Dan Mullen just completed his second early signing period as a head coach and at Florida. The Gators signed 17 of its 18 verbal commits and added three more 4-star signees as well.
This was clearly a good day for the Gators. Signing three blue-chip players from Lakeland High School is a real step forward for the program. Multiple ESPN personalities declared the Gators one of the winners of the day.
Yet after the day, Florida has 21 signees and is ranked 16th nationally. Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp had classes nationally ranked first, second and third in their second recruiting cycle, respectively. Even Jim McElwain’s second cycle produced a class that ranked 12th nationally.
That doesn’t mean it’s a disaster. There are some really good players that became Gators today. But it does mean that we need to put it in context not only within the framework of Florida historically, but also within the SEC.
The Current Signees
What you think of Florida’s class thus far depends a lot on what numbers you use to break it down.
The Gators added 20 signees on Wednesday, of whom 12 are considered blue-chips (4 or 5-star players). If we add 4-star linebacker Diwun Black to the list and compare to other SEC programs, the 62 percent blue-chip ratio is tied with LSU for fourth in the conference.
4-star QB Jalon Jones headlines the class thus far. Jones switched his commitment from Mississippi State to Florida shortly after Mullen took the Gators job and hasn’t wavered since. For a team that has had so many issues over the last decade at the QB position, bringing in a high-level signal caller every recruiting cycle is an absolute must.
4-star linebackers Diwun Black, Tyron Hopper and Mohamoud Diabate (along with 3-star Jesiah Pierre) fill a real need for Florida. From 2015-2017, Jim McElwain signed 9 linebackers, none of whom were in the top-300 nationally. Last season, Mullen signed Andrew Chatfield (213) and David Reese (296) to the fold. Black (149), Hopper (151) and Diabate (167) add a much needed injection of talent at that position.
4-star defensive linemen Lloyd Summerall (237) and Jaelin Humphries (272) were brought in to bolster the defensive line. Again this was an area that was neglected under McElwain, as he only signed four top-300 players out of 13 signees. Summerall and Humphries join 2018 signee Malik Langham (314) to strengthen that unit. The numbers at that spot are still really thin as Mullen has not filled out the positional depth and missed on 3-star recruit Brandon Dorlus and 5-star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Offensive line was clearly an area of emphasis as the Gators added seven players, four of them blue-chip recruits. After signing 4-star tackle Richard Gouraige (87) and 3-stars Noah Banks, Chris Bleich, and Griffin McDowell in 2018, Mullen added 4-stars Deyavie Hammond (174), Michael Tarquin (281), William Harrod (307) and Wardrick Wilson (368) along with 3-stars Riley Simonds, Ethan White and Kingsley Eguakun. The line has quickly gone from an area with zero depth to both a deep and talented unit.
This class is really solid. But as I mentioned, how you grade it likely depends on how you break down the numbers. While Florida has 13 blue-chip recruits, none of them are 5-star recruits or even top-100 recruits thus far. That could change with the additions of Chris Steele or Kaiir Elam, but as it stands right now, there is a dearth of top-end talent in this particular class.
That really shows up when you look at this class compared to the bump classes of previous Florida head coaches. Ron Zook had 12 top-100 players in his second class. Urban Meyer had 9, Will Muschamp had 6 and even Jim McElwain had 4.
Florida clearly has lots of quality players coming into Gainesville next season. But the lack of can’t-miss prospects is an issue.
Florida’s class currently ranks 6th in the SEC overall and as I mentioned earlier, is tied with LSU for 4th in blue-chip ratio.
Of course, LSU also signed three 5-star recruits on Wednesday, along with seven players ranked higher than Florida’s highest ranked player (Keon Zipperer, 136th nationally). Alabama has 15 players ranked higher than Zipperer and Georgia has 9 ranked higher.
This is an issue because Florida has to play Georgia and LSU every year, and hopes to face Alabama in the SEC Championship after beating the Bulldogs and Tigers.
This is also an issue because there are only 17 unsigned or uncommitted players ranked higher than Zipperer left. Now, Florida does appear to have good chances of landing Steele (40th nationally) and Elam (61st), but that still means a ratio of 15:2 versus Alabama.
I know it’s easy to discount recruiting services and claim that they are biased or that the Florida coaching staff has an innate ability to spot players nobody else does. The problem with that is it is not supported by the data.
The chart below shows the winning percentage in SEC games of every SEC team since 2012 (when Missouri and Texas A&M joined the conference) plotted against the average star ranking of every recruit the four years prior to that season. So for example, for the 2012 season, I looked at the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 classes and the “star score” is the average stars of all recruits for each school over that time period.
The data is pretty clear. To be an SEC Champion – at least in the modern era – you need elite recruiting. Every champion has had a star score over 3.57 and the average star score for a champion is 3.81.
The threshold just to make it to the SEC Championship game is less, as the average is 3.49. That is dragged down considerably by Missouri in 2013 and 2014 and I think most people would agree that was partly due to a watered-down East while the West was clearly the better half of the conference.
