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Florida vs. Iowa, Three Takeaways: Beginnings and ends

We got a sneak peek at some aspects of Florida’s 2017 defense on Monday — and we may not have seen much else that matters.

Outback Bowl - Florida v Iowa Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

You know the drill by now: Florida played a football game, and we’re endeavoring to recap it, but promises are for the universe’s amusement.

Randy Shannon nailed his “audition”

I suspect that no one in a position to make more than a subjective call on it will say that Randy Shannon, Florida’s interim defensive coordinator, was auditioning for the full-time, full-fledged position on Monday, and in the practices and preparation that came with the weeks before the Outback Bowl. That would be an acknowledgement of uncertainty on Florida’s part, and maybe an affront to a defensive mind with more than 20 years of coaching experience.

That said: Holy hell, did Shannon nail his audition.

Florida allowed just 225 yards to Iowa, and what the Hawkeyes did get — 171 yards on the ground, at almost exactly four yards a pop — amounted to only three points. Both the total yardage and the point total were the fewest in Outback Bowl history — and while Iowa’s offense will be remembered poorly by “total” stats that will forever be beholden to pace, it was a mediocre attack per S&P+, ranking not far behind Kentucky’s, and far ahead of Georgia’s.

Geoff Collins coordinated the Florida defense when it shut down those two offenses like Shannon’s charges did Iowa’s. But Collins had a lot more to work with: Florida was missing no fewer than three NFL Draft picks — Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, and Marcus Maye — on Monday, and had to play walk-on Cristian Garcia extensively at linebacker because of injuries to David Reese and Kylan Johnson. Iowa also avoided Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson like the plague, with C.J. Beathard often targeting tight ends or throwing uncatchable balls to wideouts, and in doing so attacked the Gators’ outside run defense, their major weakness of 2016.

The 171 yards on the ground is a tidy total, to be sure — but Iowa had come in having run for 262 and 264 yards in its last two games, and the Hawkeyes rushed 164 yards on Michigan’s vaunted defense in November, too. Michigan allowed 10 fewer yards and a tenth of a yard — 3.6 inches — fewer per play to the Hawkeyes than Florida did — and Michigan’s defense was at full strength, and didn’t change coordinators.

Oh, and the players who shined brightest in the Tampa sun? Shannon can take credit for developing and finding almost all of them.

Shannon coached linebackers from his hiring until just before the bowl, and those players had stellar games. Vosean Joseph? A Shannon Special — an unknown South Florida find turned into a player by Shannon’s coaching — whose six tackles tripled his previous career high. Daniel McMillian? Seven stops to tie his career high in the final game of his largely underwhelming career, and a pick to go with them. Garcia, a hero in real life asked to pinch-hit on Monday? Five tackles in his first and likely only start. Interim linebackers coach Mark DeBastiani deserves some credit for those players balling out, sure — but I’m fine with giving Shannon the lion’s share for what was his position group until just a few weeks ago.

And Shannon’s new position group, Florida’s safeties, had a fine game, too. Chauncey Gardner is still a safety for now, and he was named Outback Bowl MVP for safety-style snatching of two Beathard passes. Marcell Harris missed tackles, par for his career course — but he also made the biggest stop of his career at the goal line. Nick Washington’s name was hardly heard, because it didn’t need to be.

Shannon also seemed comfortable bringing a new set of pressures that deviated from Collins’s preferred blitz packages. They worked: Iowa’s 2.3 yards per attempt were the fewest by a Florida foe all year — a feat, given that Florida had held five teams under 5.0 yards per attempt, and three under 4.0, coming in — and Beathard’s 23.42 passer rating was microscopic. Part of the point of having Shannon work under the interim title may have been testing to see if he could still call plays effectively after not doing so since at least 2010; Iowa scoring three points, going 1-for-3 in the red zone, and going 4-for-17 on third and fourth down are testament to both Shannon’s macro-level game plan and micro-level play-calling.

Florida’s going to have weaknesses and woes on defense in 2017. How could it not, with a platoon of NFL-caliber players finally departing Gainesville to play on Sundays. Shannon’s elevation to coordinator would not fix all of them, or even necessarily most of them. It would fix some of them, though, and it seems highly unlikely that Florida could tap a candidate for the role of defensive coordinator who will fix more of them than the one it has always had on staff.

Shannon aced his audition. Florida ought to hire him.

