I was pretty salty after the game against Michigan, and judging by Twitter, Gator Nation appeared to share my sentiments.
But one sentiment that I do not share with the fan base is that the Michigan game is a referendum on coach Jim McElwain or his offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier. If you came into the season critical of McElwain or Nussmeier, then the Michigan game only added fuel to the fire. I did come into the season critical of Nussmeier, and he’s clearly going to be on thin ice if things don’t improve.
But I came into the season high on McElwain for many reasons. His in-game coaching decisions typically are based on math rather than fear. His recruiting success has picked up considerably for 2018 and 2019. And perhaps most importantly, he has won the SEC East the last two seasons, and did so in 2015 with a squad that was analytically inferior to both Tennessee and Georgia.
Issues with Jim McElwain after Michigan
The Michigan game was embarrassing and frustrating. But in my Michigan preview and on the Gators Breakdown podcast, I warned that while the Wolverines were young, they were also really, really good. That is likely the best team Florida faces all season.
But there is still clearly significant consternation within the Gators fan base. I’ll admit to stirring that up a little bit with my recap, but my issue with McElwain was not the performance. Losses happen.
My issues with McElwain were twofold. First, he talked about re-evaluating what the Gators are doing in the weight room. That’s the kind of thing you can re-evaluate in February. If you thought it was good enough all offseason, then it should be good enough now. To change course at this point reeks of desperation, and I don’t believe McElwain should be desperate.
I also took issue with him calling out the offensive line when there were breakdowns all over the field. In a locker room that could potentially splinter with the embarrassing loss and the weird dynamic associated with the player suspensions, it just seemed like the time he should step up to the microphone and say, “These are my guys and I love them. This one hurts, but we win as a team and lose as a team.”
Instead, players such as Martez Ivey were left to fend off their coach’s criticisms after already being humbled on the field. I just thought that was unfair, particularly when the offensive weapons we heard so much about during the offseason never got the ball.
Measuring coaching performance
McElwain has clearly struggled in his tenure at Florida against ranked teams. But the question I wanted to look at is whether he has underachieved. Because that’s really what he should be evaluated on. How does his performance compare to his peers? Because if Florida decides it wants to part with McElwain, it would need to make sure it is getting someone better.
At the start of the offseason, I looked at the top 10 teams based on recruiting rankings (from Rivals) from 2012-16 and how those teams ranked in the final AP poll. I’ve provided the key chart below (a NR finish in the AP poll was included as 40 for averaging purposes).
The teams highlighted in red are the teams that have experienced a coaching change during this time period. The teams in black — Notre Dame excluded — have won national championships during this time period, and the Irish made it to the championship game in 2012.
The takeaway should be obvious. Coaches who recruit well and get that to translate to performance win championships. Those who don’t get the recruits to perform get relieved of their duties.
Applying this metric to Jim McElwain
So with that in mind, has Jim McElwain underperformed his recruiting rankings? And what should fans realistically expect from this Florida team?
Again, let’s look at the historical record for active coaches who have won championships (plus a couple extras for comparison). These averages are from each coach’s first four seasons at the schools in question.
What you will note is that unlike the rankings in the first chart, most of these coaches underperformed their recruiting rankings. Some of this is due to rough first seasons after taking over struggling programs. But it is easy to forget that while Alabama did finish 7-6 in Nick Saban’s first season, the Tide also finished ranked No. 6 in 2008 and No. 12 in 2010, below the level of recruit that was being brought in.
It also is much easier for a coach with a recruiting ranking in the mid-20s to meet those expectations. Dabo Swinney has built a powerhouse at Clemson. But it took him longer because while he was performing up to recruiting expectations, those expectations were a top-20 team after his first four seasons rather than a top-5 program.
It’s obvious why Will Muschamp was relieved of his duties at Florida. With an average ranking outside of the top 25 but a recruiting ranking of 6.5 in his time with the Gators, it very clearly pointed to a coaching issue. Muschamp may turn into a good coach at South Carolina, but his record at Florida clearly warranted his release.