The average star score for the conference in that time-frame is 3.41 and so Mullen did a pretty good job leading Florida to a 5-3 conference record this year. That’s because Florida’s star score was 3.44 in 2018.
And regardless of how the 2019 class ends up, Florida’s star score is going to go up for 2019. That’s because McElwain’s first class at Florida featured a star score of 3.29 and 17 3-star recruits. With that coming off the books, and Mullen’s 2019 class currently with a star score of 3.65, Florida is likely to be around 3.52 in 2019.
But that still is an issue because of the other teams in the conference.
Florida is still considerably behind Georgia, Alabama and LSU. The Gators also face Auburn next season in addition to the Bulldogs and Tigers. While Florida will likely have zero 5-star recruits on its roster, Georgia will have at least 15.
Yes, Justin Fields and Jacob Eason have transferred away from Georgia. But boy what I wouldn’t give for the problem of having the number one and number five recruits in the country transferring away from my school because the guy in front of him is better.
Why does star score matter?
The star score matters because it correlates with winning in the SEC. The chart above already showed how winning the conference correlates with recruiting, but it’s more than just that.
The star score also correlates with winning conference games. From 2012-2018, teams that have a star score greater than 3.80 (currently Georgia and Alabama) win nearly 90 percent of their SEC games. Just dropping that to 3.60 to 3.79 drops that winning percentage to 62 percent. That drops to 47 percent for teams between 3.40-3.59 (right where Florida is) and then even lower as recruiting tails off even further.
That is not to say that Florida will only win 47 percent of its SEC games next year. There is a ton of scatter in the chart above suggesting that there is a high variance in performance for teams in that bin. But if you wonder how the Gators could go from 10-4 and 9-4 in McElwain’s first two years (with SEC Championship Game appearances) to the 4-7 debacle we all endured in 2017, this is how. There is just a high variation in performance for teams that don’t have elite recruiting and a cap on their ability to actually win the championship.
This makes sense when we think about the 2017 season. That season started with the suspensions to Antonio Callaway, Jordan Scarlett and others. Then the team was decimated with injuries throughout the year. There wasn’t enough depth to make up for the suspensions and injuries and so the performance went downhill.
You don’t have to look too far into the past to see the value of elite recruiting depth. Last season Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench against Georgia to win Alabama the National Championship when Jalen Hurts was ineffective. This season, Hurts returned the favor in the SEC Championship game against Georgia when Tagovailoa went out with an ankle injury.
Grading the Class, Early Signing Period Edition
This stuff correlates to winning.
Yes, development is important. Florida isn’t remotely close to 9-3 and in the Peach Bowl without the improved play of Feleipe Franks. His play is significantly better this year, much of that attributable to Mullen.
Yes, in-game coaching is important. Kirby Smart may get criticized for his fourth-and-11 fake punt against Alabama (and rightly so), but anyone who watched him repeatedly choose field goals on fourth-and-short against Florida this season knew he eventually would cost his team in an important situation.
But recruiting is also important. Mullen has upped the talent level on the team, but it’s not where it needs to be to compete regularly within this conference.
In the coming days, you’ll likely read about Florida pulling all three players out of Lakeland and how that is a major coup for Mullen. You may also read about how Florida has signed a ton of depth up-front on the offensive line and shored up the linebacker position.
You may read about how Mullen and his staff can spot an undervalued talent better than anyone else and how they have plans to get the most out of everyone they’ve signed. And you may read about the dumpster fire that is Willie Taggart’s operation in Tallahassee and the currently 38th ranked class of the Miami Hurricanes.
All of those things may be true but they are mostly irrelevant to the stated goal of the staff. Dan Mullen came to Gainesville talking about the Gator Standard, specifically SEC and National Championships.
I’m not saying that he can’t do it. I’m not saying that he won’t do it.
What I am saying is that this class as currently constituted does not close the gap with Alabama, Georgia or LSU, the competition that will keep him from achieving his stated goal. In fact, that gap is widening even further.
That doesn’t diminish the quality of the players coming to Gainesville. It suggests that they need more help. Hopefully Mullen can get that help before the February deadline, but even with major reinforcements, this class is still going to be behind 30 percent of the conference.
The Gator Standard that Mullen so often cites was set by Urban Meyer, someone with whom he’s intimately familiar. Every single one of Meyer’s recruiting classes (12th, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 7th and 1st) will likely end up with a higher national ranking than the Gators 2019 class. None of Meyer’s classes was ever worse than 4th in the SEC, and they were first four times.
That is the blueprint for winning championships in the SEC. Urban Meyer followed it at Florida. Nick Saban appears to have perfected it at Alabama. Kirby Smart is trying to replicate it at Georgia.
To this point, Mullen has been unable to follow that blueprint.
Perhaps he’s going to prove to be an outlier. Perhaps he’s really that good. I certainly hope so.
But if you’re asking me to grade this class at this point, I have to give it a C. It’s a class full of good players, but it’s not up to the standard that has been historically necessary to win the SEC or National Championship.
Like it or not, that’s the standard at Florida.