Florida’s offense has improved, if marginally

Florida’s offense was very bad early on in this Outback Bowl. But what else is new, really? Austin Appleby throwing a pass that arrived at Ahmad Fulwood in stride and seeing it picked off after Fulwood made only a perfunctory attempt to catch it was somehow both unlucky and predictable, as was Appleby throwing another pick on a pass tipped halfway to the upper deck of Raymond James Stadium. Florida netted 15 yards on eight plays over those first two drives, and ended neither one with a punt.

If Iowa were Alabama, or Florida State, or just generally better on offense, that might have put the Gators in a truly massive hole, rather than the 3-0 one that folks joked was insurmountable after Shannon’s defense held the Hawkeyes to a field goal after Appleby’s second pick. Fortunately, Iowa is none of those things — though, given what Florida did on offense after that, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Florida’s next three-and-out didn’t come until its final drive of the first half — one that began with just 45 seconds on the clock, and was only really a three-and-out because McElwain opted against Eddy Piñeiro taking a crack at a 70-yard field goal. Its next one after that came in the fourth quarter, with a comfortable 24-3 lead.

In the stretches between those brief possessions? Florida managed: An 18-yard drive that allowed the Gators to flip the field on a Johnny Townsend punt; a drive highlighted by a 46-yard run by Jordan Scarlett that flipped the field again; an 85-yard catch-and-run for a score by Mark Thompson; and a 12-play, 80-yard drive that would have been capped by three completions to three different receivers had referees not whistled Florida for a phantom illegal motion.

A better offense would probably have found ways to score touchdowns on the two drives beginning on Iowa’s 7 and 36 in the fourth quarter, yes, but Florida’s made those painless field goal drives. (And two touchdowns on those drives might have made for a 38-3 game, which could have hit the over for some bettors — no way were the football gods inclined to let that happen.)

But Florida’s offense, faced with only a modest assortment of top-tier defensive talent — Desmond King’s star has cooled, and there are only late-round picks around him — once again proved good enough to make good on its defense. And as frustrating as it is for that to be progress, it is progress — from Florida’s 2013 and 2014, in which the Gators won exactly two games over Power Five teams with winning records, and from Florida’s ruinous close to the 2015 season, in which the Gators tallied fewer points over three games (24) than they did in Monday’s game.

That was neat. Now what?

I have been very skeptical about the purported import of Florida winning this bowl game since the narrative set in that Florida “needed” to win this bowl game. Had Florida lost on Monday, its trajectory would have been easier to plot, yes, and recruiting might have been more difficult — but the Gators’ core of returnees would have remained the same, and the instant-impact recruits who are long shots to commit to Florida between now and National Signing Day even in the glow of a win over the Hawkeyes would only have been slightly less likely to do so.

Primarily, I think Monday’s win just changed the conversation about Florida — and while that is valuable, especially as someone who tires of those conversations more and more quickly, I don’t know that it’s that valuable. How much Twitter antipathy does a 30-3 win over a Big Ten also-ran really quell? How many season tickets does it sell? Are either of those things even measurable?

The other thing this game represented, though, is the end of an era for Florida. Next year, for the first time in a long time, Florida’s strength should be its offense — and yet that offense will be led, almost certainly, by a redshirt freshman who will make his first start against Michigan in Cowboys Stadium. Next year, for the first time in a long time, Florida’s defense will be retooling — with Shannon quite likely to make some changes from the philosophy that Will Muschamp brought to Gainesville and Collins was brought in to tweak — and may be rebuilding rather than reloading.

Next year, after two straight SEC East titles, there will be an expectation of being not just good enough, but good.

Florida’s win over Iowa was good for reasons beyond narrative, sure, and I explained those above. But the most important one was that it’s better than a loss to Iowa, an outcome that would have allowed the rap on McElwain-era Florida to remain “Starts hot, fades fast.”

Now, though, the narrative will shift to Florida’s chance to fully emerge as McElwain’s team, in McElwain’s image.

Florida bought itself the chance to do that without that image being one of late-season futility by throwing an outlier on the data plot on Monday. But outliers tend not to be predictive, and covering up a blemish does not erase it, and when “What have you done for me lately?” is asked daily, “Beat Iowa in January” will not be a sufficient answer for long.

I enjoyed Florida winning a game in lopsided fashion on Monday. I know I’m not nearly alone in that regard. But I’m fully prepared for that to sustain this program for a very, very short stretch of time — and Jim McElwain must be, too.