Florida football coach Jim McElwain deserves adulation and congratulations from Gator Nation for guiding UF to a second consecutive SEC Championship Game in only his second year on the job, but now comes the next phase of his program's development.
FSU — Finish Strong and Unfaltering.
That certainly didn't happen on Saturday night as Florida's floundering offense once again flopped around like a suffocating sea bass at the bottom of a fishing boat en route to a 31-13 methodical dismantling at the hands of Florida State. If you're scoring at home, UF's impotent offense has now gone 10 quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown against FSU. The Gator offense reached FSU's 2-yard line on its opening possession, but never again came close to sniffing FSU's goal-line.
Florida was 0-for-12 on third-down conversions, the first time in 36 years an FSU opponent did not convert a third down in a game. The Gators gained just 207 yards on an FSU defense that was yielding 371 per game.
It's no secret that the job of every UF football coach is to not only challenge for conference championships, but to be competitive against FSU. The Gators, who have now lost four straight to FSU and six of the last seven, obviously have not done that in recent years.
For the Gators, a victory over FSU would have put the final stamp of success on the season — despite what happens in Saturday's SEC Championship Game against No. 1-ranked Alabama. It seems far-fetched to think UF, a 23-point underdog, could beat Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Cyborgs, but a victory over a three-loss FSU team seemed like a much more attainable goal and measuring stick for the season.
Winning the SEC East is something to be proud of, but you know and I know that the SEC East is a tire fire and the Gators are simply the best team in one of the worst conference divisions in all of college football. How bad is the SEC East? The Gators have won the last two division titles, but McElwain has lost his last six games against ranked teams.
McElwain desperately needs to avoid what happened last year when the Gators clinched the SEC East and then folded like a cheap card table. Remember? The Gators got blown out in their final three games — to FSU, Alabama and Michigan in a bowl game — and scored only two offensive touchdowns in the process.
As annoying as it might be to McElwain, Gator Nation will not be truly happy until they are winning conference championships, beating FSU and doing it with an exciting offense. You could tell by the tone in McElwain's voice after last week's monumental, SEC East-clinching victory at LSU that he believes Florida fans are simply asking too much from a coach in only his second year at the helm.
"I'm happy for our Gator fans who don't think we're very good, but all we do is end up back in Atlanta," McElwain said after the victory over LSU.
After the loss to FSU, McElwain was even more annoyed with the line of questioning. He snapped at a reporter who asked if the Gators would be able to bounce back next week against Alabama. Why McElwain was so perturbed is anybody's guess. After all, earlier in his postgame press conference, McElwain himself said about his own players, "I don't know if they'll come back or not (against Alabama.)"
They better or all of the goodwill McElwain built up after clinching the SEC East will be minimized once again with a stumbling, bumbling, clanging, clattering clomp to the finish line.
Winning the SEC East is nice, but beating Florida State is perhaps even more imperative to the ultimate success of McElwain's program. Ever since Urban Meyer's departure, Jimbo Fisher has been the king of National Signing Day in our recruiting-rich pigskin peninsula and that's the main reason he is now 8-0 against Florida and Miami over the last four years, 13-1 since he succeeded Bobby Bowden seven years ago.
Saturday night's game was a perfect example. Dalvin Cook committed to attend Florida early in the recruiting process, but Jimbo flipped him and he signed with the Seminoles. More than 4,000 career rushing yards and 45 rushing touchdowns later, the rest is history. Cook shredded Florida's banged-up defense for 153 rushing yards and a touchdown on Saturday night.
Bowden dominated state recruiting in the 1990s, which is the main reason he had so much success (8-5-1) against Steve Spurrier's Gators. Meanwhile, Meyer dominated Bowden in recruiting, which is why he was 5-1 against the Seminoles.
We know now, after Fisher's rejection of LSU's advances earlier this week and hearing him declare his loyalty to FSU after Saturday's victory, that he will likely be in Tallahassee for years to come.
Likewise, McElwain's longevity in Gainesville will ultimately be determined by his ability to compete and beat Jimbo — during the first week in February and the last week in November.