I received quite a bit of feedback that I was too negative in my assessment of Dan Mullen’s first recruiting class as Florida head coach.
By all measures, Mullen’s first class compares favorably to Urban Meyer’s first class. This should be good news, and in many ways it is. But there’s a problem with just looking at this class and assuming that Mullen is going to have Florida back among the elite programs in the country.
The problem is that Florida has not been recruiting like an elite program for five years now.
In Will Muschamp’s final recruiting class, the Gators ranked ninth overall, but only had nine blue chip (4 or 5-star) recruits in the class. McElwain followed that up with classes that averaged 8.3 blue chips from 2015-2016. In the same time-frame, Alabama has averaged 20.8 blue chip recruits. Given that, it’s not shocking that the Tide have beaten Florida by a combined 52 points in the teams’ last two meetings.
This is a very different situation than the team that Urban Meyer inherited in 2005. That team was stocked from the recruiting of Ron Zook, who averaged a national recruiting ranking of 5.3, a conference recruiting ranking of 2.0 and 12 blue chip players.
This isn’t Mullen’s fault, but it does mean that expectations of him having an immediate Meyer-like impact and winning a championship in his second year are probably way too aggressive.
Which makes it interesting to ask the question of how far are the Gators away from being able to compete for national championships?
To do this, I examined national championship winners from 2004-2017 and looked at each team’s recruiting profile. What you see below are the average, minimum and maximum for their national recruiting ranking, conference recruiting ranking and number of blue chip recruits.
What is immediately obvious is that the worst team – Auburn in 2010 – still averaged top-15 recruiting classes. That’s where we start. If you don’t have an average in the top-15, you’re not winning a title. Florida does meet this metric, but barely (national average of 14.5 with 9.3 blue chips).
But the minimum requirements are not what typically happens or what we should expect. That Auburn team got really fortunate, going 7-0 in one-score games. It also had the services of Heisman Trophy winning QB Cam Newton and his 182.0 QB rating and 1,473 rushing yards.
If instead of looking at the minimum requirements for winning a championship we look at the average, the bar goes up considerably. Championship teams average a national recruiting ranking just north of sixth, a conference ranking of 2.1 and an average of 14.3 blue chip recruits per year.
One other common theme amongst the championship teams is that they all had at least one top-10 class. Clemson was the only team that only had one in the top-10, with three other classes that ranked 15th, 16th, and 11th. All the other champions had at least three classes that ranked in the top-10. I think it’s pretty safe to say that a top-10 class nationally is necessary to win a national championship.
That narrows the list of teams that can win in 2018 down considerably. There are only 16 teams that have finished with at least one top-10 recruiting class from 2015-2018. There are only five teams – Georgia, Ohio State, USC, Alabama and Florida State – who exceed the national recruiting average of past champions. LSU and Auburn get added to that list if we look at teams that exceed the average of 14.3 blue chip recruits.
The above chart shows all the teams who exceed the average of previous champions in national recruiting ranking and average blue chips. You’ll note that the Big-12 doesn’t have any teams that meet these criteria and that the SEC has two (Georgia and Alabama).
If I were going to pick a break-through team for 2018, it would be Texas. The Longhorns had the 25th ranked recruiting class in 2017 in Tom Herman’s first year. But one reason for that was because – much like Mullen – he signed less than his 25 player allotment (18) in that class. However, Charlie Strong’s recruiting classes before Herman arrived were both ranked in the top-10 and averaged 15 blue chip players.
In 2018, Herman’s class ranked 3rd nationally with 19 blue chip players. Not only is Herman’s recruiting heading in the right direction, but he’s going to reap the benefits of the excellent recruiting classes that he inherited. He also has a fairly easy path in the Big-12, where there aren’t any dominant recruiters and Baker Mayfield is graduating.
Implications for Florida?
So what does this mean for Florida? It may mean that Florida isn’t as far away as I might have initially thought.
Florida’s profile is close to that of Texas last year, with classes slightly worse than Texas in Strong’s last two seasons (ranked 12th and 11th in 2016 and 2017), and a better transition class for Mullen in 2018 (14th). Those classes have totaled 32 blue chip players compared to 37 for Texas.
