Virtually every college football coach I’ve ever come across is enamored with aphorisms, and so it is with Florida’s first-year coach Jim McElwain, who has embraced a mantra he calls “Restore the Order.”
I understand where McElwain is coming from; I understand what he’s going for here, and on the level of attempting to motivate teenagers and twentysomethings with short institutional memories, this makes perfect sense. But what this also depends upon is a recognition that there is order in college football in the first place. And if you look at the big picture of a sport that is in an unprecedented state of flux, there really isn’t.
In the short term, in regard to Florida, McElwain’s slogan is logical: The Gators were once an elite Southeastern Conference program under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, and the team McElwain inherited had been Muschamped into a near-unrecognizable pulp by his genial but often inept predecessor, who couldn’t seem to figure out how to generate any sort of passable method of actually scoring points. McElwain appears to have already begun solving that conundrum, and last week the Gators scored one of the most shocking blowouts of the season, housing previously undefeated Ole Miss 38-10.
In that game, Florida’s flu-ridden quarterback, Will Grier, had almost as many touchdown passes (four) as he did incompletions (five); Grier’s passer rating (206.8) was the second-highest by any Florida quarterback against an FBS opponent in the modern era. And so Florida is 5-0 heading into this weekend, and the Gators would appear to be the team to beat in the SEC’s East Division, except for the fact that we still really have no idea how good Florida actually is, or whether Florida has really restored much of anything yet.
I could go on here, and I could act like I know for certain how good Florida might be at this point in the season, but I’ll be honest: I really have no idea. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Gators blasted Missouri on Saturday; it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost by two touchdowns. That’s why this is shaping up to be one of the greatest football seasons in recent memory: Because there is no order. Every major conference is rife with question marks. In the SEC alone, it’s becoming increasingly possible that no team will escape with fewer than two losses: The most dominant team to date other than Florida has been LSU, which still has an upcoming game against the Gators at home, as well as dates with Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. The other undefeated SEC team, Texas A&M, plays Alabama next weekend, and then gets Ole Miss and LSU on the road.
And so, all due respect to McElwain’s intentions, what makes college football great is that in the long term, it is not meant to be orderly. Let us not forget that Florida’s football program was largely mediocre for decades (wherefore art thou, Galen Hall?) before Spurrier revived it in the 1990s; let us not forget that the University of Texas was once the dominant football program in its state, and may be again someday, but there is no doubt that the order in Texas is in more in flux than it’s ever been.
So maybe Florida is as good as it seems to be so far, and maybe it isn’t. But the thing that makes college football great is that as much as you might try to impose order, it manages to resist, and to shift, and to morph into something entirely unpredictable. That’s why ESPN’s College GameDay finds itself setting up shop at a Cal-Utah contest this weekend; that’s why the Gators are here, in a place where no one expected them to get to this quickly. In order to restore the order, they first had to impose chaos.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb