For the fourth time in the last five years, the Florida Gators seem likely to start a quarterback in their season finale who is unlikely to be part of the team a year later.
That’s the micro-scale takeaway I have for you from Randy Shannon’s decision to stay with Malik Zaire as Florida’s starter for this weekend’s game against South Carolina after a largely ineffective start against Missouri.
Zaire could conceivably get a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, to be fair. He redshirted at Notre Dame in 2013, has participated in just four seasons of football in the fall, and only played very briefly in 2015 prior to a season-ending injury — if his 2015 season can be chalked up as a medical redshirt season in the NCAA’s eyes, he might be back in Gainesville a year from now.
But even if that’s possible, why would it be desirable?
Zaire is, well, decent at best. Through three games in which he has played significant roles, he’s thrown for 300 yards — total. He’s completing under 60 percent of his passes — something that both Feleipe Franks (60.7 percent) and Luke Del Rio (64 percent) haven’t done in their snaps. Zaire hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass, either, and his 7.1 yards per attempt is only slightly better than Franks’s mark of 6.9 yards per attempt despite Zaire whipping the ball downfield early and often against Missouri’s permissive secondary.
If Florida is going to create something universally celebrated as success with Zaire, it will come as a major surprise. But that would be true of Florida winning to that degree in the very near future, I think.
These Gators are not just bad — they are wretched. This team has been blown out in consecutive wholly uncompetitive games, and has been outscored by 62 points on the year with three games remaining, none seeming like likely wins. (Florida was last outscored by more than 50 points in a season in that infamous winless 1979 campaign; the 2013 Gators, who you may recall went 4-8, were outscored by a measly 27 points on the year.)
Florida’s largest win this season is over Vanderbilt — and that was only a two-touchdown win because of a late Malik Davis breakaway. Its other two wins are by seven total points, and required Franks to find Tyrie Cleveland on a Hail Mary and Del Rio to find Cleveland and Freddie Swain on massive coverage busts against Kentucky.
And of those five players mentioned, the only one who is fully healthy and still slated to start on Saturday against South Carolina is Swain. Davis and Del Rio are out for the season; Cleveland is very clearly hampered by a lingering ankle sprain; Franks is riding the pine as Zaire’s backup.
This is an emaciated team, one rendered punchless by suspensions and injuries and a lack of offensive ingenuity on the part of its departed head coach and its still-employed offensive coordinator, and its defense has finally begun to show most of the strain that inexperience, injury, and inadequate coaching have put it in. Florida has been outscored 62-16 in first quarters this year, and 109-73 in first halves, but those numbers have looked especially garish since October began, with the Gators being outscored 38-3 in their last four first quarters and 68-12 in their last four first halves.
Florida has gone a whole month and a week without scoring a touchdown in a first half, by the way.
I detail all that awfulness to say this: This is not a good team, not a mediocre team, not even a below-average team — this is a bad team. And bad teams ought to be expected to lose.
Yet the Gators have a chance to cleanse themselves of this season when they hire their next coach. Most of the players on this roster will return in 2018, save a handful of seniors and a couple of draft-eligible juniors, but they could be playing for an entirely new coaching staff, and should be playing for one that is at least mostly turned over. The offensive and defensive systems could — should — be different.
And that potential existing is also a compelling argument for not taking the last month of this season all that seriously.
Florida’s allowed to crater now because cratering now should bear very little reflection on its program going forward if wholesale staff changes are made. Players can be forgiven, from my perspective, for checking out, in whole or in part, on a season that their head coach helped torpedo and that their athletic department saw fit to punt on by punting that head coach; the coaches who that head coach hired can be forgiven, too, given that their former boss helped book his own departure. The same logic extends to the Florida administration.
Firing McElwain when Florida did — after a loss so emphatic that it made similar losses seem likely, but with the added cover of McElwain saying something stupid — has rendered this season a write-off, if necessary, sparing us all the month of poisonous narrative (“Can Florida really bring back McElwain after this performance?”) that helped to doom Will Muschamp’s efforts to get it fixed as the Gators’ 2013 campaign swirled around the drain.
That frees me and every other Florida fan from being mortally wounded by how bad this team has been and will be. Amazingly, to this point, it has also not affected Florida’s recruiting class, which seems largely united around the idea of playing for Florida, rather than for McElwain. (I expect that will change, but the sort of mass defections that could have come simply have not.)
And maybe most importantly, it will create a distance that will allow Florida’s next head coach to be a breath of fresh air, and establish a culture entirely of his own making.
Florida’s had holdovers from the Urban Meyer regime chafe under Muschamp, and had holdovers from Muschamp be skeptical of McElwain. At this point, though, Florida’s players must be as sick and tired of losing as the fans who have watched them lose are.
And that permits whomever the next head coach will be to say, in total honesty, something like this...
“Look, you haven’t won much here as Gators. But you came here to win. Not just to put on uniforms, not just to play in The Swamp, not just to sell tickets, not just to get better.
So did I.
And I’ve won X and Y and Z. I know how to win. I like winning.
And if you trust me and give me everything you’ve got for every day I am your coach, you will win — and all that comes with it will fall into place.”
...and know that (most of) those players listening in that room who want to win very, very badly will buy in, while those players listening in that room who don’t care that much will be the ones who will not be key contributors to that winning.
Paradoxically, I think winning now would get in the way of that happening then. If doing just enough to be just okay is what Florida players want, and if clinging to what hasn’t worked all that well is acceptable, then what incentive will there be to get better? If Florida’s players scrape a bowl appearance out of this fall, it will be an achievement worth celebrating — but what will the takeaway of the season actually be?
This has to hurt. It has to burn. It has to motivate.
Hopefully, it will.
But this is a rare moment for me: While I will root for Florida to win, I am convinced that losing could be just as good for Florida down the road as rallying. I am okay with Zaire taking the lumps so that Franks — whose talents will be tantalizing even if he is already damaged goods — doesn’t have to. But I am also fine with Florida throwing young players to the lions and hoping some of the scars serve as motivational memories.
Every “Go Gators” I say right now will only be so loud. I have to save the full-throated ones for a time when they are more deserved.