For Florida AD Scott Stricklin, there are a couple of obvious choices to replace Jim McElwain.
The No. 1 guy is a no-brainer in Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen. The coach, who’s in his ninth year in Starkville, has brought consistent success at a program with little history of it. Stricklin was hired by Florida from MSU one year ago, so the two have a previously successful work relationship.
Mullen has ties to Florida as well, serving as Florida’s offensive coordinator from 2005-08 with Urban Meyer, and the two brought two national titles to Gainesville.
The next is currently about a two-hour drive from Gainesville, in second-year UCF head coach Scott Frost. Frost has led the Knights to a 7-0 start this season, and his team is the prime candidate to earn a New Year’s Six bowl bid come December.
The Knights are currently first in the nation in scoring offense. Frost was Oregon’s wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator from 2009-15, and his ties to Nebraska have made him the No. 1 candidate for that job, should it open.
But there’s a third guy Stricklin should have in that top group: Ducks HC Willie Taggart.
The Central Florida native is in his first season in Eugene, his team going 5-4 so far after a 4-8 2016.
Prior, he spent four seasons as USF’s head coach, where he led the Bulls to their most wins in school history (11) last season and consecutive bowl berths. He built a flexible offensive juggernaut that switched on the fly from a complex pro-style to an up-tempo spread, featuring a roster made up of in-state recruits:
In their iteration of the spread, USF wants to move at tempo, but with exactly enough time to shift and motion at the line, just like it’s noon on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Then the receivers, using Baylor’s famously wide alignments, can take their DBs — and themselves — out of the play completely, if needed.
The result challenges your best defender to tackle someone out of a motioning backfield in open space. That’s where 40-yard plays are born, not from a big pile on the line.
And with a roster from the talented Sunshine State, USF likes those odds. If you can’t stop them, or if you bring in help on QB run reads, Flowers has at least one deep option on every play in one-on-one coverage, where the Bulls will again gladly challenge best on best.
Each play call is everything your grumpy, Big Ten dad loves and hates about college football, at the exact same time.
There aren’t many coaches better suited to putting together a staff that can recruit Florida
His first Oregon class, after just a few weeks on the job, included seven solid signees from the Sunshine State, and his 2018 class includes three Florida four-stars, some impressive gets for a program on the other side of the country. The plan at Oregon is to recruit nationally, but Taggart’s already entrenched in Florida:
“Can we get some Geto Boys?" [assistant Mario] Cristobal asks without looking up from his chart.
He’s referencing a group from Texas. Notably missing from Oregon’s class: Texas and talent-rich cities in SEC and Big Ten territories. Taggart’s abbreviated transition class bookends with seven Floridians and 11 Californians.
"Could’ve been even better with even a few more days," Taggart says.
"The strategy is that we’re gonna recruit California hard. We’re coming to California. And we’re gonna recruit Texas hard. But we’re always gonna recruit Florida. And Georgia. Those are football states. We’re gonna recruit football states. So we’re gonna recruit for Oregon in Ohio. I haven’t seen a limit yet to this brand, so we’re going.”
And how about offensive improvement, which McElwain struggled to do in Gainesville, despite being hired to fix that?
At USF, that was Taggart’s specialty:
He’s in the business of scoring points, and for USF, business has been good. The Bulls have been around the top 10 in scoring offense all year, averaging better than 40 points per game. The advanced stat S&P+ also sees a top-10 unit, so it’s not just a matter of the Bulls playing non-power defenses in the American Athletic Conference.
USF’s offensive improvement under Taggart has been fairly remarkable. The Bulls were 106th in scoring offense the year before Taggart arrived, then 122nd and 119th in his first two years. They jumped to 41st in 2015, and now they’re elite.
Before USF, Taggart took WKU to its first FBS postseason appearance ever.
He set up the program that eventual Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm would turn into a 10-game winner. With Charlie Strong now coaching Taggart’s USF roster through an AAC title run of its own, it’s clear Taggart can not only win games, he can establish a program that can win for the long haul.
Not to mention, Taggart’s Oregon buyout would make him relatively inexpensive
He’s set at $3 million, per FootballScoop. Florida reportedly will pay McElwain just $4 million of his previous $12.9 million, so paying a total of just $7 million to get your guy and pay off your old one would be a steal. Taggart would also command a raise over the $2.9 million salary he makes at Oregon, but Florida was paying McElwain north of $4 million a year anyway.
When Florida hired McElwain from Colorado State in December of 2014, his buyout agreement was pretty hefty, meaning UF could theoretically hire a Power 5 coach for less in buyout money than it paid to a mid-major:
The $2 million guarantee is part of the $7 million buyout agreement that McElwain, Florida, and Colorado State reached last December. In addition to the payment for the game, Florida is paying Colorado State $3 million in installments over the next six years — money the Rams are using to pay cost of attendance stipends for their athletes — and McElwain agreed to pay $2 million to CSU.
A guy with previous head coaching experience at a high level, attaining offensive success, and the ability to recruit the state of Florida: Taggart checks all of the biggest boxes the Gators’ next hire needs to fill.
While it would be surprising for Taggart to jump ship after less than a year in Eugene, if I were Stricklin, I would at least give the head coach a call.