It is certainly within the realm of possibilities that Mullen’s 2019 recruiting class could mirror Herman’s 2018 class, ranked in the top-3 with 19 blue chip recruits. That would bring the Gators averages to an average national recruiting ranking of 10.0 and 12.8 blue chip recruits from 2016-2019.
The problem is the second column in the above chart. Note how while Texas has been the top recruiting dog in the Big-12 despite its struggles that Florida has ranked 4.7. Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and LSU all currently rank higher from 2015-2018 and their recruiting isn’t likely to slow down any time soon, especially Georgia and Alabama.
The upside is that only one of those teams is in the SEC East. The downside is that Georgia and LSU are always on Florida’s schedule. And Florida State is still looming at the end of the year and has a national championship-level talent profile if this analysis is to believed.
That means it is unlikely that the Gators are going to be able to just ride talent to a championship any time soon. Instead, the edge is going to have to be gained on the field.
The one place where teams who are less talented make up that edge is at the quarterback position.
The four worst teams (from a recruiting standpoint) to win national championships in the past 14 years are 2010 Auburn, 2016 Clemson, 2004 USC and 2005 Texas. All had QBs who placed either first or second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
On the Gators Breakdown podcast, Bill Sikes has discussed the correlation between QB recruiting rankings and national championships. Bill’s research indicates that national championship QBs have an average star ranking of 4.2 and an average national ranking of 121. For the last 14 championships, 64 percent of the QBs of those teams were top-100 recruits and 86 percent were top-200 recruits.
Florida has two of those players on its roster right now. Feleipe Franks struggled mightily in 2017, but he was ranked 54th nationally in 2016. And Dan Mullen’s first critical recruit – QB Emory Jones – is ranked as the 85th best player in the 2018 cycle.
But the Gators competition has the same. If Deondre Francois can recover from his torn patellar tendon, he was ranked 66th nationally. Jake Fromm was ranked 44th. Alabama (if the Gators can make the SEC Championship game) has Jalen Hurts (192) and Tua Tagovailoa (32). LSU is the only high-powered opponent who has struggled to find a QB as much as the Gators.
I was disappointed in the way the Gators closed the 2018 recruiting cycle. This wasn’t because I thought Mullen did a bad job. In fact, I think he did an admirable job navigating the first early signing period during a coaching transition and performing equally or better than most of his predecessors.
Two more blue chip players wouldn’t have changed any of these metrics. But the Gators are going to be running a talent deficit against the programs it is trying to surpass for the next couple of years. Those guys were important for 2018.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be looking at the results in 2018 at all.
Texas went 7-6 in 2017 and rotated between Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger at QB, finally settling on Ehlinger at the end of the season. Ehlinger was rated 119th nationally in the 2017 recruiting class and Herman has brought on two more 4-star QBs in 2018.
I have to admit that I’d be disappointed if Mullen goes 7-6 in his debut season. And as much as it pains me to admit it as someone who loves numbers, the most critical part of the Gators season will likely be whether they pass the “eye test”.
That is because the offense has looked so bad, for so long, that I can’t blame recruits who wouldn’t want to come to Gainesville.
If you’re an offensive player, you’ve seen players with talent come in and look unprepared or be underutilized. If you’re a defensive player, you’ve seen a dominant defense that gets worn down because the offense is so bad that they’ve always been out on the field. Who’s buying into that?
Herman may have gone 7-6, but he lost to USC and Oklahoma State by 3 and Oklahoma by 5. Perhaps more importantly, the Longhorns only gave up an average of 23.3 points against USC, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU. That is compared to giving up an average of 43 points against Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU in 2016. An improved defense was what recruits needed to see to buy-in, and Herman delivered.
Florida just went 4-7 against a schedule that had only two teams that finished in the AP top-25. In those games, the Gators averaged 11.5 points.
For all the death threat drama and McElwain’s recruiting shortcomings, the reason he got fired is because his teams looked terrible against elite competition. The Gators may have won the SEC East two years in a row, but they completely failed the eye test against Florida State, Alabama and Michigan.
Do I think the Gators are going to be able to compete for a national championship in 2019? I think it’s probably unlikely. But if Mullen can use 2018 to find his QB and can show recruits that there is hope that the offense is headed in the right direction, I do believe that lots of high-level recruits will come.
Until then, I’ll be watching Texas to get a better idea of when Florida will be back in the playoff hunt.