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Way too early Top-25 that doesn’t include Florida is short-sighted

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As soon as Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa’s pass was caught by DeVonta Smith – perhaps ushering in a time in college football when the Tide will have a special QB to finally pair with its dominant defense – ESPN had it’s Way-Too-Early Top-25 article for 2018 loaded up.

Florida isn’t in that Top-25.

That’s not a huge surprise with Florida coming off of a 4-7 season where everything went wrong. But ironically that may be one reason to expect a bounce back season from the Gators.

An offseason that started with promise on the recruiting trail ended with a thud as star wide receiver Antonio Callaway was cited for marijuana possession, senior safety Marcell Harris tore his Achilles, and then Callaway and starting running back Jordan Scarlett (among others) were suspended for their apparent participation in a credit card fraud scheme.

Regardless of the injuries and suspensions, no Gators team should ever go 4-7. Of course, that’s why Jim McElwain is no longer the head coach in Gainesville, ushering in the Dan Mullen era.

When you read Schlabach’s article, you’ll notice a lot of familiar names. That’s because there are only 5 teams that did not finish in this year’s AP poll who are included. But based on recent history, that number should be doubled.

In 2015 there were 10 teams who finished ranked in the AP poll and didn’t finish ranked in 2016. There were another 10 teams who finished ranked in the 2016 AP poll who didn’t make the cut this season.

Most of the new additions come low in the polls. But Notre Dame – coming off a 4-8 season in 2016 – finished ranked 11 in 2017. While this is likely a stretch for the 2018 Gators, I do think there is reason to be optimistic about this upcoming season.

Tying coaching performance to recruiting

It’s easy to see now that Georgia made the right decision switching from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart. Not only did Georgia make the playoff final in 2017, but Smart has proven to be a recruiting dynamo.

But it doesn’t take too long of a Google search to see that there were plenty of people pointing out how risky it was to move on from Richt to Kirby Smart in 2016. After all, many of Nick Saban’s assistants had struggled to replicate his success. And Richt had been pretty successful at Georgia.

But as a Florida fan, I loved Richt being at Georgia. Multiple times Florida went into Jacksonville as the inferior team – based on record – and came out victorious. Never was this more apparent than the 38-20 Gators victory in 2014 when Treon Harris only had to throw the ball 6 times.

But what was it about Richt that made me so comfortable with having him as head coach in Athens?

I’ve written repeatedly about comparing final AP poll rankings to recruiting rankings. The takeaway is that you can look at how a coach’s team ranks in the poll for a 4-year period and his finish in the national recruiting rankings over the same time period and the difference between the two tells you something about his coaching ability.

But not every team finishes each year in the AP poll. Thus, I’ve switched from using the AP poll to using ESPN’s football power index (FPI), which ranks all FBS teams each season.

What the chart below shows is the average national recruiting ranking and the average final FPI ranking for teams that finished in the top-25 of the college football playoff ranking. So for teams that finished in the top-25 in 2014, I’ve looked at recruiting and FPI finish from 2011-2014.

National recruiting average vs. average FPI ranking for 4 years prior to a top-25 finish in the college football playoff rankings. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

The correlation is pretty clear. Those teams that recruit well finish near the same spot in the FPI. Just as with any data set, there are some teams that finish well above their recruiting rank and some that finish below.

Interestingly, it turns out that this metric is a good way to predict who might get fired. Butch Jones came into 2017 with an average recruiting ranking of 12.5 but an average FPI finish of 29. Tennessee fell apart and Jeremy Pruitt is the new head coach. The difference of 16.5 for Jones indicated that while he was a good recruiter, he just couldn’t turn that into performance on the field.

For some coaches, the separation isn’t as easy to identify. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly has alternated seasons ranked 28-32 in the FPI with seasons ranked 7-13 for the past eight seasons. However, he has recruited consistently with an average national recruiting ranking of 11.9. But that has only translated to an average FPI ranking of 19.9, indicating that one more year with an FPI in the 30-range will end his time in South Bend.

And that’s what happened to Richt as well. He recruited at an elite level, with an average national ranking from 2005-2015 of 7.5. But his teams had an average FPI ranking of 15.5. The problem is that top-15 finishes aren’t so bad that the fan base could support getting rid of Richt early.

But I believe that separation between recruiting and play on the field is why Georgia couldn’t take over the SEC East while Tennessee and Florida struggled. Now that Smart has taken over, not only has he bumped recruiting to new levels, but he’s winning on the field with many of Richt’s players at a level Richt just couldn’t.

