Florida vs. Tennessee was the all-or-nothing game during Steve Spurrier’s time as Gators coach.
Whoever won that game was in great position to win the SEC East, and the SEC championship, too, with all the accompanying national title implications. Whoever didn’t, well, they were going to need a lot of help to get back into any of that.
It was a ton of pressure for a September game.
Now it’s 2017, with the SEC East title meaning a whole lot less than it once did because of Alabama’s overall dominance in the league. Suddenly, however, the major heat is back on the Gators. Not quite the all-or-nothing variety, since Florida lacks the offensive firepower to compete for anything nationally, but something that to Jim McElwain might be even more dangerous.
Hard to say this about a coach who is 2-0 against Georgia and who already has more division titles in two seasons than Ron Zook and Will Muschamp had in seven at Florida, but McElwain really needs a win to verify that there is a long and reliable future for him in Gainesville.
I still think McElwain was a good hire by former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. In which world could a .679 winning percentage be considered bad?
The frustration comes with McElwain’s failure to develop a quarterback, which is supposed to be one of his specialties, and with the inability of Florida to outscore its own defensive unit in big games, which should be a minimum requirement for any major-college coach.
The last four Gator games have included one nice win (30-3 over Iowa in the Outback Bowl) and three blowout losses to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan. Those losses came by an average score of 39-15, the kind of gap that commonly exists between top teams and cupcakes on homecoming day, but it gets worse.
In those three losses, Florida scored half of its points, 23 out of 46, on defensive scores. A fumble return for a touchdown against the Seminoles. A two-point return of a conversion attempt against Alabama. Back-to-back interception returns for touchdowns against Michigan.
Take away all of that spectacular defense and the Gators would never be ranked. As it is, they are No. 24 in the AP poll because voters figure that sooner or later McElwain and his playcaller Doug Nussmeier, both of them national championship assistant coaches at Alabama, will figure out how to consistently string some first downs together without the aid of a penalty or a trick play.
Will Grier might have fixed this, but he’s running up the score at West Virginia these days after being suspended at Florida for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs two years ago and later transferring out. Antonio Callaway would be a big help, too, if he could avoid being suspended for any variety of idiotic and selfish reasons.
Those two combined for a 63-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-14 two years ago, a wild winning play that stirred the Swamp even more because it came against Tennessee and extended an 11-game streak of success against the Volunteers.
Everything seemed possible back then, with McElwain off to a 4-0 start in what turned out to be a 10-4 debut as Florida’s new coach.
Now there are continuing questions at the most fundamental levels of offensive production, and the answers ultimately will determine whether McElwain can lift Florida farther toward the top of college football than he did Colorado State. The Rams were No. 21 when he last took the field as their coach in 2014.
Of course, all these same pressures apply to Vols coach Butch Jones. He finally beat Florida last year, 38-28, but has no SEC East titles to show for his four seasons in Knoxville. Doesn’t even have a winning record within the conference, for that matter.
It all adds up to another insane Florida-Tennessee game, and one that will get even more attention nationally now that FSU vs. Miami has been moved from Saturday to Oct. 7 because of Hurricane Irma concerns.
Something tells me the Gators will have just enough to get by Tennessee, and that it likely will come down to which team can run the ball effectively rather than the battle between Florida freshman Feleipe Franks, who missed out on an important tuneup with last week’s cancellation of the Northern Colorado game, and Tennessee’s new starting quarterback, junior Quinten Dormady.
If it goes that way, if Florida wins a defensive struggle, that would put McElwain back in business in the SEC East, but still working on his quarterback problem.
What else is new?