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On paper, Dan Mullen was a perfect Florida hire. Can he get the Gators out of their rut?

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Mullen’s got loads of SEC experience and inherits a roster full of exciting sophomores and juniors. How long might it take him?

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Florida
Dan Mullen
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Long ago at Football Outsiders, I took a look at whether any type of coach is more likely to succeed than any others. The only broad conclusions I could reach were as follows:

  1. Programs tend to gravitate toward their historical norms.
  2. If you can get a coach with power conference coaching experience, that’s slightly more likely to work out for you than anything else.

Those aren’t mind-blowing conclusions, but they’re instructive when thinking about Florida’s hire of Mullen.

Florida’s historical norms:

Following the 2010 season, Florida’s 50-year average percentile rating in the S&P+ rankings was 84.7 percent. If you recall standardized testing, that’s pretty good. The Gators had achieved at an elite level throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s, but had been at least solid before that.

Basically, all Florida needs is a decent head coach in order to play at a top-15 level.

During the seven seasons since, Florida’s average percentile rating in S&P+ is only 76.2 percent. Granted, 2017’s strange collapse played a role in that figure, but you could say UF’s hires of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain were average at best.

Hiring a coach with the right kind of experience:

Muschamp and McElwain had solid résumés. But neither had been a P5 head coach before.

Mullen has nine years of not only P5 head coaching experience, but SEC head coaching experience.

And he led historical overachievement at Mississippi State. In the 50 years before his arrival, MSU’s average percentile rating was 57 percent. In his nine seasons, it was 75.4 percent. His Bulldogs finished ranked in the AP top 20 three times and won six bowls. He raised the bar significantly in Starkville.

Any further context you want to add is even friendlier. You know, like how how Florida’s offense had an average Off. S&P+ ranking of fifth during his last three years as OC in Gainesville (2006-08) and has had an average ranking of 65.4 since.

On paper, this is very likely to be at least a good hire for Florida. I would be floored if the Gators weren’t at least top-15 good soon. (They’ve only hit that mark twice in the last seven years.) On the field, this was a nearly risk-free hire.

So why isn’t there more energy emanating from Gainesville? This hire got a good grade from everyone who grades such things, but “Florida’s going to be back soon!” buzz — like what we saw from Scott Frost’s Nebraska hire — has been minimal.

Recent headlines haven’t helped. Something in the neighborhood of seven Gators were allegedly involved in a confrontation involving gamblers and BB guns (and a frying pan). This came after a few key players were suspended or booted for “misusing school-issued funds” last fall. It’s a lot harder to get your program to achieve when your two-deep is randomly Thanos-ing itself.

Meanwhile, though July recruiting rankings are as conversational as they are consequential, Mullen hasn’t done himself any favors there either.

Then there’s the product on the field. Florida didn’t bottom out in exactly the same way that Tennessee did last season — while UT’s Butch Jones was very much fired for on-field performance, McElwain’s dismissal was blurrier, and the Gators were decent for half the season. Still, as with Jeremy Pruitt at UT, Mullen is facing a Year Zero season while figuring out what kind of building job he’s got.

Florida’s got plenty of individual talent, even if this latest stupid scandal continues. It’s hard to set 2018 expectations until we know the timeline for the rebuild, but we can still make an educated guess on how the season will go.

Offense

Let’s start with a positive: Florida should be pretty good up front. The Gators were mostly solid in run blocking last year — they were 31st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 32nd in Adj. Line Yards, though they were far from awesome in short-yardage situations (82nd in power success rate) — despite young running backs.

They now return all eight linemen who started at least one game last year and who’ve combined for 112 career starts. Left tackle Martez Ivey has mostly lived up to his five-star hype (he was second-team all-SEC last year), and while McElwain didn’t recruit like gangbusters up front, he did compile experience.

Granted, pass blocking numbers were terrible. Both primary quarterbacks, Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire, took sacks on over 11 percent of their pass attempts, and UF ranked a wretched 114th in Adj. Sack Rate. But a lot of that is on the shoulders of the QBs, not necessarily on the line. Franks was an overwhelmed redshirt freshman, and Zaire was sack-prone at Notre Dame, too.

UF did appear to have some answers brewing. After a struggle against Michigan, the Gators averaged 6.3 yards per play and 31 points per game in wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Freshman Malik Davis rushed 42 times for 311 yards, Franks completed 65 percent of his passes and averaged a strong eight yards per pass attempt (including sacks), and sophomore Tyrie Cleveland caught 11 of 18 balls for 270 yards. The young core looked ready.

And then the calendar flipped to October. Franks took 15 sacks in three games and went into a shell. Zaire took over and did the same, so Franks got the job again. After producing a 150.3 passer rating in September, Franks managed just 99.3 thereafter.

Still, he was a freshman. So was Davis, who missed the last month of the season with a knee injury. Cleveland’s production vanished when his QBs’ production did, but he’s still a former blue-chipper with a a track record. (He was also involved in the frying pan scandal.)

Potential has never been Florida’s problem, but the list of guys with it is awfully long.

