JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There was no drama on the field, but there was plenty off it in Georgia’s 42-7 win against Florida. Here are three thoughts from a game that felt like the end of an era.
1. People in Florida’s program wore these shirts this week. The hope was that reminding the Gators of the opening line (Georgia by 14.5 points) might sufficiently enrage them and that the anger over being disrespected might inspire them to prove the number wrong.
Halfway through the first quarter, there was no doubt about the outcome. Georgia had scored touchdowns on its first three possessions and was well on its way to covering that hefty spread. The Bulldogs averaged 22.3 yards on those three drives and put Florida in a deep hole. Then they rolled the rest of the way for their first win against the Gators since 2013.
Saturday did, however, produce further doubt about coach Jim McElwain’s future at Florida. The day began with athletic director Scott Stricklin refuting a report that Florida had already begun negotiating a buyout of McElwain’s contract. That denial only applies to pregame Saturday, though. A dissolution of the union between McElwain and the Gators—and soon—remains very much on the table after a bizarre week in Gainesville.
The oddity began Monday when McElwain claimed he and his family had received death threats because of Florida’s recent losses. McElwain declined to follow up when asked by reporters about his claim, and then he declined to elaborate when Florida administrators asked him for more information. That led to this statement from the athletic department: “The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon and he offered no additional details.”
In an athletic department run by a former sports information director, that last sentence didn’t get worded that way by accident. It was a message that all is not well between McElwain and Florida’s administration. Suddenly, a coach who had been quite safe because of a huge buyout ($12.5 million) and two SEC East titles in his first two seasons didn’t seem so safe anymore.
Then came Saturday, when McElwain’s team left no doubt about the direction of the program.
2. Georgia, meanwhile, seems headed straight toward Atlanta. The Bulldogs, who have underachieved most years in this series since Steve Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, actually played like the vastly superior team when they were the vastly superior team. Tailback Sony Michel carried six times for 137 yards and two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs averaged 8.3 yards a carry as a team. Georgia starting quarterback Jake Fromm only attempted seven passes, completing four for 101 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Meanwhile, Georgia’s defense stuffed Florida on fourth-down plays in the second and third quarters and held the Gators to 3.8 yards a play for the day.
The move to fire Mark Richt and replace him with Kirby Smart following the 2015 season continues to look like the best outcome for both parties. Richt is undefeated at Miami, and Smart has the Bulldogs playing in ways they haven’t played since the early years of the Richt era. Saturday was the kind of game that probably would have been too close in the waning years of Richt’s tenure. Smart’s Bulldogs sensed weakness and poured on the punishment.
If Tennessee beats Kentucky in a game that kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Georgia can clinch the SEC East title by beating South Carolina next week in Athens. The last time Georgia won the SEC East was 2012. Just like that year, the Bulldogs appear to be on a collision course with Alabama.
3. So what happens next at Florida?
ESPN’s Edward Aschoff reported Saturday that Florida officials are discussing whether they can fire McElwain for cause—which means the Gators wouldn’t owe the coach a buyout. To do that, they’d have to find an action by McElwain that violates the terms of his deal and be comfortable that reasoning would hold up in court. One of the clauses of McElwain’s contract states that he can be fired for cause for “any failure by the coach to respond accurately and fully within a reasonable time to any reasonable request and/or inquiry relating to the performance of the coach’s duties relating to this agreement…” Conceivably, McElwain’s refusal to elaborate when asked by his boss about the death threat claim could constitute such a failure. But that might be dicey for Florida. Given McElwain’s high profile and fan anger over the Gators’ lack of recent success, it probably wouldn’t be that difficult for McElwain or agent Jimmy Sexton’s team to dig up something awful someone wrote to McElwain or a family member on social media prior to this past Monday.
If Florida officials don’t find a valid reason, they have a few options should they choose to make a change.
• They can simply pay the buyout, which rose to $12.5 million when McElwain received an extension this past offseason. It drops to $10 million next year.
• They can offer to forgive the amount McElwain would owe ($3 million) if he broke the contract and took another job. That would require McElwain to have another job lined up, and it also would require him to be willing to walk away from a potential $12.5 million payday.
• The two sides could negotiate a buyout somewhere between the $0 Florida would like to pay and the $12.5 McElwain’s side would like to get. Florida officials leaking that they might try to fire McElwain for cause could be the opening salvo in such a negotiation.
No matter what happens, it could happen quickly. After this past week, reconciliation between the Gators and McElwain seems impossible.