The SUV carrying former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley through Fort Collins, Colorado, pulled up to Jim McElwain’s front door at almost the same time that Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett was taking his spot in front of a room full of reporters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dec. 2, 2014, was shaping up to be a turning point type of day for two of the country’s top college football brands.
Hackett was about to deliver the news that Brady Hoke was no longer in charge of the Wolverines. Foley was beginning one of the more conspicuous head coach hiring processes in recent memory. By the end of the month McElwain and Jim Harbaugh were the head coaches at Florida and Michigan.
The two Jims represented a promising, clean slate for programs that had fallen from the upper echelon of the sport. If done properly, both had the potential to recruit, reorganize and rebuild quickly at their new jobs. A year before they arrived, the two schools agreed to play each other at ATT Stadium in Texas to open what was then the distant 2017 season. The parallels between them made that game an interesting focal point for what lay ahead. Could both teams return to their former previous championship form by then? Who was in better shape to rebound? That winter among the fan bases and those inside each athletic department it was easy to pinpoint the future meeting between two proud schools in similar circumstances and wonder: “Where will we stand then?”
Then has arrived. And with less than a week before Florida and Michigan meet to start McElwain and Harbaugh’s third seasons, neither team has provided a crystal-clear answer to those questions. An important season lies ahead for both groups and it’s a tempting, neatly packaged narrative to see Saturday’s meeting as an indicator of how far each has come and where each is headed.
That would be a mistake.
The season opener isn’t likely to bring any more clarity to the long-term trajectory of these two teams than the first time their paths crossed under Harbaugh and McElwain. After both teams suffered bad losses to rivals to close out their coaches’ first season, they were pitted against each other in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. Michigan won 41-7 against a Florida team that didn’t show much interest in playing during the second half.
“Let’s just call it the way it was a couple years ago: They physically dominated us,” McElwain said when asked about that game last week. “There’s no doubt about it. … At some point in everybody’s life, there’s a time to say, ‘I don’t care about anything else, but I’m not going to quit.'”
Harbaugh and McElwain have both made demonstrable progress since then, but in different ways their improvements seems slightly hollow or at least give onlookers reasons to remains suspicious.
The Gators have won back-to-back East Division titles under McElwain. That’s an unprecedented feat for a coach in his first two years leading an SEC program. Those wins, though, have come without solving some of the same problems that vexed Florida under Muschamp. The offense is still well below average (23.9 and 23.2 points per game in the past two seasons) and searching for a difference-maker at quarterback. When Florida loses, it typically loses definitively — two blowout losses to national championship contenders Florida State and Alabama apiece and, of course, the Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan come to mind.
Michigan, on the other hand, finished last season ranked No. 11 in points scored and No. 2 in points allowed in the FBS. To the naked eye, the Wolverines have been a clearly stronger, deeper, more capable team than the 5-7 unit that Harbaugh and his staff inherited. Yet that improvement has netted them an 0-2 record against rival Ohio State and a virtually empty trophy case.
Like in Florida, there are reasons to believe that turnaround is well underway in Ann Arbor. There are also reasons to reserve some doubt, especially after missing an opportunity with a lineup stocked with NFL prospects last fall.
Harbaugh’s penchant for rocking the boat (trips to Rome, satellite camps, etc.) has raised the bar for what the general football-watching public sees as ends that sufficiently justify his means. The latest addition to that category is the team’s refusal to release a roster until three days before kickoff. McElwain even got in on the fun last week, jabbing Harbaugh by telling reporters, “When you get the roster, let me know. Maybe I can figure out who we’re playing.”
McElwain’s comments, his harmless promise to beat Michigan at a pep rally and a trail of suspensions have kept Florida in the national headlines as much as the Wolverines in August. Couple that with the Gators bringing in Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire for an ongoing, three-way quarterback battle and there has been no shortage of interest in both of these teams heading into Saturday afternoon.
So it’s natural to hype the game at ATT Stadium as a proving ground for both sides of this non-conference match-up. It’d be easy to declare the winner as a team ready to remove doubt in 2017 and the loser as a team on a path to confirm the suspicions of its shortcomings. Those arguments in one form or another will probably be made in the aftermath of Saturday’s game. They just aren’t likely to be very true.
Michigan — with an abundance of first-time starters and freshmen making their debuts on Saturday — will be a different team by the time it faces Penn State and Ohio State and gets a chance to climb from the No. 3 spot in the treacherous Big Ten East. Florida, with its list of suspended players and an unclear picture at quarterback, is also a team that will inevitably evolve as the season goes on.
“I wouldn’t say a decider of our season, but it’ll show us what we’re working with,” senior fullback Khalid Hill said. “We lost a lot of guys and depth as a team. The younger guys are rowdy and they want to get out there. I believe in them. … I think we’re ready.”
Saturday in Texas is a big game in the sense that any game when teams like Michigan and Florida meet it’s a big game. Teams trying to climb upward into a conversation for conference championships and playoff bids aren’t afforded many second-chances and the loser will start the year with its back firmly planted against the wall. But the bigger picture of which of these programs has come further since hitting the reset button at essentially the same time will take longer reveal itself. If clarity hasn’t come for either team in since that Dec. 2 three years ago, it won’t arrive in a single night on a neutral field on Sept. 2.