2011 Season Preview: Fear, Invisibility And The Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE FL - SEPTEMBER 04: Armand Robinson #11 of the Miami University RedHawks is tackled by Johnathan Bostic #52 and Jeremy Brown #8 of the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 4 2010 in Gainesville Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Florida has won two national titles in five seasons, but they begin the season ranked behind, among others, conference mates Georgia and Mississippi State. Is Will Muschamp's first season in Gainesville going to be one of rebuilding and retooling, or are the Gators about to reap some vengeance on all who forgot them?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

I tend to assume that one of the most terrifying feelings you can possibly have is when you come to the realization that you've lost track of an alligator you know to be nearby. It sounds like something straight out of Faces of Death or some wonderfully low-budget horror movie. You are comfortable with the distance between you and the croc, you have a good grasp of your surrounding area, and suddenly ... oh, crap. I bring this up for an obvious reason: there's a decent chance that everybody who is completely writing off and/or ignoring the 2011 Florida Gators will be feeling both foolish and frightened as the football season progresses.

Though Florida is still the betting favorite in terms of Bodog.com odds (they are 9/5, while South Carolina is 19/10 and Georgia 2/1), it seems most analysts tend to be under the assumption that this year's SEC East race is really between South Carolina and Georgia. And for scheduling reasons alone, that may indeed be the case -- while Florida is the highest-ranked East team according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections (they are 12th, South Carolina 13th and Georgia is 21st), they are projected to go just 4-4 in conference. To be sure, trips to LSU, Auburn and South Carolina could limit the Gators' growth in Will Muschamp's first season succeeding Urban Meyer. And to be sure, Florida was disturbingly aimless and feckless for good portions of 2010. But now is a good time to remind you that...

...the Gators rank first in terms of four-year F/+ performance.

...the Gators rank fifth in terms of five-year weighted recruiting average.

...Will Muschamp is a tremendously successful defensive coach, and the Gator defense is absolutely littered with former five-star recruits.

...Charlie Weis is a tremendously successful offensive coach, and the Gator offense is also littered with former blue-chippers.

...Florida has the best home-field advantage in the conference.

Granted, none of this helped the Gators last year, but a lot has changed since 2010, no?

In the end, it isn't hard to understand why writers like Stewart Mandel are assuming 2011 will be a rebuilding-and-retooling year in Gainesville. Hell, the Outsiders projections are predicting the same thing. But you don't get many chances to talk Florida up as a potential "sleeper," and if you don't, there is a decent chance you will be feeling pretty silly around the time the Gators upset Alabama in The Swamp and moves into the Top Five in early-October.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk**: 34
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Miami (Ohio)
34-12 W 22.4 - (-5.5) W
11-Sep South Florida 38-14 W 42.7 - 30.9 W
18-Sep at Tennessee 31-17 W 28.7 - 26.4 W
25-Sep Kentucky 48-14 W 38.1 - 21.2 W
2-Oct at Alabama 6-31 L 26.2 - 21.6 W
9-Oct LSU 29-33 L 29.8 - 32.2 L
16-Oct Mississippi State 7-10 L 24.1 - 19.3 W
30-Oct vs Georgia 34-31 W 33.7 - 24.1 W
6-Nov at Vanderbilt 55-14 W 25.9 - (-5.2) W
13-Nov South Carolina 14-36 L 13.2 - 25.8 L
20-Nov Appalachian State
48-10 W 45.8 - 25.9 W
27-Nov at Florida State 7-31 L 14.8 - 27.2 L
1-Jan vs Penn State 37-24 W 14.5 - 23.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.8 43 21.3 29
Adj. Points Per Game 27.7 58 20.6 14

The 2010 season was a confusing one for anybody who watched the Florida Gators play. A diverse, interesting offense went stale (in three of their five losses, Florida scored in single digits), a stalwart defense showed cracks at iffy times and a team that had won two national titles in the previous four seasons, failed to make much of a ripple. If not for Texas' historic collapse, the Gators' own stumble may have been more noteworthy. A team with their performance and recruiting rankings was not supposed to fare as poorly as they did. And it got worse as the season progressed.