Application of this principle to Florida

So what does this have to do with Florida?

Well, I outlined earlier in the week how new head coach Dan Mullen’s start to recruiting at Florida looks eerily similar to Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp and is a welcome departure from the recruiting of Jim McElwain. But the problem with that is obvious. Muschamp and Zook didn’t win enough.

Average national recruiting average vs. average FPI finish for Florida coaches since 2002. *Zook uses coaches poll as FPI only goes to 2005 (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

It turns out if we use the same recruiting vs. FPI metric for those coaches, the reason why becomes obvious. On a national recruiting ranking perspective, Zook, Meyer and Muschamp were virtually identical. However, from a FPI perspective, only Meyer could get those recruits to live up to their promise coming in.

McElwain turned out to be even more extreme, not because he performed any worse on the field than Zook or Muschamp by this metric. Instead it was because he struggled in recruiting and couldn’t maximize the talent he did have. The combination of both go a long way towards explaining why McElwain lost the fan base in his third year.

And this is where Dan Mullen’s track record is really encouraging. With a program that has historically struggled to compete nationally at Mississippi State, he averaged a national recruiting ranking of 26.8, impressive on its own. But he also averaged an FPI finish of 30.6.

The inference is clear. Mullen can take players of a certain ability and get them to perform up to that ability. This is critical as he moves to Florida and begins bringing in elite players. It suggests that if Florida can bring in top-3 recruiting classes, it will again be a top-3 program on the field as well.

The same pattern appears over and over again. Saban is always in the playoff because he almost always has the top recruiting class nationally (1.0 recruiting, 1.3 FPI average). From 2011-2015 under Al Golden, Miami has averaged a recruiting ranking of 19.2 with an FPI average of 39.6. Urban Meyer has gone from his success at Florida to show the exact same performance at Ohio State (3.8 recruiting, 6.2 FPI).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh may be the best comparison to Mullen. Harbaugh showed off his coaching chops at Stanford (36.0 recruiting, 33.8 FPI) at an institution that has traditionally struggled to compete with the big boys. He has continued that trend at Michigan, as the on-field performance has matched his recruiting metrics (16.7 recruiting, 14.0 FPI).

Harbaugh receives a lot of criticism for not winning the Big 10 or beating Ohio State, but it’s easy to see why when you see the separation of the recruiting rankings between the two teams. This was caused primarily by a 37th ranked class in 2015 that likely caused some of Michigan’s struggles in 2017. That class will be supplemented with a top-10 class in 2018 and I would expect Michigan to be back in the national conversation next season.

If you believe me that Harbaugh is a good comparison for Mullen, then that is really promising for Florida. He took over a Michigan team that ranked 44th in FPI in 2014 and immediately improved them to 15th in 2015. Florida was ranked 50th in FPI in 2017 under McElwain and Randy Shannon.

What does this mean for Florida in 2018

McElwain was not an elite recruiter. But he wasn’t fantastic at turning the talent he did have – at least according to this metric – into production on the field either. Yes, he won the SEC East twice, but he did it while fielding teams that were ranked 29 and 22 in the FPI in 2015 and 2016.

There were 7 other SEC teams ranked above the Gators in 2015 and 5 in 2016. Florida was lucky to be in the East and its success in close games drove the Gators ability to put up good win/loss records. Once the luck in close games ended in 2017, the whole thing came crashing down.

It’s depressing just rehashing all that, but it does hold some promise. Namely that if we assume that Mullen will pull in a class ranked 12th nationally in 2018, the past 4 Gator’s recruiting classes will have an average national rank of 14.0. And as discussed above, Mullen appears much more capable of getting the talent to perform on the field.

This all comes with the caveat that many of the players that McElwain recruited may not fit Mullen’s system and so there will likely be some growing pains. And I get why nobody trusts the Gators at this point. After spending the past 9 years searching for a QB who can just be competent or drug-free with no success, skepticism makes sense.

But Mullen just doesn’t deserve that kind of skepticism. I started out luke-warm on the hire because I just figured that if he was really that good, Florida’s then Athletic Director Jeremy Foley would have gone to get him when Meyer left.

But every time I look to poke a hole in Mullen’s resume, it shines back at me. What he did at Mississippi State – in the toughest division in college football is really impressive. In the same timeframe (2011-2017) Muschamp and McElwain were posting recruiting rankings of 10.0 and FPI rankings of 28.1, Mullen was compiling a recruiting ranking of 24 and an FPI ranking of 19.