  • Newly eligible Ole Miss transfer and former blue-chipper Van Jefferson caught 91 passes over two seasons in Oxford and produced a plus-14 percent marginal efficiency, which dwarfed that of any Florida receiver besides slot man Kadarius Toney. (Jefferson was in what I’ll politely call a more WR-friendly offense.)
  • Toney, another member of the Frying Pan Seven, caught 15 of 21 passes with a lovely 57 percent success rate. He also rushed 14 times for 120 yards. He also did next to nothing after September.
  • Running back Adarius Lemons came off the bench late in his freshman year and gained 110 yards in 13 carries against UAB and FSU.
Alabama v Mississippi
Van Jefferson
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Juniors like running back Lamical Perine and receivers Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain didn’t produce intriguing per-touch numbers but have racked up experience. There’s another layer of four-star youngsters who have barely seen the field, but still might carry potential. Perhaps the most noteworthy: Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes, sophomore Daquon Green, JUCO tight end Lucas Krull, and freshman slot Jacob Copeland.

Then there’s Scarlett. He rushed for 889 yards (five per carry) for the pass-challenged 2016 offense before missing last season. And while Franks didn’t run often, he looked good when he did (29 non-sack carries, 212 yards). Mullen brought co-coordinators John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales from Starkville, and with Davis, Scarlett, and Perine, with either Franks, freshman Emory Jones (yet another of the Frying Pan Crew), or sophomore Kyle Trask behind center, it’s not hard to see a version of last year’s run-heavy MSU offense. And if that happens, there’s upside in the receiving corps, too.

Needless to say, though, it’s been a while since Florida’s offense lived up to recruiting rankings.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Florida vs Iowa
Jordan Scarlett
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Florida hasn’t had an offense rank higher than 39th in Off. S&P+ since Meyer left, but the defense held on through the Muschamp years and the start of the McElwain era. Florida ranked 13th or (much) better in Def. S&P+ every year from 2008-16.

But the back seven got thinned out between 2016 and 2017, the line dealt with injuries, and the Gators fell to 54th last year. Things bottomed out during a three-game stretch that saw them allow 7.1 yards per play and 38 points per game to Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina.

Now, 54th still isn’t terrible — it’s better than what the offense has been — but Todd Grantham’s first Florida defense has quite a bit to prove.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The primary source of problems was in the big-play department — the Gators didn’t suffer glitches, they suffered catastrophes. They ranked 27th in success rate but 118th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the big plays you allow), and despite a slow game tempo, the 5.2 plays per game of 20-plus yards that they allowed ranked 97th.

Of course, when you see that freshmen and sophomores accounted for seven of last year’s top nine DBs, those big plays begin to make sense. The secondary was so young that it’s still one of the youngest in FBS, but there is some play-making talent. Junior nickel Chauncey Gardner-Johnson led the team with 15 havoc plays (six tackles for loss, nine passes defensed), and sophomore corners Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson combined for 18 passes defensed.

Experience should help with the big plays, but Grantham’s system is aggressive — his Mississippi State defense ranked 13th in success rate and 120th in IsoPPP. So the all-or-nothing tendencies will continue, which is fine, as long as there are far more alls than nothings.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Florida
Cece Jefferson
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven was also incredibly young, so much so that rush end Cece Jefferson and tackle Khairi Clark might be the only seniors to see action. (It also was only minimally damaged by Frying Pangate — reserve tackle Kyree Campbell was the only defender involved.)

With the addition of WVU transfer Adam Shuler II, UF appears loaded at end. Jefferson, Shuler, and Jabari Zuniga each had at least eight tackles for loss and three sacks last season, and Jachai Polite added another five. And inside linebacker David Reese led the team in tackles and came in second in TFLs with 10.

Linebacker depth might be tenuous, and the potential nose tackles in Grantham’s system haven’t proved themselves (no returning tackle had more than eight tackles last year), but there are known pieces to go with all the potential. Grantham improved MSU’s defense from 73rd to 19th in Def. S&P+ last year and could have a similar effect in Gainesville.

Special Teams

Florida ranked a healthy 15th in Special Teams S&P+ — despite almost no production in the return game — because of the dynamite leg combination of kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend. Both are gone.

With all these athletes at WR and DB, the returner positions have lots of unproven potential. (So this goes for basically the entire team.)

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Charleston Southern NR 32.3 97%
8-Sep Kentucky 64 8.9 70%
15-Sep Colorado State 95 16.7 83%
22-Sep at Tennessee 79 7.3 66%
29-Sep at Mississippi State 14 -10.0 28%
6-Oct LSU 16 -3.3 42%
13-Oct at Vanderbilt 75 6.7 65%
27-Oct vs. Georgia 6 -13.9 21%
3-Nov Missouri 30 1.8 54%
10-Nov South Carolina 35 3.5 58%
17-Nov Idaho NR 30.3 96%
24-Nov at Florida State 18 -6.6 35%
Projected S&P+ Rk 32
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 60 / 21
Projected wins 7.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 8.9 (28)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 13 / 13
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -5.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (77%, 74%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (-0.8)

In Mullen’s first season at MSU, he brought a spark to a moribund offense and improved the Bulldogs from 95th to 33rd in S&P+. They improved from four wins to merely five because of some tight losses and a brutal schedule, but by year two, MSU was 9-4 and 26th.

Moribund offense? Check. Taking over a four-win team? Check. If nothing else, this feels familiar for Mullen.

SEC media picked Florida third in the East, which is fine as a splitting-the-difference pick. To me, either Mullen takes root and the Gators ride a hot start to second in the East, or this proves a Year Zero situation and UF ends up fifth or sixth.

S&P+ projects the Gators 32nd overall and favors them in eight games, with a ninth (LSU) a relative tossup. But home games against UK, Mizzou, and South Carolina, plus road trips to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, are extremely losable if last year’s primary issues — horrible passing game, big plays on defense — prove too deeply set.

I expect Mullen to eventually achieve at least a top-15 level. But Florida is a total mystery this year.

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