First Five Games: Florida 31.6 Adj. PPG, Opponents 18.9 (+12.7)
Next Four Games: Florida 28.4, Opponents 17.6 (+10.8)
Final Four Games: Opponents 25.6, Florida 22.1 (-3.5)

In the end, the 2010 Gators reflected their coach: talented, tired and in need of a change of direction. Both Urban Meyer and Florida got just that; Meyer is now an ESPN talking head, and the Gators have turned to former Auburn and Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to revive the program.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 41 53 41
RUSHING 32 54 22 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 61 60 65 52
Standard Downs 34 43 36 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 36 35 39 40
Redzone 17 15 19
Q1 Rk 68 1st Down Rk 47
Q2 Rk 33 2nd Down Rk 25
Q3 Rk 36 3rd Down Rk 59
Q4 Rk 34

For years, Florida's offense thrived, in part, because of the way they blurred lines. It was an Urban Meyer staple going back to Utah and Bowling Green. Tim Tebow was two-thirds quarterback, one-third fullback. Percy Harvin was three-quarters receiver, one-quarter running back. Aaron Hernandez was a tight end who seemed to spend a lot of time with the ball between the tackles. It was unpredictable, odd and, with the talent on hand, incredibly effective.

In 2010, however, we saw the downside of this approach: depending on how you look at it, either nobody had an identity or everybody had too specific an identity. Trey Burton was a quarterback who caught passes. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey were running backs who caught a lot of (short, ineffective) passes. Jordan Reed was a tight-end-turned-quarterback-turned-tight-end. It was easy to get the impression that nobody knew their role, and everybody played with hesitancy. (Of course, there might have been other explanations for Florida's hesitancy beyond roles, and it might have had something to do with former offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. Allegedly.)

Regardless of the cause, it is inexcusable for a team as athletic as Florida to put such a non-explosive offense on the field. And if role uncertainty or lack of identity had something to do with the problem, then Charlie Weis might be the perfect new offensive coordinator. For all his issues as a head coach, Weis is a strong assistant coach who will carve an identity out of this unit. It is always possible that the personnel just doesn't match the recruiting rankings, and that this offense's ceiling is only so high, but Weis' certainty should at least temporarily make for a nice change. Chris Rainey (216 receiving yards, 366 rushing yards, 5 TD), Trey Burton (349 rushing yards, +10.2 Adj. POE, 11 TD; 210 receiving yards, 4.7 per target as a freshman) and Jeff Demps (551 rushing yards, 6.0 per carry, +5.1 Adj. POE; 116 receiving yards, 5.3 per target)? You're running backs. Jordan Reed (79 receiving yards, 328 rushing yards, 252 passing yards)? You're a tight end. Deal with it. Florida may have thrived by blurring the lines, but for now, specificity could be exactly the cure for what ailed the 2010 Gators.

(Of course, there are also rumors of Wildcat formations and other craziness, so who knows? Florida's practices are mostly closed, so we're making a lot of assumptions here.)

Let's face it: certainty can only help quarterback John Brantley (2,061 yards, 6.3 per pass, 61% completion rate, 9 TD, 10 INT), who spent a good portion of 2010 playing like he was scared to get yelled at when he came back to the bench.

Other tidbits:

  • It will certainly be interesting to see how ball distribution works for Weis and company this fall. Aside from the players listed above, there are all sorts of skill position players who could benefit from extra focus in the gameplan. Weis tends to create something interesting out of the tools he inherits, and he maybe create something fascinating out of receivers like Deonte Thompson (570 yards, 15.0 per catch, 57% catch rate, 1 TD), Omarius Hines (281 yards, 14.1 per catch, 69% catch rate, 1 TD) and former blue-chippers Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar. And with the I-formation serving as one of Weis primary templates, running backs (running back running backs) like Mike Gillislee (325 yards, 5.6 per carry, +7.1 Adj. POE, 7 TD) and former blue-chipper Mack Brown could also benefit. The pressure is on Weis to figure out what to do with what really is a wealth of weapons -- especially with so many strong athletes at running back -- and his track record is pretty good.
  • Of course, an offense with a questionable line can become pretty directionless, pretty quickly. Florida's was a middling line (ranking one spot behind Florida International's, actually), and that was with first-round center Mike Pouncey and three other starters who have since departed. Tackle Xavier Nixon (13 starts) is, by default, the wily veteran up front, though three other players have starting experience (including sophomores Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio), and former five-star defensive tackle Matt Patchan joins the mix. The new coaching staff has plenty of pure talent to work with, but this is certainly a red flag.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 27 23 25
RUSHING 24 38 23 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 22 14 28 41
Standard Downs 15 25 11 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 19 28 14 87
Redzone 34 28 42
Q1 Rk 2 1st Down Rk 13
Q2 Rk 21 2nd Down Rk 18
Q3 Rk 35 3rd Down Rk 18
Q4 Rk 34

Your optimism about the 2011 Florida defense depends on your level of faith -- faith in recruiting rankings and faith in the freshman-to-sophomore leap, to be specific. Almost half of the Gators' starting defense is going to be made up of former five-star recruits, most (or all) of whom are sophomores. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have as many or more toys to play with than Weis.

