Can Florida finally finish strong under Jim McElwain?

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 02: Florida head coach Jim McElwain looks out towards his offense during the Outback Bowl game between the Florida Gators and the Iowa Hawkeyes on January 02, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

On a recent episode of a podcast, SB Nation’s Ryan Nanni issued a challenge to the Florida Gators: win a blowout in the second half of 2017. The team has been unable to demolish an opponent late in the season under Jim McElwain as of yet, so winning a laugher in late October or November would be a sign of progress.

Depending on one’s definition of “blowout,” Florida might have pulled off the feat already. In the eighth game of 2015, the Gators ran up a 20-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 27-3 victory over Georgia. Beating a top rival by 24 in a game that was never in doubt counts as a dominant win for most folks.

That said, Florida partisans judge things differently. If you ask a Gators fan what a blowout win looks like, they’ll likely tell you it involves scoring more than 40 or even 50 points. Effortless offense is a key component of what a UF blowout win feels like, and between Treon Harris’ sub-50 percent completion percentage and Kelvin Taylor’s yards per rush being on the wrong side of 5 per carry, the 2015 Cocktail Party doesn’t exactly qualify.

Since the Steve Spurrier era, Florida has generally played two nonconference cupcakes and Kentucky early in the season. The paycheck games combined with the Wildcats’ typically lackluster performance simply gives UF more opportunities to win big early in any given year.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the only three wins that McElwain has had by at least 30 points have come early in the season: 61-13 over New Mexico State in 2015, 45-7 over Kentucky in 2016, and 32-0 over North Texas in 2016. UF being in position to win the SEC East in both years under McElwain also seemed to inspire conservative game plans down the stretch that would rely on the far superior defense to win games. Plus, the rescheduling of last season’s LSU game due to Hurricane Matthew wiped out Florida’s November matchup with FCS Presbyterian.

That said, scheduling doesn’t cover everything. The Gators did have their November gimme game in 2015 after all, and they needed overtime to beat a 3-9 Florida Atlantic team.

Even taking out non-Power 5 opponents, there still is a pronounced difference between the first and second halves of seasons. On average, Florida outscored its opponents 25-12 in the first half of 2015 and 32-16 in the first half of 2016. In the second halves of those years, the average scores were 18-17 and 17-18, respectively.

The offense falling off was the bigger problem both times. Not coincidentally, the quarterback position was in flux both times.

Will Grier started the first six games in 2015 and looked well enough in most of them. He appeared to be a future star in the Gators’ 38-10 shredding of future New Year’s Six participant Ole Miss. He then was suspended for PED use, giving way to Harris.

Harris was smaller with less arm strength, and his skill set didn’t fit the offensive scheme nearly as well as Grier’s did. McElwain and Doug Nussmeier never made changes to the offense to better fit Harris, hence there were results like needing overtime to beat FAU.

In 2016, Luke Del Rio started the first three games, missed two with a knee injury, played three more, and then was out for the season from a shoulder injury. The last of those games was the disastrous 31-10 loss at Arkansas. McElwain later admitted that he never should have played Del Rio in that one because of the shoulder injury. Del Rio never looked comfortable in any of his latter three starts, perhaps because his knee injury had come from a late blind-side hit from a North Texas player. In those games, he completed just 52 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns against six interceptions.

The rest of the year had Austin Appleby as the starter, and he was the same quarterback at Florida as he was at Purdue. He was anywhere from serviceable to quite good when defenders weren’t in his face. For instance, he had a brilliant first half against Tennessee before the Vols had Derek Barnett tee off on him. He also made terrible decisions under pressure, and late-season opponents like LSU and Florida State were able to harass him (to say nothing of Alabama in Atlanta).

Quarterback wasn’t the only position with bad injury luck, though. The Gators haven’t had real depth on the offensive line for years, and that problem has bitten them. They had starters on the line get banged up late in both of the last two campaigns, and that didn’t help out the backup quarterbacks.

With all of that said, can Florida score a dominant win late in 2017?

Scheduling does offer one glaring opportunity. On November 18, the newly relaunched UAB Blazers come to Gainesville. The Gators should be able to blow out a team that hasn’t existed for the last couple of seasons.

Beyond the obvious, some other factors are favorable to Florida. The Gators appear to have two good options at quarterback in 4-star redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. Either is, on paper at least, a better option than Harris or Appleby were. There’s an argument to be made that both are better options than Del Rio was last year too. If Florida goes through yet another season with multiple starters behind center, it’s better equipped to handle the adversity.

The team also has decent depth along the line for once. This is in contrast to 2015, when they had to steal an FCS graduate transfer from Old Dominion and convert a defensive tackle to guard just to have decent numbers, or 2016, when the line ended up starting multiple freshmen by the end. If the offensive line experiences injuries, as most lines do in most years, it won’t immediately provoke crisis conditions again.

However, the story is different on the other side of the ball. The large number of draft picks the last two years have left the Gators’ defense with a nice starting lineup but little in experience behind it. The depleted linebacker corps probably has four total players the coaches feel they can trust, the defensive tackle spot has nothing proven in reserve, and the secondary very well could turn to the trio of 4-star signees from 2017 if anyone on the top line goes down. If injuries set in, the Gators will find it difficult to stop opponents down the stretch.

Regardless of whether any of the wins unambiguously qualify as a blowout, Florida needs to finish stronger in 2017 than it has the last two seasons. However, if it doesn’t turn in a better end to the season, it’s going to be for the opposite reason than in the past two years.



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