David Wunderlich makes the argument that Florida is the biggest wildcard in the SEC this season. I disagree with the “biggest” label he uses – to me, that belongs to a LSU team that, if it fixes its problem at quarterback and Kevin Steele proves not to be an enormous drop-off at defensive coordinator, wins the SEC, but if not, could easily lose five games again this season. But beyond that, how much of a wildcard can a team be with this much baggage to overcome?
It’s hard to fathom the wreckage that Jim McElwain has to sort through with the offense in Gainesville. This program was on the forefront of offense under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, but now, just putting together an above average unit would be a significant improvement. The past six years of defense-first Gator football have been like watching Alabama try to outscore teams with an Air Raid offense and no defense.
The last quarterback to have an above average season for the program signed in January of 2006, as did the last receiver to have at least 900 yards. The last time it had the same wide receivers coach from one year to the next was 2008-09, and it basically had grad assistants take the job in two different seasons. The offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach spot has turned over five times in the last six seasons, while the offensive line coach spot has turned over four times in the same span. It has alternately tried to run a spread option with a pro-style quarterback (2010) and a pro-style with a spread option quarterback (2012-13). It tried to build that manball pro-style scheme while signing four total offensive linemen across 2011-12. If there’s a mistake to be made with an offense, Florida has probably done it in the past six seasons.
Now I like McElwain (or at least I don’t dislike him, which is a helluva concession in my book for any Gator coach), but to expect him to walk in and effect a serious turnaround overnight on offense strikes me as bordering on the miraculous. And that’s before you even get to what he has to work with on the offensive line, which is where David really has to stretch to make his point with this:
The offensive line is not in great shape, but it could turn out to be OK. There are three good options at tackle in talented sophomore David Sharpe, two-time FCS All-American grad transfer Mason Halter, and five-star freshman Martez Ivey. Senior Trip Thurman takes over at center, while converted D-lineman and redshirt sophomore Antonio Riles impressed coaches in the spring at one of the guard spots. That means UF might conceivably only have to start one freshman on the line, which is far better than things were looking months ago.
Could and might, the building blocks of any successful line.
So here’s what you’re left with to make a case for dark horse…
But if the offensive line stays healthy, Grier comes through, and the expertise of McElwain and Nussmeier build an offensive scheme that fits its disparate parts, Florida could be a divisional dark horse. The teams on the conference schedule that look a cut above it—Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss—all have potential quarterback problems that could hold them back. If the great secondary makes big plays, Florida could have a chance to win all of its SEC games. It’s too thin, inexperienced, and unsettled to do so, but it could be in every game towards the end.
There are enough ifs in there to put Vanderbilt in a bowl game.
Florida plays five conference opponents that are ranked in the preseason. If the Gators run the table and go 8-0 in the SEC, McElwain isn’t a head coach. He’s a wizard. Either that, or the SEC is a lot worse than everyone thinks.
UPDATE: A little more of a realistic view from Bill Connelly, with this conclusion…
The upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 gives the Gators a 56 percent chance of going 6-6 or 7-5, a 14 percent chance of doing better, and a 30 percent chance of doing worse. I could see eight wins, but 2015 is about 2016 and beyond.
Figure out what you’ve got on offense, figure out your next generation on defense, win a big game or two, and win the fans back.