Meyer is perhaps the gold standard for this metric, as his teams have performed almost exactly to expectations based on recruiting rankings, both at Florida and Ohio State. Meyer has won three national championships in that time, along with the undefeated 2012 season when Ohio State was not postseason-eligible.
The one outlier on this chart is Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who was unfortunately Florida’s first opponent of 2017. Harbaugh had a late start to the recruiting season in 2015, owing to his messy divorce from the San Francisco 49ers. While that class was ranked 37th, he has followed that up with classes ranked 8th and 5th. And while an average of his first three season indicates Michigan (16.7 avg ranking) should be close to the ability of Florida (14.7), that clearly was not the case in the game.
McElwain has performed exactly as you would expect for years 1 and 2. The average recruiting ranking is 16.5 and Florida’s average ranking has been 19.5. If we include Year 3 into the recruiting ranking average, that brings it down to 14.7, which is exactly where Florida was predicted to be in the preseason. The teams ranked 13-17 in the final AP poll last season had an average record of 10-4 including bowl games.
That 10-4 record is the standard McElwain should be measured against in 2017. That’s the talent level of the Florida team. It clearly wasn’t enough to overtake Michigan, but should be enough to win the SEC East.
To what program should fans compare Gators?
It may just be that Harbaugh is one of those generational coaches such as Meyer or Saban. I don’t think McElwain is that, and said as much earlier in the offseason when I wrote that he was building the program more like Swinney than those hall of fame coaches. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a good coach.
Perhaps a better example than Clemson for Florida fans may actually be Saban’s 2002 LSU team. That team was coming off a final AP ranking of 7 and a Sugar Bowl victory in Saban’s second season (2001), but sputtered to an 8-5 record in 2002. Saban recruited well, but not at an elite level for those teams, averaging a ranking of 14.7 those first three seasons. That 14.7 ranking is coincidentally identical to McElwain’s first three seasons at Florida.
To start the 2002 season, LSU went on the road to Virginia Tech and got dominated 26-8. The Tigers managed 214 yards and quarterback Matt Mauck went 15 for 35 for 134 yards and a pick. LSU went on to lose to every other team on its schedule that finished the season ranked: Auburn (14), Alabama (11) and Texas (6). Of course, the next year Saban brought in the No. 3-ranked recruiting class and LSU was co-national champion.
Florida fans really should have expected this to be a transition season with all the losses on the defense and a redshirt freshman starting at quarterback. McElwain is exactly where LSU-era Saban was from an average recruiting standpoint after three seasons. And perhaps more importantly, he is assembling an impressive class for 2018 (ranked No. 7 currently) and perhaps a monster class for 2019 (ranked No. 1 currently).
This isn’t to say that McElwain is bringing championships to Gainesville anytime soon. It’s saying that based on objective analysis of where the program is, the expectation should not be for a championship-level team this season, but that the program is headed in the right direction.
None of this makes the loss to Michigan any easier to swallow. Fans aren’t looking for perfect. They’re looking for progress and hope that better days are ahead. That was what made the commitment of elite quarterback Matt Corral such a big deal over the summer. It represented hope that McElwain has the program headed in the right direction.
And none of that changes with a loss to a superior Michigan team. This season may end up being a rocky one for McElwain. With four more games against teams ranked in the preseason top 25, this team may struggle.
But that doesn’t mean McElwain should be on the hot seat. Saban went 8-5 at LSU in 2002 and survived. Can you imagine how things change if the fans down there had gotten impatient? Or how about the 6-7 record Dabo Swinney posted in 2010. Clemson fans were calling for his head based on what they saw on the field.
What they were missing was that recruiting was steadily improving, and that Swinney was getting results that were exactly what should be expected from the recruits he was bringing in. When the recruits improved, so did Clemson.
And the same will happen with McElwain. He’s going to have to weather the storm of 2017, and perhaps that means Nussmeier is going to have to be fed to the wolves after the season. But if he can hold things together this year, the 2018 and 2019 recruiting rankings point toward a team that will be competing for championships soon.
That is, if Gators fans don’t run McElwain out of town.
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