I do believe that Florida made the correct decision to move on from the McElwain era. But the idea that McElwain left Florida devoid of talent is just not factually accurate. As much as people – including myself – have criticized the recent recruiting class rankings, this team still has top-15 talent.

And that’s why I’m confident in Florida’s ability to outperform expectations in 2018. Mullen has shown an ability to get the talent he has on the field play like the talent that was recruited. That reflects well on his ability to implement a first-class strength program, play to his players’ strengths on the field and upgrade talent where necessary in year one.

I don’t believe Florida is ready to compete with Alabama and Georgia talent-wise. But the schedule in 2018 is fairly easy. There will only be 4 teams that Florida does not have a distinct talent advantage over: Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Florida State. Every other game Florida should win if the Gators play up to its talent level.

That means 8-4 if Florida can’t pull out any of those games. But there are questions around the teams with more talent that provide reasons to be optimistic Florida will be able to get at least one:

  • Is Willie Taggart going to struggle early at FSU following a national championship coach?
  • Is Jeremy Pruitt another Muschamp or McElwain? Or is he another Smart?
  • Is Ed Orgeron going to be suffer for getting rid of offensive coordinator Matt Canada?

None of this guarantees success for Florida. It wouldn’t surprise me if Florida finishes just outside of the top-25.

But I don’t think we can underestimate the upgrade from McElwain to Mullen. Mullen not only has a track record of developing QBs, he has a track record of getting the most out of his talent.

There were 6 teams with 4 or more losses in the final AP poll this season. We can expect 10 teams that weren’t in the poll at the end of 2017 to end up in the poll at the end of 2018.

Florida will be one of those teams.

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12 Comments

  1. Jeff Brown

    In regard to your comment about Foley not hiring Mullen before…
    Foley’s track record for hiring football coaches is abysmal!

    Just need to get recruiting. I think this staff is shaping up nicely.
    Need some OL’s to really start competing imo.

  2. Gary taft

    Will great article keep them coming love reading your takes and hearing you on gators breakdown Go Gators

  3. Sean Hankins

    Good stuff Will. I think with the talent we have we will be in the top 25. Depending how the QB production plays out we might be a lot bette than we think.

  4. Gator Miami

    Gators’ top competition in 2018 doesn’t include Vols
    1. UGA. 2.MSU. 3.LSU. 4.FSU….. Noles will be pick it at their place. Vols have ZERO offense. SC better. MIZ too.

  5. Ken Tillery

    Another fantastic breakdown! I look forward to your next brilliant article.

  6. thetebowcurse

    I don’t think you have a clue, Mr. Miles. Stats arer meaningless, and looking at stas, like you are fond of, are just for folks that don’t understand football. Stats, as Spurrier said, are for losers. I listened to your nonsense about how you think Mullen is a “greatr” coach. I don’t need stats to know that is wrong, because I have watched Mississippi State play, and Mullen NEVER impressed me. You come up with a lot of meaningless stats, but I wonder if you actually watch games? It’s not “shortsighted” to have UF unranked. They were 4-7 last year. 4-7! Does that even register in your feeble mind? UF returns a whole lot of starters. But, is that a good thing when they were 4-7? Ivey and Jefferson return, but is that a good thing? Both of them have not come close to living up to their 5 star ranking out of high school. UF, for the first time in, proabaly decades, had NO One that was first team All-SEC. I know about the guys that kick the ball, so I’m talking about the real football players that play offense and defense.
    UF STILL doesn’t have ANYONE that has been a competent QB on a college football field. Jones is just the latest hyped guy, and I think he’s not going to be any different from the slew of top prospects that have played since the departure of Tebow.
    Do you also know that Mississippi SAtate also lost to BYU the same year they lost to South Alabama? You may not know it, but BYU hasn’t been a good team for many years. I hear your excuse about Mississippi State not having the smae talent level….blah, blah, blah, as an excuse for Mullen’s record. But, isn’t it true that Mississippi State’s talent is FAR superior to South Alabama or BYU? I’ll remind you that that happened in 2016!
    I just think you’re delusional, like the silly reasons you gave for predicting UF would beat FSU this year. FSU dominated UF, again!
    Here’s a prediction for you. I predict that Tennessee will thank it’s lucky stars that UF beat them out for Dan Mullen. I predict that Pruitt will domiante Mullen. Maybe not the first year, but very, very quickly. My advice to you is to get your head out of stat book, you’ll never learn anything tyhere. Watch real games! That’s the only way to learn. By the way, it’s not yards, or any other stat that determines who wins or loses. It’s the final score. One of the most ludicrous stats you trot out, and is proof that you don’t have a clue, it the aggregate scoring margin whe4n comparing teams. That’s just dumb, and doesn’t mean ANYTHING! Gte your head out of your ass and watch, instead of adding up meaningless numbers. You might actually learn something, instead of coming up with something as silly as calling Dan Mullen a “great” coach or it being an “oversight” to not rank a team that was 4-7.
    I just wonde if you have ever thought about why dan Mullen was stuck in Starkville for NINE years? I can assure you it wasn’t because he didn’t try to leave for better places.

