Florida didn’t have a ton of time in the spotlight with its hire of Colorado State coach Jim McElwain as Nebraska announced a hire of Mike Riley just as McElwain was becoming official.
After a few weeks, that won’t matter. Winning the day or winning the press conference isn’t nearly as important as winning over fans in that first season.
Winning early, though, will be tough. After all, Florida wouldn’t have made a coaching change if this program were running at full strength.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the situation McElwain has assumed at Florida for 2015.
Offense (4): T D.J. Humphries, G Trip Thurman, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman
Defense (8): T Jon Bullard, E Bryan Cox Jr., LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, S Keanu Neal, S Marcus Maye, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Brian Poole
The tally above counts neither freshman quarterback Treon Harris, who has started the last five games for the Gators, nor five-star freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor, who has started five games total. The eight returning starters — even without end Dante Fowler, who announced he’d enter the NFL Draft — is a clear boon for McElwain in Year One. Florida led the SEC in fewest yards per play last season at 4.45, and only LSU allowed fewer yards per game. The back end of the defense, especially will be a strength. Leading rusher Matt Jones also will leave early for the NFL Draft, according to a report from GatorCountry.com.
This is where McElwain needs to put in some immediate work. A signing class ranked 14th in the SEC and 61st nationally is unheard of for Florida. The Gators are in on a number of highly touted defensive line recruits, but McElwain will need to make quick inroads in the state. For Alabama, McElwain recruited safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Dee Hart (who later transferred to Colorado State) from the Orlando area.
At first glance, trading one Nick Saban guy (Muschamp) for another (McElwain) wouldn’t seem to bring much of a schematic change. On defense, that may be the case, especially if McElwain retains defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, secondary coach Travaris Robinson and/or others from Muschamp’s defensive staff, as reported by FootballScoop.com. McElwain ran a 3-4 at Colorado State, similar to Muschamp, and for what it’s worth, both coaches nicknamed their linebacker/end hybrid a “buck.” The most intriguing scheme shift will be on offense. The mobile Harris entrenched himself in under Kurt Roper while McElwain featured a classic dropback passer.
The SEC loves to tout its full stadiums and raucous game day atmosphere. That hasn’t been the case at Florida. The Gators drew an average of 85,834 fans per game in 2014. It’s tough to sell The Swamp as homefield advantage when it’s filled well below capacity.
What does the competition look like?
The SEC East should continue to lag behind the West in 2015, but that doesn’t mean the division is for the taking. Missouri has won the division two years in a row and will return a talented, if erratic, quarterback. Georgia loses a senior quarterback and a handful of seniors on defense but will return running back Nick Chubb. Tennessee is a young team on the rise that could be a sleeper in the division. Florida’s crossover games will be Ole Miss at home and LSU on the road, and the only challenging non-conference game will be Florida State at home.