GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No head coach in Florida football history had better first-year results than Jim McElwain, but the previous five coaches have all been successful in their second seasons.
Galen Hall, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier fielded the SEC’s best team in Year 2, and both Will Muschamp and Ron Zook received trophies for being SEC East co-champions.
In 2015, McElwain became the first coach in school history to win 10 games in his first season. Granted, Hall only coached eight games in 1984 (he went 8-0) and Spurrier’s first Gators team (9-2 in 1990) had a bowl ban because of NCAA probation.
Still, what McElwain accomplished last year was nothing short of spectacular, even with the three-game losing streak to end the season. He is one of only six coaches in SEC history to win 10 games after inheriting a team that won less than nine games the previous year.
Moreover, McElwain made that turnaround despite losing his starting quarterback mid-season, working with an offense void of playmakers and fielding arguably the worst kicker in the country.
The Gators have addressed those three areas through recruiting and transfers. The additions gave the offense a different and promising look during spring football, and more production on that side of the ball could continue the second-year trend under McElwain.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what we gotta get better at, but I’m excited about the (new) parts that are here,” McElwain said in the spring. “Obviously we were hamstrung with numbers at some positions a year ago, but it’s been really good to see that, even in the install phase, we’re just farther ahead.
“I think that that would be true for any program going into their second year. You can really tell just how the guys know what to expect from a practice structure standpoint in what they’ve done.”
In addition to improvement offensively, UF also needs more road wins to be better in 2016. Three of Florida’s four losses last season came away from The Swamp, though two of those happened in the SEC Championship and bowl game.
This year’s three road tests against Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida State could determine whether the Gators reach double-digit wins again and/or return to Atlanta. Having lost consecutive one-score games to LSU, Florida gets the Tigers at home in what may be a must-win depending on the results of the aforementioned matchups.
UF also faces four first-year head coaches this fall, with three of them being home games and the last coming at a neutral site (Georgia). So the schedule sets up nicely for McElwain, who returns both coordinators and all but one of his assistants.
After dealing with a coaching change last season and the revolving door of assistants in the years prior, the Florida players will benefit from having some continuity and familiarity in 2016.
“There’s so much more that we can do now because some of the things have become routine, and that’s good,” McElwain said. “I think our offseason studies have been so good as far as some of the things that we need to work on. Just knowing our deficiencies and coaches feeling comfortable speaking about what they see. That’s all part of the feeling out process, and that continuity is huge.”
Here’s the second-year success of Florida’s last five head coaches
GALEN HALL, 1985
Ranking: No. 5 (final); No. 1 (highest)
The skinny: Hall became Florida’s interim coach in 1984 after the team fired Charley Pell for violating NCAA rules. The Gators finished 8-0 under Hall before naming him the permanent head coach. However, the NCAA placed the Gators on two years probation and banned them from bowl games and live TV during that time span.
The SEC also stripped the team’s 1984 conference championship and made them ineligible for the conference title during their probation period.
But Florida was unquestionably the top SEC team in 1985. UF beat four opponents ranked in the top 15 and finished with the best conference record. The Gators also ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in program history, a feat the team didn’t achieve again until 1994.
STEVE SPURRIER, 1991
Ranking: No. 7 (final); No. 3 (highest)
The skinny: Like Hall, Spurrier also posted the SEC’s best record in his first season, but the Gators were ineligible to win the title due to NCAA probation. That ended in 1991, and Florida went undefeated in conference play to win its first official SEC championship in school history.
UF also defeated No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Tennessee, avenging regular-season losses to them in Spurrier’s first year. The FSU victory snapped a four-game losing streak to the Seminoles, and Florida wouldn’t beat them again until 1995. But the conference win over SEC East rival Tennessee was a sign of things to come for the Gators under Spurrier, who would led his alma mater to four straight SEC titles from 1993-1996 and another in 2000.
RON ZOOK, 2003
Ranking: No. 24 (final); No. 11 (highest)
The skinny: The Gators had the same overall and conference record in each of Zook’s first two years, but the team was significantly better in his second season. After a fourth-quarter collapse at No. 3 Miami and home losses to No. 4 Tennessee and Ole Miss during the first half of 2003, UF went on a five-game winning streak that included victories over No. 4 Georgia, No. 6 LSU and No. 11 Arkansas.
The Gators finished as SEC East co-champions, but UGA won the tiebreaker. Florida’s regular season ended with a controversial 38-34 loss to FSU that saw several critical calls blown by the referees, who were hit with debris as police escorted them off the field after the game. A win over No. 9 Florida State would have moved 11th-ranked UF into the top 10.
URBAN MEYER, 2006
Ranking: No. 1 (final, highest)
The skinny: Zook could not win enough games with the talent he recruited to Florida, but Meyer took the program to new heights with those players as well as a monster 2006 recruiting class.
With a handful of All-SEC defenders and some dynamic playmakers on offense, including star freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, the Gators won their first SEC crown in six years. By running the table after a regular season loss at Auburn, UF earned a berth in the BCS championship game against Ohio State.
The top-ranked Buckeyes were heavy favorites against Florida, but Meyer’s team pulled off a stunning 41-14 win to capture the second national title in school history. He would win another conference and national championship in 2008.
WILL MUSCHAMP, 2012
Ranking: No. 9 (final); No. 3 (highest)
The skinny: As successful as Meyer was, he left the program in shambles for Muschamp from a depth and discipline standpoint.
After multiple outgoing transfers and a 7-6 record in Muschamp’s first year, UF surprisingly put it together in 2012. Behind a dominant defense and 1,000-yard running back Mike Gillislee, the Gators finished the regular season 11-1 and had four convincing wins over top-10 teams despite their lack of production on offense.
Florida’s lone loss to No. 3 Georgia kept it out of the conference title game. The Gators, SEC East co-champs, likely would have played for the national championship had Southern Cal upset No. 1 Notre Dame at home late in the year.