It felt like a renaissance, a return to glory for the Gators.
It was October 3, 2015. Florida was routing Ole Miss 38-10 on a Saturday night in the Swamp.
Florida fans were teased with a return to greatness a week prior, when Antonio Callaway scored a 63-yard touchdown on fourth and 14 with under two minutes left to beat Tennessee.
But now this felt like the real deal. The Rebels had seemed unbeatable in 2015; they were 4-0 and beat Alabama by double digits in Tuscaloosa.
Though, they were now being taught a lesson by a team that had only won seven games the previous season.
Jim McElwain’s hiring 10 months prior had certainly raised some eyebrows, but on this Saturday evening, it seemed like he would join the ranks of Spurrier and Meyer in leading UF to its next dynasty.
But two seasons later, it was all over. The Gators had one of their worst seasons in program history, and McElwain was filing for unemployment.
Now, there are many reasons why McElwain’s reign at Florida ended when it did, but maybe one of the biggest traces back to just nine days after that throttling of Ole Miss.
On Oct. 12, 2015, it was revealed that quarterback Will Grier had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The NCAA suspended him for a year, and in December, Grier left the program, ultimately transferring to West Virginia.
But what if Grier never got suspended? Do Grier and McElwain rank up there with Spurrier and Wuerffel or Meyer and Tebow as one of the greatest quarterback-head-coach combos in Florida history?
Looking back at it now, that seems like a ridiculous question, but it isn’t so far-fetched.
Let us start when the North Carolina product got suspended. It came at probably the worst time for Florida: right before its biggest game of the season at No. 6 LSU.
In real life, UF and new starter Treon Harris played admirably against the Bayou Bengals, leading at halftime, but eventually came up short against Leonard Fournette and Co. in a 35-28 loss.
If Grier was in the game, though, I think he is talented enough to pull Florida past an LSU team that only finished 9-3 with an appearance in the Texas Bowl.
The next few weeks with Grier at the helm would be smooth sailing. There would be no two-point wins over Vanderbilt. Overtime wouldn’t be needed to defeat Florida Atlantic.
And then, on Thanksgiving weekend in front of the largest crowd the Swamp has ever seen, it wouldn’t put up two points against FSU. It would beat the Seminoles and finish a perfect regular season.
So, I know you are laughing hysterically reading this. I know it seems inconceivable that a team led by McElwain would finish the regular season undefeated.
But I don’t think one can overstate the difference between Grier and Harris. Despite starting two fewer games, Grier threw more touchdowns than his successor and more yards per game. His passer rating was nearly 30 points higher.
Looking at the season splits, UF’s passing numbers go down from month to month as Harris’ play got worse and worse.
So yes, is it a little bold to say Grier automatically wins Florida two more games against good teams? Yes, it is but it certainly isn’t unthinkable.
I still think Florida would lose in Atlanta to an excellent Alabama team, but I think they keep it much closer than the 29-15 loss that, in reality, was much worse.
The one-loss Gators could have made a claim that they deserved to be in the CFP, but I think they get beaten out by the other one-loss teams who were conference champions, after all.
Despite missing out on the playoff, Florida goes to New Orleans as the next best SEC team and defeats a less-talented Oklahoma State team in the Sugar Bowl to finish 13-1, the best season since No. 15 was calling the shots.
Instead of an offseason of worry after getting bulldozed by Michgian in the Sugar Bowl, it is an offseason of optimism after the best season in years.
In 2016, UF’s schedule was slightly more difficult, with road games at top-15 opponents such as Tennessee and FSU, but even with a slip up in the regular season (and another SEC Championship loss to Alabama), Florida’s season is still drastically better than the dismay that the 2016 season was in reality, a season where Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio started games and it lost to FSU and ‘Bama by a combined 56 points.
It is up for debate whether Grier would have left for the NFL Draft or come back in 2017.
After two seasons starting at WVU, Grier was picked in the third round in 2019. If he stayed at Florida, his stock probably would have stayed the same. His numbers would have been worse, but he would have done it against SEC defenses. However he would have finished with way more collegiate success.
It is also up for discussion whether, if he did leave, if McElwain would have been able to keep a sufficient offense, but there is one thing for sure: No matter how bad the 2017 season was, McElwain would not have gotten fired at season's end.
That means that Dan Mullen would have not been hired when he was. Now, who knows, maybe McElwain gets fired a year later, and Mullen becomes the coach then.
But once again, one thing is for certain, if Grier doesn’t get suspended, then the 2015 and 2016 squads aren’t looked at as mediocre teams who feasted on an awful SEC East, but as some of the best this program has ever seen.
Follow Noah on Twitter @Noah_ram1 and contact him at [email protected]