For two historically great programs, it is surprisingly surprising that Michigan and Florida are having the kind of success that they are this season. After spending the last few seasons in a dungeon of mediocrity, coaching changes at each school have thus far brought back the kind of winning and dominance generally associated with each program. However, most experts or random college columnist such as myself, did not see this kind of progress coming so quickly, as both teams were left out of both preseason polls, and many predicted it would take at least a couple years to return back to relevance. Yet, maybe we really should have seen the turnaround Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines and Jim McElwain’s Gators are in the midst of this year, as there were plenty of potential signs that pointed in that direction for each program.
Believe it or not, recruiting is an important indicator of on-field success in college football, and not too recently, both Florida and Michigan were ranked in the top five in national recruiting, per Rivals.com. By not too recently, I mean 2013. That’s right, just a mere two years ago, Florida and Michigan were toward the top of the recruiting rankings, and the year before that, both were once again in the top 10. Former Florida coach and ticking time-bomb Will Muschamp did say “There are a lot of good football players sitting down there.” While Muschamp did a lot of wrong at his time in Gainesville, he certainly seems to be right about that, as the current Gators team is full of players he recruited. Harbaugh’s Michigan also is not bereft of talent as former coach Brady Hoke did manage to reel in top ten classes in 2012 and 2013. So contrary to belief, both programs had the talent on hand, they just needed a new leader on the sideline.
Enter Harbaugh and McElwain. While Harbaugh clearly had the more proven track record, McElwain was exactly the kind of coach Florida needed. As I mentioned earlier, Muschamp did not do a lot right, but he did manage to string together some very solid defenses during his time. However, it was the disastrous offense that led to his eventual demise, and it seems that McElwain is the perfect antidote for that. McElwain was the brains behind the solid offenses of the early Nick Saban era at Alabama, where he coordinated the Tide’s offense during Saban’s first championship. His reward was the head job at Colorado State, where he engineered another offensive turnaround that had the Rams ranked in the polls during his last season with the team. So it really should not come as much of a surprise that Florida’s turnaround as a team can also be associated with its transformation on offense. While not the explosive attack of the Tebow era, McElwain had tutored Will Grier into a very competent quarterback, who until his recent suspension was playing very well, especially in a monumental upset against No. 3 Ole Miss. With the talent still present on defense, a complementary offense was all the Gators needed to get back to relevance, and McElwain provided that.
Michigan on the other hand needed more than just offense. It needed a coach who actually wore a headset on the sideline. Harbaugh, wildly successful at every one of his previous stops, has continued that trend by instilling a new brand of toughness and discipline at Michigan that has the team on a three-game shutout streak. It really should come as no surprise that Harbaugh is able to get this much out of the immense talent that was left over.
Thus far, Florida and Michigan have been two of the biggest surprises of the season, but the season is still young. Both teams have potentially program-defining matchups this weekend, with Florida visiting LSU and Michigan welcoming “little brother” Michigan State. So while both seem to have regained their footing in the college football world, this weekend will go a long way in determining if both programs are truly back on their feet for good.
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