Jim McElwain is not the first head coach to part ways with his team this season. But his departure qualifies as the most high profile, one that figures to set into motion a wild coaching carousel that could dramatically reshape college football and the SEC in particular.
In that conference alone, Ole Miss will be looking for a head coach. Butch Jones remains on shaky ground at Tennessee. So does Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and Bret Bielema at Arkansas. If those three go, the SEC would have at least five head coach openings at the same time.
The dominoes there will ripple across the country, especially as other schools in other conferences start making their own decisions about their futures. Though coaches like Jones, Sumlin and Bielema entered the season in much more precarious situations, the last week in Gainesville became so untenable that the Florida administration had no choice but to make a decision to look for its third head coach since the 2014 season.
There is now undeniable pressure on new athletic director Scott Stricklin to make the right decision once and for all, to get Florida back in the business of not just winning championships, but putting a team on the field that can actually find the end zone. Perhaps that is why Florida made the first move, to jump ahead of everyone else that is certain to be looking for a change at the top.
This especially makes sense if the Gators want to target current UCF coach Scott Frost. As Nebraska struggles through another mediocre season, the Huskers would do well to go after Frost with everything they have, something they failed to do when they hired Mike Riley before the 2015 season. Frost, a former Nebraska QB who was then the offensive coordinator at Oregon, working with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, never received a phone call.
But this time, Frost figures to receive multiple phone calls after what he has done in a little less than two seasons with the Knights. His spread offense, with principles he learned under Chip Kelly, ranks in the Top 5 in the nation in total offense, and No. 1 in scoring offense. UCF is the only undefeated Group of 5 team remaining, and as Frost has risen, his name has come up beyond just Nebraska.
Florida absolutely has to hire a coach with an offensive background. Though the Gators did just that when they brought McElwain in for the 2015 season, he never could develop a quarterback the way he was charged with doing. Florida remains an absolute mess on offense, and is about to hit the decade mark without one elite quarterback to play in a season from start to finish.
To put that into further context, the last time Florida averaged over 400 yards on offense was in 2009 — Tim Tebow’s final season. That, quite frankly, is absurd at a program that produced its proudest moments around revolutionary quarterbacks and revolutionary offensive minds.
Steve Spurrier won a Heisman Trophy at Florida, then came back with his Fun ‘N’ Gun offense, maximizing not only entertainment value but his own legacy as an innovator who didn’t really care about running up the score all that much. But as he was guiding Florida to a national championship and Danny Wuerffel to a Heisman, he also changed the expectation level at a school that had been mostly average until Spurrier arrived as head coach.
No longer would it be good enough to win eight or nine games. No longer would it be good enough to put the fans to sleep with more traditional schemes and plays. The Spurrier legacy trampled Ron Zook until Urban Meyer brought his own revolutionary spread offense, another championship and Tebow to town. But it’s not Meyer that gets the comparisons in Gainesville. It’s Spurrier, and that legacy trampled Will Muschamp before it trampled McElwain, two head coaches who clearly lacked the offensive imagination to keep up.
Meanwhile, two hours down the highway in Orlando, Frost has done what Spurrier did in the early 1990s at Florida — transforming UCF into relevancy with an offense you can’t stop watching.
Frost has taken McKenzie Milton from a two-star prospect into the No. 1 quarterback in the nation in passing efficiency. This was no slam dunk, either. During the spring, there was major uncertainty about whether Milton would win the starting job. Yet he has outperformed even the expectations Frost had for him, an unfamiliar concept for those who have watched the Florida offense at any point since Tebow left.
Should Nebraska come open and send Tom Osborne to recruit Frost, who now has recruiting inroads and ties into Florida, what would he do?
There are other reasons Stricklin has to get this job right. Kirby Smart appears to be building a powerhouse in Georgia, and Florida cannot afford to slip further behind the Bulldogs — not only in the win-loss column but on the recruiting trail. Then there is Tennessee, the team Florida absolutely has to beat for the top coaching hire in the conference.
On the whole, it may be hugely beneficial for so many head coaches to turn over at once. The last time this many turned over at once was in 2012, when four new SEC head coaches came into the mix: Jones, Bielema, Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops. None have won a division title or come close to challenging for conference supremacy.
It was around that time that the SEC began to see its status as the best conference in the country begin to diminish. To be sure, that responsibility is not placed on the four head coaches who arrived in 2012. But one of the biggest reasons the SEC has lost the title as “best conference” is because it has fallen behind other conferences in the head coaching department.
Both the Big Ten and ACC have made far better head coaching moves than the SEC has over the last five seasons, and that has allowed both those conferences to chip away at the league’s strength. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who would place the SEC ahead of the Big Ten and ACC in head coach quality from top to bottom.
It’s time the SEC stepped up its game in that department, to not only help the individual programs but the conference as a whole. McElwain is just the first departure, but it won’t come as any surprise if there is a seismic shift in the coaching ranks this season – from the SEC and beyond.