Harbaugh, McElwain Face Similar Challenges in Year One

There are a number of new faces at prominent Big Ten programs this year, with Mike Riley now at Nebraska and Paul Chryst at Wisconsin, but the loudest noise made this offseason came out of Ann Arbor as former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh tries to right that ship.

In the nation’s most talked about conference, the SEC, there is only one new face on the sidelines, and that’s Jim McElwain at Florida. While it’s safe to say that fans in Gainesville aren’t as excited for McElwain as fans in Michigan are for Harbaugh, the two coaches will face similar challenges in their first seasons at new schools.

While Florida and Michigan have each gone 12-13 over the last two years, their arch-rivals have managed to stay at or near the top of the college football world. Michigan’s hatred for Ohio State is well documented as is Florida’s for Florida State, but over the last three years, no two programs have had more success than the Buckeyes and the Seminoles.

Ohio State and FSU are a combined 77-6 since 2012 with two combined perfect seasons, four combined conference titles and the last two national championships. For Michigan and Florida to gain respectability from their biggest rivals, they’ll have to compete with the nation’s best.

GAINESVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 06:  Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain speaks during an introductory press conference on December 6, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. McElwain has left Colorado State and replaces ex-Florida coach Will Muschamp who was fired earlier this season.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

GAINESVILLE, FL – DECEMBER 06: Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain speaks during an introductory press conference on December 6, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. McElwain has left Colorado State and replaces ex-Florida coach Will Muschamp who was fired earlier this season. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

Each coach finished strong on the recruiting trail, but there remains a lot of work to be done. McElwain actually turned in a top 25 class despite being on the job for just a couple months, but the biggest question at each school will be quarterback.

At Florida, Will Grier is expected to battle incumbent Treon Harris for the starting job. Harris averaged a solid 9.2 yards-per-attempt last season, but completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes on 111 attempts. Grier has yet to appear in a game for the Gators, but is said to have more upside.

Shane Morris hopes to finally get his chance to shine after an up-and-down career from former high school All-American Devin Gardner. Morris has a big arm, but went just 14-for-40 passing last season. The likely choice to start is Iowa transfer Jake Rudock.

With the effectiveness in the passing game in question, Michigan will likely rely heavily on backs De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Ty Isaac. Florida may need to do likewise with Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane.

The strength for each team appears to be the defense, as each allowed just an average of 311 yards-per-game last season. Devin Fowler may be gone for Florida, but Antonio Morrison is stellar at linebacker, and Vernon Hargreaves III headlines perhaps the SEC’s best secondary with Marcus Maye and Brian Poole.

Michigan will have to find a way to replace linebacker Jake Ryan and its top two sack leaders, but the linebacker tandem of James Ross III and Joe Bolden is a good one. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis returns as well after leading the team in pass break-ups and interceptions last season.

Harbaugh and McElwain will each be given a grace period as new men on the job, but with arch-rivals Ohio State and FSU climbing to the college football pinnacle over the last two years, that grace period will be small.

The good news for McElwain is reclaiming that state of Florida has almost always led to bigger championships, whether it was the Gators, Seminoles, or Miami Hurricanes. While Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is currently on top of the world, the same could have been said for Pete Carroll at USC before Harbaugh came to Stanford. Harbaugh is well aware that coaches that can’t beat Ohio State won’t stay last long in Michigan. Just ask Rich Rodriguez.

About Mike Ferguson

Mike Ferguson is a Bloguin contributor, the editor of Noled Out and a lifetime Florida State sports enthusiast. Mike vividly remembers watching Warrick Dunn run down the sideline in Gainesville in 1993, the "Choke at Doak" in 1994 and Monte Cummings' driving layup to beat #1 Duke in 2002. Mike has worked as a sports reporter in both print and online. For isportsweb in 2013, Mike gave press coverage of Florida State football's run to the 2013 national championship. Mike has been featured on SI.com, FoxSports.com and Yahoo Sports while interviewing major sports stars such as 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. Mike graduated from Florida State University in 2009 with a major in Religion and a minor in Communications. Mike currently resides in Haines City, Florida with his wife Jennifer and daughters Trinity and Greenly. Mike is a full-time reporter at Polk County's newspaper, The Ledger, in Lakeland, Florida. Mike can be followed on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.

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