New Florida head coach Jim McElwain is making the media rounds at this week’s SEC meetings in Destin, Florida, experiencing the full exposure of being a head coach in college football’s most-followed conference.
The experience is probably a bit different from two years ago at the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and Mountain West media days, where the then-Colorado State coach talked with a small group of reporters, including myself, about recapturing the program’s glory.
“I challenge our university,” he said. “Before Boise [State] was Boise [State], Colorado State was the team that was Top 25 year-in and year-out. It’s been done, and I look forward to building it back.”
McElwain was coming off a 4-8 campaign in his first year at Colorado State, which marked the fifth time in six years the Rams finished under .500. Colorado State endured four 3-9 finishes from 2007 through 2011.
It was a far cry from the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Colorado State routinely won 10 games and appeared in the Top 25. And, with nearly a decade of struggle built up, restoring the program to those heights was a daunting task.
The Rams capped an 8-win 2013 with a 22-point rally to down Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. The torrid 2013 finish served as a springboard into a 10-win 2014, in which Colorado State cracked the Top 25 and nearly won the Group of Five’s automatic berth into a New Year’s Six bowl game — exactly the kind of season McElwain eluded to when talking the Rams’ glory days under Lubick.
Certainly Florida is more of a pressure cooker than Colorado State, but the task McElwain faces in his new gig looks an awful lot like the challenge he navigated in his last.
Save an 11-win 2012 season, which was utterly bizarre, Florida has struggled repeatedly for a half-decade. The ultimate level by which McElwain will be measured is how effectively he builds the program back to the success of its past, when the Gators were routinely in the hunt for SEC and national championships.
As for the pressure inherent with coaching under the SEC microscope, McElwain is plenty accustomed to it from his time as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. His time in Tuscaloosa should ease the transition to Gainesville in more ways than one.
Of the many question marks facing McElwain in his debut campaign is just how the Gators will solve their quarterback quandary. The position has vexed Florida since Tim Tebow’s departure in 2010. Jeff Driskel and Skyler Mornhinweg, neither of whom were particularly effective in their previous opportunities, opted to transfer this offseason.
That leaves Treon Harris as the sole quarterback with experience on Florida’s roster, playing nine games last season after assuming starter duties from Driskel. Harris and Will Grier are jockeying for reps next season.
Whomever wins the job, McElwain has a track record of getting the most from quarterbacks. Alabama’s quarterbacks in McElwain’s tenure were never world-beaters — ironically, Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson is arguably the most talented McElwain has coached.
However, McElwain crafted a system that suited the strength of Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron. The coach’s strategy in the 2012 BCS Championship Game in particular showcased his acumen, as the Crimson Tide attacked LSU’s defense with a series of mid-range throws to the tight ends.
McElwain called plays that isolated Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu one-on-one against bigger, more physical Alabama targets, and LSU’s defense was at a loss.
Of course, McElwain had advantages at Alabama he’ll lack at Florida, at least initially. The depletion of the Gators’ offensive line is well-documented, and much of what the coach can accomplish is contingent on how quickly the Florida coaching staff can restock the line up front.
That shouldn’t be too difficult of a pitch for McElwain, who has worked in systems that were feeders to the NFL for linemen. Alabama’s record speaks for itself, and just this past spring, Colorado State produced second-round offensive tackle selection Ty Sambrailo.
One more item in McElwain’s favor? The last Gators head coach with past experience at Colorado State won two national championships in Gainesville. The Lubick-led glory days McElwain strove to restore included a young assistant coach named Urban Meyer.