation cohort Tim Tebow might resonate even more. It’s Tebow’s teams at Florida that fans long for and compare these current Gators against.
The former Florida quarterback echoed Spears’ thoughts Friday.
“I don’t think it’s that far (away). I don’t think it’s that far when you look at some of the defensive talent,” Tebow said of McElwain’s program. “Let’s say Taven Bryan steps up and David Reese continues to develop and Chauncey Gardner and the safeties and really look at that interior, and the defense could be back to where it (has been), because the corners are young. They could get back to a very special defense. Offensively, their offensive line’s not bad, running backs are young but explosive. Receivers, I mean, they lost their best before the season started, right? You get him back and you get (QB Feleipe Franks) to develop, all those things could happen like that, right?
“And then you go from a team that’s kind of been struggling a little bit offensively, giving up too many big plays defensively, to it kind of molds.”
Expecting suspended receiver Antonio Callaway to play again this season might be unrealistic, though McElwain hasn’t announced an official decision on the status of the players receiving pre-trial intervention in the credit card fraud incident.
Tebow’s larger point, though, was to point to Georgia’s quick transformation from last year.
The Bulldogs were 8-5 last season in Smart’s debut and lost 24-10 to Florida 12 months ago for their third consecutive loss in the rivalry.
Now they’re rolling behind a stronger offensive line, a sharper freshman QB in Jake Fromm than they had a year ago in Jacob Eason, a veteran defense that returned the bulk of its talent from last season and some veteran playmakers on offense in running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
“Look what happened to Georgia, right? Last year we’re not saying the same things about the team this year, right?” Tebow said. “It’s the same team that gave up the Hail Mary against Tennessee and all of these things that happened, and people weren’t saying, ‘Oh, Georgia’s one of the best teams in the country.’ But all these things started to click and leadership stepped up, Roquan Smith, Jake Fromm is a little bit more efficient than they were at the quarterback position last year. Now a lot of people are saying they’re as good as Alabama, so it can happen fast.”
What tests Florida fans’ faith in the direction of the program is that the offense hasn’t gotten any better in three seasons under McElwain, again ranking in the 100s nationally in yardage.
Franks has all the physical tools, but he hasn’t shown the intangibles needed for success at the position. Not yet, that is.
Tebow understands why McElwain has stuck with Franks through the struggles rather than try graduate transfer Malik Zaire, though.
“I think he’s a quarterback of the future and he’s talented. Gosh, I think you can see that by some of the throws he’s made this year,” Tebow said. “He’s a big kid, he’s talented, he’s a better athlete than people give him credit for, and I think the thing about Florida and Florida fans, it’s very much what have you done for me lately. I think there’s a piece of Florida that needs to think about the future and developing him the right way because he does have talent. And if it come together, he could be a really good one.”
Tebow is partly responsible for the lack of patience, of course, as Florida has been trying to replace him ever since he left after the 2009 season.
Along with Franks, this is indeed a very young Florida team with mostly freshmen and sophomores at the offensive skill positions and throughout the linebacker corps and secondary.
In addition to Georgia’s year-to-year growth, Tebow offered another example of more immediate response.
“The perfect example is even on some of our teams that I played (on) at Florida. Maybe you get a little bit too big for your own britches and you lose to Ole Miss and then you have a different team after that,” Tebow said, referencing Florida’s loss in 2008 after which he gave his famous rallying speech. “We didn’t put out different players, we didn’t have a different game plan. We had a different mentality that came from a choice that we made, and that can happen on any team at any time. You have to find the reason, the rallying point, the edge, the consistency, all of those things to be able to lock it in and ingrain it in a team.”
Tebow’s Florida teams were never as stuck in the mud as this offense, though, and certainly never as lacking at quarterback thanks to his All-American, Heisman Trophy-winning play.
As for the perception of McElwain and the program, Spears thinks it’s only fair to give coaches five years to build what they’re trying to build.
He admitted that his first couple years in his analyst role, he was quick to wonder why LSU, his program, wasn’t better in certain areas and able to get over the hump in the biggest games.
He thinks Alabama’s run of dominance has unrealistically skewed other fan bases’ perspectives.
“Stop comparing yourself to that. What’s happening in Tuscaloosa is generational,” Spears said. “It’s not something that you’re going to see in college football every other year. So I think that’s the problem with a lot of fan bases that people are comparing their coaches to that, and it’s just not realistic right now.”
Florida fans know they aren’t close to Alabama’s stratosphere right now, though that’s not to say they’re at peace with that. But the more pressing concern is the gap that seems to have arisen between the Gators and Georgia in the SEC East.
Both Spears and Tebow reiterated that anything can happen in a rivalry game, especially this one in which Florida has won 21 of the past 27 meetings with Georgia. There have been upsets and surprises before between these teams.
“We’ve seen this game for the last 30 years, crazy things have happened,” Tebow said. “Anything can happen in this game.”
So, Tebow was asked, if he thinks Florida has a better chance Saturday than many people are giving them?
“I didn’t say I was going to predict them (to win),” he said. “I just think when you talk about talent, when you talk about showing up, when you talk about ability I think they have those things. They just haven’t put it together in an execution and efficient form.”
SEC Network analysts give their take on what Florida has to do to upset Georgia:
Tim Tebow: “They’ve got to rely on trying to make it a brawl and turning this thing into a fight. You’ve got to remember, Florida’s still a talented team — not necessarily always looks like a good team — but a talented team and they’re very physical. So you want to turn it into a fight like so many of these games have been before and see if you can get some of those big plays. Offensively you’re going to need more, but that defense has played well at times this year. …
“I think you’ve got to rely on physicality, on pride and on knowing that this is a rivalry game, and when you’re a player at Florida or at Georgia you’re not judged on the cupcakes at the beginning of the season. You’re judged ultimately on your rivalry games and you’re judged on those big moments, and they’ve got a chance to totally change their season if they go in there tomorrow at 3:30 and get it done.”
Marcus Spears: “It’s going to have to be big plays, man. Playing for Nick and Kirby being on that staff, they want to make you go the long, hard way and eventually you’ll make a mistake, right? That’s college football. Most quarterbacks in college, you would love to put them in the situation where they have a 12-play drive. At some point a mistake is going to get made. That’s just the way the game goes. So I think for Kirby, it’s not a matter of trying to come out here and try to do something different than they’ve been doing all season long. I think for them they just want to play smart, sound defense and allow the offense to make mistakes. That’s what McElwain is coaching: don’t turn the football over, when we have the play called and it works out let’s make the play happen.
“Usually in these games it’s not a blowout and it comes down to four or five plays that you can directly look to on Monday when you have the meeting. … Look, Florida still has athletes on that side of the ball, the offensive line has progressed to a point now where they’re playing better. There’s a lot of things they can still look forward to playing in this game about and see where the chips fall. But I mean obviously everybody here knows that based on how the season has went Georgia is in command right now.”