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.
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.
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.