Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program.
That doesn’t mean player development is unimportant. That doesn’t mean that in-game coaching is unimportant. But time and time again, teams that recruit better than others win at a higher clip. I mean….
14 college football programs have combined to sign 150 of the 170 top-10 recruiting classes since 2002. They’ve also won 15 of the 16 National Championships. pic.twitter.com/YdC673SQ7C
— Bill Sikes (@realbsikes) December 8, 2018
So clearly this stuff is important for programs with championship aspirations.
Where does Florida stand currently?
According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, the Gators rank 20th overall and 10th in the SEC. If we use the average player ratings (more accurate at this point because each team has a different number of recruits), Florida places 17th overall and 8th in the SEC.
If we dive further into the numbers, we see that Florida also is lacking in top-end talent as well.
As it currently stands, the Gators do not have any players ranked in the top-100 nationally and only seven ranked in the top-300. Alabama, Georgia and LSU (teams Florida has to play every year to win the SEC) have an average of seven top-100 players and 15 top-300 players.
Going into the early signing period, Mullen and his staff have plenty of work to do.
Lessons from the first early signing period
Last year, we had a new wrinkle to the entire recruiting process, the early signing period.
It served to make things even more challenging for coaches like Dan Mullen, who were already working with a shortened timeline because of being new to a program. Mullen performed admirably, beating out Ohio State and Alabama for top-100 recruit Emory Jones among others.
We only have one early signing day to examine and so any data needs to be interpreted with that very important caveat. However, I do believe that looking at what happened last year can be instructive.
If we just look at the SEC, what we see is that there was no change for Alabama and Georgia between the early signing period and national signing day. In fact, only three teams saw an improvement during that period.
Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us since Jeremy Pruitt, Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen were all new to their respective programs. It appears as though key players in their classes waited until February to make sure their programs were right for them.
This trend was apparent nationally as well. When examining the teams ranked 1-100 in the recruiting rankings following the early signing period, teams with new coaches improved by 8.0 ranking spots between then and their final rankings. Conversely, teams that hadn’t undergone a coaching change saw a decrease of 3.1 ranking spots between the early signing period and national signing day.
This does suggest that many players who didn’t sign during the early signing period waited because they wanted to further build relationships with their coaches.
Are there still big fish out there?
After the 2017 early signing period, there were 31 of the top-100 players still unsigned. Currently there are 21 players in the top-100 who are not verbally committed. If we assume that the remaining 79 players are off the board and combine that with the five additional players who are expected to announce during the early signing period, we’re left with 16 available top-100 players after next week.
That means if Mullen is going to make a move, it has to be now.
Two of the highest ranked players on the board signing early are 5-star recruits Kayvon Thibodeaux and Trey Sanders, both Florida targets. Neither of them are favored to pick Florida, but Thibodeaux just had an official visit to Florida this past weekend and Sanders is on campus for his official this weekend.
The only other players in the top-100 who are seen as having significant chances of picking Florida according to the 247 crystal ball predictions are 4-star DB Chris Steele (40th overall) and 4-star DB Kaiir Elam (61st nationally).
If all four of those recruits pick Florida, the Gators will vault into the top-10 nationally and into 5th in the SEC with three more slots for other players.
However, if Florida only gets the players who are currently favored to select the Gators according to 247 (Elam, Keon Zipperer, Deyavie Hammond, Lloyd Summerall, Kamaar Bell, Brandon Dorlus) while leaving a spot for a graduate transfer, the Gators would end up at 255.6.
Jim McElwain was criticized heavily for his recruiting and rightly so. Mullen’s transition recruiting class was much better than McElwain’s. But McElwain’s bump (second) class in 2016 finished 12th nationally with a point total of 261.0.
If instead of holding a spot open for a grad transfer, Florida is able to convince Steele to come to Gainesville (currently a dead heat between UF and USC according to the crystal balls), that raises the score to 264.0, which would still likely be 12th nationally.
If Dorlus is replaced by either Thibodeaux (273.2) or Sanders (273.2), the class sneaks into the top-10.
Whether Florida’s class is ranked 10th or 12th seems insignificant. And in many ways, it is.
Mullen is still going to have to develop the talent that he has, and he has shown both this past year at Florida and previously at Mississippi State that he can win with less talent than his peers.
But the fact that getting into the top-10 means that Florida has likely landed a 5-star recruit (either Thibodeaux or Sanders), two top-100 recruits (Steele and Elam) and two top-200 recruits (Zipperer and Hammond) is significant. That would raise the Gators top-300 percentage to 52 percent, commensurate with the percentage for Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU above.
It also shows that the program is heading in the same direction off the field as it is on it. The previous four head coaches at Florida have seen an increase of seven spots in the recruiting rankings from year one to year two. If Mullen sees the same, that means that he has outrecruited McElwain and brought both Thibodeaux and Sanders to Gainesville.
The recruiting rankings don’t guarantee success. Mullen’s coaching acumen is going to keep Florida in a lot of games. His ability to win against more talented opponents is a differentiator that other teams don’t have.
But going into those games with as much firepower as possible is another way to differentiate.