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Florida Gators coaching search: Is Jim McElwain the favorite now?

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Hugh Freeze is out. Josh McDaniels doesn't make that much sense. No one else appears to be in the running. So it might be the head Ram who Florida is focused on.

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Late Monday night, news broke — first from the Daily Journal, a Mississippi newspaper, then from SB Nation's Steven Godfrey — that Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze would remain Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, agreeing to an extension to remain the Rebels' leader instead of taking an offer from Florida.

That deal, which Godfrey reports is in the $4 million range and includes a significant compensation bump for Freeze's assistants, was likely always the endgame for Freeze and agent Jimmy Sexton, as most thought Freeze, a Mississippi alum with deep ties to Oxford (and, notably, to ur-boosters Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose connection to Freeze goes back to him coaching Michael Oher at Briarcrest Christian in Memphis, the story immortalized by Michael Lewis in The Blind Side), would be very difficult to pry out of Oxford.

But now Freeze and Mississippi get to spin it as Freeze choosing to stay by spurning Florida's advances. Our own headline for the story is "Freeze picks Ole Miss over Florida," and SB Nation Mississippi blog Red Cup Rebellion writes what you'd expect a Mississippi fan to write about this latest Rebels upset of the Gators:

Assuming that Florida did make the offer, it's hard to understate the significance of Freeze turning it down. Even with the program's recent slump, there's no denying that Florida is one of the best jobs in college football. Freeze would have been recruiting in one of the most talent-rich areas of the country and would have benefited from playing in an East division that's way down at the moment. Yet he's sticking it out with the Rebels in the brutal SEC West.

Yet Godfrey notes, without explicitly saying so, that Freeze himself was never offered the job (boldface mine):

The Gators' interest -- an offer in the neighborhood of $4.2 to $4.3 million annually fielded by Freeze's representatives, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the talks -- helped drive Ole Miss to the $4 million mark.

Florida likely did have legitimate interest in Freeze — I don't think an offer would reach Sexton without legitimate interest — but, to be clear, it's also likely that Florida was the bogeyman for a coach and an agent who wanted a raise. And Florida's interest, which the Gators can spin as no job offer if Freeze was never personally offered the position, certainly helped both Freeze's camp and Mississippi get what they want.

Leverage is a powerful thing.

That said, if Florida was interested in Freeze, it must now turn elsewhere. It seems as though Gators will focus on either or both of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain. Both Godfrey and Scott Roussel of Football Scoop have mentioned McDaniels as a candidate, and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports and Roussel have both indicated that McElwain is a candidate, with Forde reporting that McElwain and Jeremy Foley spoke over the weekend.

McElwain also has some local steam of two different types: Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi is calling McElwain "even money" to get the job, and saying his buyout — $7.5 million at minimum — is "negotiable," while Sentinel reporter Edgar Thompson has a source "entrenched" at Colorado State talking about how "nervous" the Rams are.

Regular Alligator Army readers will know that Bianchi is typically persona non linka around these parts for a variety of good reasons, but I've also long thought that Bianchi is close to Sexton, who represents McElwain, and so his takes might well be well-informed in this case.

Of the two, McElwain strikes me to be the far more logical (and preferred) candidate. He has college football head coaching experience, SEC experience, a track record of offensive success that isn't tethered almost exclusively to Tom Brady, and a timeline that could allow him to leave Colorado State on good terms recruit for Florida even in December — something that McDaniels, whose Patriots appear likely to play deep into January, and possibly February, would be giving up far more to do. (NFL rules also make hiring coaches from playoff teams very, very difficult, so Florida's window on McDaniels is limited, though there's no doubt that Florida wants to make a hire well before the beginning of the NFL playoffs.)

Additionally, while Charlie Weis once left New England for Notre Dame under similar circumstances, he was an alumnus coming back home; McDaniels has no such ties to Florida, unless drafting Tim Tebow counts, and has been an NFL coach for most of his adult life. The main advantage that McDaniels, 38, has on McElwain, 52, is age: Foley's preference has long been hiring young coaches who could have dynastic reigns at Florida, in all sports, and that preference likely factored significantly into his hiring of Will Muschamp four years ago.

If presented with a binary McElwain-or-McDaniels choice, I'd choose McElwain, for all his experience and for his more inventive offense, which has mixed in new concepts like pistol running more liberally than has the Patriots' offense, still what amounts to Bill Parcells' offense with modifications for tempo. McDaniels wouldn't be a bad choice, unlike the few bad choices I outlined on Monday, but I would have to do a fair bit of talking myself into him, especially given that McDaniels is a Weis disciple, and Florida's already failed with that offense once.

But I'm not entirely convinced that it really is a binary choice at this point. The flurry of activity since Saturday, when most regular seasons ended, expiring Foley's self-imposed limit on contact with other coaches and athletic directors, suggests that Florida is definitely trying to move quickly, and though the Gators still clearly have first-mover advantage at the moment, the big chairs at Nebraska and Michigan are now open; though most observers would deem those jobs less appealing than Florida's open position, there's no sure handle on how those new variables will affect Florida's search.

If Foley's set on McElwain, I'd expect a swift move, and an announcement perhaps timed to this weekend's college football games: Muschamp was hired three days after Urban Meyer stepped down in 2010, yes, but Florida also managed to wrest a news cycle from action on the field, as Meyer resigned three days after the weekend of conference championship games, and news of Muschamp's hiring broke on the Saturday the Heisman Trophy was awarded, with his introductory press conference coming the Monday afterward.

If Foley's not set on McElwain, I imagine we may have a slightly longer search to follow.