  7. thetebowcurse

    P.S. Didn’t you also preach about how “great” Jim McElwain was, right up until the day he was fired? Something about winning close games…? I gues squeking by, in overtime, Florida Atlantic, is something that impressed you. After all, it was a “close” game, wasn’t it? What you never figured out is that it was not a credit to be involved in so many close games in the first place when UF should have easily won. But that’s a little over your head, isn’t it?

    • Will Miles

      Objectively, McElwain was an excellent in-game coach in years 1 and 2, and I don’t think his record in close games is a coincidence. However, the separation in his FPI and recruiting ranking tell a different story. It is possible to change your mind about someone after getting additional data. It is also possible to update stats a year later and admit you were wrong, which I was.

      There are plenty of places you can read about Florida. You don’t have to read here and if you object to the use of statistics to try and understand what happens, then I welcome you to do so. Also, it’s Dr. Miles.

      • thetebowcurse

        You claim that McElwain was an “excellent” game day coach his first two years is not supportable by facts. Looking at who the “close” victories ( close being seven points or less) you wqill find that includes Kentucky, East Carolina, Vandy (twice), FAU, and LSU. It’s ot something to laud when you barely beat Vandy, East Carolina, and FAU. UF went to overtime, at home, for Christ’s sake, against FAU. Yet you’re so out to sea that you think that’s impressive because it counts in your little stat sheet?
        By the way, UF also lost games in those first two years. Do you know what the average margin of defeat was in those eight games? It was 21 points! That’s not close, by anyone’s definition. That tells you that UF was getting it’s ass kicked very badly. McElwain’s record, against ranked teams, those first two years, was 3-7. That’s “excellent”?
        I just give you these facts to show that you have no idea what you’re talking about. You only needed to watch McElwain on the sideline, as well, to know he didn’t have any idea what to do during a game. He liked to gamble a lot, and loved to go for it on fourth down. But that’s not a sound coaching strategy. Sometimes it worked, like his first game against Tennessee, but, as we saw, the odds of that being a winning strategy will catch up and make you look pathetic, as it did with McElwain.
        Under McElwain, UF couldn’t even cross the goal line, on offense, against FSU, including an embarrassing 27-2 loss in Gainesville.
        I knew, like the current moron in the White House, that McElwain was just a con man from day one. You still haven’t figured that out, though. Thinking, an activity you’re probably not familiar with, should make you wonder how ANY coach could get himself fired before he could complete a third season. Yet McElwain accomplished that feat. “Excellent”? The only doctorate you have is in your mind, “Dr.” Miles. Most folks know the definition of “excellent” and McElwain never qualified.

      • Eli Anderson

        Classy reply Dr.Miles! I think tebowcurse is a Tennessee fan that is still hurt by the fact that we have had arguably the worst Florida coaches in the modern era namely McElwain and to some extent Muschamp , and they only won 1 game in that span. His attack of stats and analysis is just a short sided explanation of his more blatant attempt at down grading the Florida program. If he is a Florida fan, I really love his brand of optimism……….

  8. Nate W

    Great article Will… The correlation between FPI and past recruiting rankings is pretty undeniable…and really really interesting to look at the difference between the two as the coaching barometer…. I think it proves how important the offseason (and recruiting) is for a coach even more so than in-game management. Despite the hideous offense… I still dont think you were wrong about Mcelwains decision making during games being a reason we were able to win close ones in the past. Seemed like he tended towards the overly safe play than the overthinking mistake and was able to keep a cool head while the sirens and flashing lights were going off. But the lack of offseason prep ie strength/conditioning/recruiting/keeping best players out of trouble… doomed him before they even took the field. As for the troll ^^ whats the old saying?? … Better to keep quiet and have people think you’re an ignorant troll than to post that garbage and remove all doubt…

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