It took an extra week due to Hurricane Matthew, but the Florida Gators have completed the first half of their second season under Jim McElwain. Even with a full 20 games in the book, it’s still difficult to judge the program’s trajectory under its current management.
It’s instructive to compare McElwain’s tenure with the early years of Urban Meyer’s time in Gainesville. Meyer’s first two teams won with defense, as the offense didn’t look great against a good team until the end of the second season. Though McElwain isn’t trying to fit square pegs in round holes schematically as Meyer was, he also has been winning with defense first and an offense struggling to find its way.
In 2005, Meyer’s Gators scored 26.3 offensive points per game and gained 5.3 yards per play. In SEC games, those averages dipped slightly to 24.8 offensive points per game and 5.2 yards per play. The team scored at least 20 offensive points in just four of eight conference games, with three of those instances coming against teams that finished with losing records.
It was an offense that Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley called “really easy to defend right now” after UF’s 21-17 loss to LSU. In the subsequent game, the Gators scored touchdowns on their first two drives and rode them to a 14-10 win over Georgia. That year’s offense was an ugly sight much of the time.
In 2015, McElwain’s Gators showed promise before fading down the stretch. They were nearly on track with Meyer’s first team with 5.1 yards per play, but they only scored 21.1 offensive points per game. The points per game figure is deceptive, though, thanks to the Gators scoring 61 points in the opener against New Mexico State. UF averaged just 18.0 offensive points per game in the other 13 contests. In regular season SEC play, the figures were basically identical to the season averages at 5.1 yards per play and 21.0 offensive points per game. They scored at least 20 offensive points on five conference opponents, with four of them being teams that won at least nine games.
The worst of the offensive performances came late in the year after quarterback Treon Harris took over for the suspended Will Grier. McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier never made wholesale changes to accommodate Harris’s different skills, and defenses quickly caught on to what little Harris could do well in McElwain’s pro-set. UF averaged nine offensive points per game in regulation against Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan to close the season.
In Meyer’s second year, the offense only had modest improvements. It did up its yardage to 6.0 per play against FBS foes, but it actually regressed to 25.3 offensive points per game. In regular season SEC games, the yardage stayed up at 5.9 per play but the points sank to 21.1 per contest. Florida did score at least 20 offensive points in six of the eight conference games, but it was exactly 21 points in four of the six.
Quarterback Chris Leak was notoriously bad in the third quarter of games, and it took a pair of blocked field goals to eke out a 17-16 win over South Carolina. The Gators overcame yet another bad third quarter from Leak to run up 38 offensive points in the SEC Championship Game, and the offense famously came alive—finally—against Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Here in McElwain’s second season, the offense has also seen merely small improvements. It is better than last year at 26.5 offensive points per game, and the 5.8 yards per play nearly matches the 2006 title team’s rate. Through four SEC games, they’re nearly equaling the season average at 26.3 offensive points per game and gaining 5.9 yards per play. For comparison, the Gators scored 23.5 offensive points per game but gained just 4.9 yards per play in Grier’s four SEC starts in 2015.
The 2016 offense looked crisp against Kentucky but inept against Vanderbilt. It also looked both crisp and inept in the same game against Tennessee. Last weekend against Mizzou, the offense contributed fewer than half of UF’s 40 points. Luke Del Rio threw three picks against the Tigers and easily could have had two or three more, but the running game produced a pair of 100-yard rushers in the process. It’s an attack that is consistently inconsistent.
All of this is to say that it’s not unprecedented for an offensive head coach’s successful rebuild in Gainesville to require a couple of seasons to take off. Meyer struggled first with learning his offense from Bowling Green and Utah couldn’t work unmodified in the SEC, and then he had to get the right players in every position for his spread option.
McElwain had an easier schematic transition, but, unlike Meyer, he inherited a mess on the offensive line and has dealt with a rotating door at quarterback. Due to suspension, transfers, and injury, McElwain has had four different starting quarterbacks in a season and a half. Meyer had only three starting quarterbacks in six years at UF, and none missed a game.
Meyer’s offense took off in his third year. Tim Tebow was a natural fit for the scheme, and he had a full complement of skill position players around him to help. McElwain might find similar success next year if 2016 4-star signee Feleipe Franks can live up to his recruiting grade and beat out the serviceable-but-limited Del Rio. By then, this season’s young offensive line and receivers will be a year more experienced and possibly better able to avoid mistakes and make plays.
For now, McElwain will have to continue to use his creativity to scrape out wins in any way possible. He already has one division title, and his Gators control their own destiny again after Tennessee took two consecutive losses. His offense has perfectly valid reasons for still being a work in process, but those excuses will begin to expire in 2017.