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Setting First-Year Expectations for Florida's Jim McElwain

Jim McElwain

Jim McElwain

Florida is one of the premier jobs in college football. The location in a fertile recruiting area allows the Gators to have access to some of the nation’s top talent, and the program won two BCS national championships under Urban Meyer. However, Florida slipped under former coach Will Muschamp. After winning 13 games in three out of four seasons from 2006-09, the Gators went 28-21 in Muschamp’s four years in Gainesville. Jim McElwain was hired from Colorado State to return Florida back into a SEC title contender, along with pushing the Gators back into the national title conversation.

McElwain went 22-16 in three years at Colorado State and has experience in the SEC from his time as a coordinator at Alabama. McElwain is known for his ability to coach offense, which is an area of significant concern for the Gators in 2015.

While all of the positives for Florida as a program are clear, the Gators have their share of roster concerns for 2015. Just because the recruiting rankings suggest the talent is in place, Florida has a lot of work to do and obstacles to overcome to contend for the SEC title.

Is McElwain the right fit at Florida? Can he elevate the program to win SEC Championships? Let’s take a look at the former Colorado State coach and his outlook for 2015 and beyond.

Jim McElwain's Job History

2012-14: Colorado State – Head Coach

2008-11: Alabama – OC/QBs

2007: Fresno State – OC/QBs

2006: Oakland Raiders – QBs

2003-05: Michigan State – Asst. HC/WRs/Sp. Teams

2000-02: Louisville – WRs/Sp. Teams

1995-99: Montana State – OC/WRs/Sp. Teams

1987-94: Eastern Washington – QBs/WRs

1985-86: Eastern Washington – Graduate Assistant

Key Obstacles to Overcome in 2015

Quarterback Play

Considering the high school talent in the state of Florida, along with the success of Florida’s offense under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, it’s hard to imagine the Gators struggling to score points. However, that’s been the case in recent years. In each of the last four seasons, Florida has ranked seventh or worse (SEC-only games) in scoring offense. Reversing that trend starts in the trenches and at quarterback. Last year, the Gators threw only seven touchdown passes and completed just 50 percent of their throws in SEC contests. Treon Harris replaced Jeff Driskel as the starter last season, but the job could switch hands again, as Will Grier (a redshirt freshman) is expected to start. Grier is a good fit for McElwain’s offense and will have two non-conference games as tune-ups before Florida’s SEC opener at Kentucky on Sept. 19.

Related: SEC Predictions for 2015

Offensive Line

While most of the offseason attention on Florida is focused on the quarterback battle, the play in the trenches is a bigger concern for McElwain. This unit was hit hard by departures, as D.J. Humphries and Tyler Moore left for the NFL, Rod Johnson’s career was cut short by injury and Max Garcia and Chaz Green expired their eligibility. Senior Trip Thurman is the lone returning starter, and depth is a major concern. True freshman Martez Ivey could start at one of the tackle spots this season, and Fordham graduate transfer Mason Halter should find a spot on the two-deep. Needless to say, line coach Mike Summers has his work cut out for him in 2015. This group is young, inexperienced and lacking in overall proven options. How quickly will Summers and McElwain find the right answers?

Playmakers…?

In addition to the positions above, finding playmakers is going to be a priority this fall for McElwain and new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Kelvin Taylor, Adam Lane and Jordan Scarlett are a capable trio at running back, but more punch is needed from this group. At receiver, can the Gators find another go-to target to help take the pressure off of Demarcus Robinson? 

Team Strengths for 2015

One of the Top Defenses in the SEC?

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Lost in all of the offensive woes under Will Muschamp, Florida’s defense remained one of the best in the SEC. And that’s quite an accomplishment considering the bad situations the defense inherited throughout the year. Last season, the Gators held SEC opponents to 25.8 points per game and finished second in the conference in 2013. New coordinator Geoff Collins inherits seven returning starters, including one of the nation’s top defensive backfields. End Dante Fowler will be missed, but there’s enough returning talent to keep this unit near the top of the SEC.

Related: College Football's Bowl Projections for 2015

Playmakers…?

This section of the roster was also mentioned under obstacles to overcome, but there’s also reason to be optimistic. Demarcus Robinson is one of the SEC’s top receivers, tight end Jake McGee is back from injury, and running back Kelvin Taylor has recorded back-to-back 500-yard seasons. While Florida needs more from its playmakers, there’s a solid core in place to build around. 

Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends

Florida's Roster Rank in the SEC for 2015: 5

Year

Conference Rank

National Rank

Three-Star Prospects

Four-Star Prospects

Five-Star Prospects

2015

10

21

17

3

2

2014

7

9

15

8

1

2013

2

3

13

13

2

2012

2

4

8

13

2

2011

5

11

7

11

1

Recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but it’s notable the Gators have ranked No. 7 and No. 10 among SEC teams over the last two years. The overall five-star prospects brought to Gainesville has remained steady, as three have arrived over the last two seasons. However, the four-star prospects have dropped from at least 11 each year from 2011-13 to just 11 over the last two seasons. Florida finished No. 21 in last year’s signing classes, but it’s tough to evaluate the Gators recruiting efforts since McElwain didn’t have a full year to build a class. While the talent level has dipped slightly, attrition is also a concern at certain spots, especially on the offensive line. 

Schedule Analysis

Crossover Games Versus West Division: Ole Miss, at LSU

Bye Week: Oct. 24

Five Critical Conference Games for Florida in 2015

1. Georgia (Jacksonville, Oct. 31)

2. at Tennessee (Sept. 26)

3. at Missouri (Oct. 10)

4. Ole Miss (Oct. 3)

5. at LSU (Oct. 17)

Best Non-Conference Game: Florida State (Nov. 28)

Final Analysis

Georgia is the favorite in the East, with Tennessee picking up steam as a darkhorse candidate. In order for Florida to challenge for the division title, a lot has to go right. The schedule certainly isn’t easy, as Ole Miss and LSU are the crossover opponents, and road trips to Kentucky and Missouri will be a challenge. Not only is the schedule an obstacle, but Florida has to find a quarterback and develop an offensive line short on depth and experience. McElwain is known for his background on offense and should help to improve a struggling Florida attack in 2015. But expectations need to be lowered. While this is one of the best jobs in college football and recruiting talent won’t be a problem, patience is needed in Gainesville. The Gators need another season to bolster the depth up front and find a quarterback, and the schedule isn’t friendly for a coach breaking in new schemes. Athlon’s 2015 projection has Florida on the optimistic side of the win total at eight victories. However, if the quarterback play and offensive line are slow to develop, a 7-5 or 6-6 record is realistic. McElwain is the right fit for Florida, but the former Colorado State coach could have his share of ups and downs in year one. 

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Athlon 2015 National Projection: No. 26 nationally, No. 3 SEC East

Athlon 2015 Record Projection: 8-4, 5-3 SEC

Bovada Over/Under Odds: 7.5

CG Technology Odds: 7

5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 7.5