Those sophomores better become leaders pretty quickly, however, as there has been quite a bit of turnover. Gone are the top two ends and two of the top four linebackers, but really, the front seven was pretty disappointing last year anyway. The real losses came in the secondary, where two stud safeties -- Ahmad Black and Will Hill -- are gone, as is troubled cornerback Janoris Jenkins. As was the case with the rest of the defense last year, the whole of the secondary was not as great as the sum of its parts, but it was still a relative strength. Now, sophomore Matt Elam (19.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 PBU as a freshman) becomes the de facto quarterback of the secondary. He'll have help, of course. Corner Jeremy Brown (13.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 5 PBU) proved as much as one possibly can in minimal opportunities, and it appears that incoming freshman Marcus Roberson might sneak ahead of sophomore Cody Riggs (15.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU) and Moses Jenkins (14.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU in six games) for a starting spot. As with just about every other unit on the roster, there are athletes aplenty back here.

Other tidbits:

  • Perhaps no defense in the country has more potential at tackle than Florida. They return three former five-star tackles in Sharrif Floyd (16.5 tackles, 8 TFL as a freshman), Omar Hunter (16.0 tackles, 3 TFL) and Dominique Easley; Hunter will line up wide when Muschamp wants more of a 3-4 look -- that's right, just as the offense moves away from hybirds, the defense moves toward them -- and any of the above (probably Floyd) should mix well with a star in Jaye Howard (24.0 tackles, 12 TFL). There are no proven pieces at end, but five-star sophomore Ronald Powell (20.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 PBU) is the picture-perfect DE/OLB hybrid for a 3-4 look, while William Green (12.0 tackles, 4 TFL) and Kedric Johnson (3.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks as a freshman) certainly have potential. The line must replace ends Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens (combined: 20 TFL/sacks), but one has to appreciate the upside here.
  • There are bountiful options on both the line (well, at tackle, at least) and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps is quite a bit thinner. Only two players -- Jelani Jenkins (58.5 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU as a redshirt freshman) and Jonathan Bostic (46.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PBU) -- have proven anything whatsoever (though they both have the look of serious playmakers), meaning there will be at least one entirely unproven starter here and almost no experience among backups. Right now, it looks like two-year reserve Lerentee McCray will win the third job, for whatever that's worth to you.

Florida's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Don't Feel Right," by The Roots.

(This is neither here nor there, but damn, do I love the clavinet.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 1
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 5
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +2 / +2.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.6

That F/+ Progression chart is one of the most active you're going to see. Florida's offense was great in 2007 and has trended downward ever since. Meanwhile, the defense was fabulous in 2006, below average in 2007, then up and down some more. Makes for an interesting mountain range of an overall trend line. I approve. I've also been looking at way too many of these, apparently. Ignore me.

The most disturbing thing I can say about the 2011 Gators is simply this: almost everything I say in the process of talking myself into Florida (Charlie Weis aside), I would have said 12 months ago, too. Great recent performance? Ridiculous recruiting? Blue-chip talent everywhere on the field? Check, check and check. So that tamps down my excitement a bit, as does the aforementioned ridiculous schedule.

Still, because of upside alone -- and the fresh blood and motivation brought in with the new staff -- the Gators are one of just a few teams on my "It wouldn't surprise me at all if they won the national title" list. (That isn't the same as predicting it, of course. In fact, I am taking the perfect, gray-area stance: if it doesn't happen, then that's fine because I didn't predict it; but if it does, I will try to convince everybody that I nailed it.) You have to have a certain amount of pure, raw potential to pull off a national title run, and Florida passes that test. Now they just need a) the offense to get out of its damn head and play football, and b) a young defensive line to take a step toward dominance. If that happens (and it might not), look out.

(Here's that entire "wouldn't surprise me" list, off the top of my head: Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida. And perhaps Florida State and Notre Dame, though I already regret writing that last one. Strike that one and just put Alabama down a second time. Or Stanford.)

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today. The college portion is available for just $5, and the print version is now available!

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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