Head coach: McElwain (19-8, third year)
2016 record and SP+ ranking: 9-4 (15th)
Projected 2017 record and SP+ ranking: 8-4 (15th)
Biggest strength: The run defense should again be strong, with sturdy ends, dynamic linebackers, and at least a couple of fun tackles.
Biggest question mark: Will the revolving door at QB ever come to a stop? Florida has started four QBs in two years and could end up going with two more at times this year.
Biggest 2017 game: The Tennessee game (Sept. 16) is always a tone-setter, and that won’t be any different with both teams looking to answer depth questions on D and potentially fielding new QBs.
Summary: Under McElwain, Florida’s win totals have stabilized, but the Gators aren’t all that different than they were under Will Muschamp. Will that change by 2018?
McElwain is 19-8 at Florida. He inherited a program that had gone 11-13 in its two previous seasons and hadn’t been to the SEC title game since 2009, and he has won 19 games and two East titles. His 13-3 record in conference play (not including title games) in his first two years is better than Nick Saban’s at Alabama (12-4), Saban’s at LSU (10-6), Urban Meyer’s at Florida (12-4), Mark Richt’s at Georgia (12-4) … basically better than anybody not named Steve Spurrier.
I wanted to start there because evaluating a Florida head coach at the moment is really difficult. McElwain inherited a team that had forgotten how to move the football and lost massive ground to Florida State. He hasn’t solved either, but the win total has moved back toward what it should be.
He also has a long way to go. Wins aside, he really hasn’t changed much.
In Will Muschamp’s final two seasons, the Gators had an average Off. SP+ ranking of 79.5 and an average defensive ranking of 5. Under McElwain, it’s been 80.5 and 5.5, respectively.
A lot of those conference wins have come from the fact that the SEC East hasn’t been very good. In two seasons, McElwain is 14-0 against teams ranked 61st or worse in SP+ and just 5-8 against teams ranked better. He has two definitive wins — 38-10 over an awesome Ole Miss in 2015, 16-10 at LSU in 2016 — and quite a few comprehensive losses.
Plus, he’s had the benefit of Muschamp’s defensive personnel. He now has to replace quite a few members of a dominant back seven, not to mention his defensive coordinator. Granted, UF hasn’t had a defense that ranks worse than 13th in Def. SP+ since 2007, so the margin for error here is comfortable, but there might be more questions on that side of the ball than there have been in quite a while.
That puts pressure on an offense that hasn’t been good since Tim Tebow graduated. The Gators have ranked better than 58th in Off. SP+ just once since 2009, and that was a good-not-great 39th in 2012. The slide began under Meyer, continued (aside from one blip) under Muschamp, and has yet to turn around under McElwain. You can’t even say McElwain is trying to steer out of a skid; the car’s been in the ditch.
The chief difference is has been tossup games. In four seasons, Muschamp went 9-10 in games decided by one possession. His 11-win 2012 featured a 4-1 record in such games; he was 18-19 otherwise, with a 5-9 record in the close ones.
McElwain is 7-1. He has been blown out (we’ll call a blowout a loss by 17-plus points) five times, while Muschamp suffered such a loss seven times in four years. But he wins the close ones. That might be a sign of luck, and it might be a sign of skill, and there’s no way to tell yet. McElwain does grade pretty highly on the steady overachievers list, but that’s basically based on a three-year sample.
Maybe it’s not all luck. But even with lots of close wins, you don’t survive forever at Florida if you’re getting blown out two or three times a year.
In two seasons, he has had four different quarterbacks throw at least 100 passes, and depending on how things play out, he could have two more this fall. His Gators could have a solid run game and excellent run defense; they could also continue to struggle at throwing while regressing in pass defense. They could be the same top-20 team that loses control of a few games but wins the others.
This could be a rerun, in other words. But in an improving SEC East, a repeat might not be enough to take the division crown.
2016 in review
Good against bad, bad against good. That’s the simplest way to describe Florida’s 2016. But really, that was only the case for the defense; the offense was the same against everybody.
- Florida vs. SP+ top 60 (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 55% (47% offense, 61% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.7, UF 4.7 (minus-1.0) | Avg. score: Opp 28, UF 19
- Florida vs. No. 61-plus (7-0): Avg. percentile performance: 84% (47% offense, 92% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UF 5.5, Opp 3.6 (plus-1.9) | Avg. score: UF 25, Opp 7
Basically, good teams were able to move the ball against Florida. Bad teams were not even slightly capable.
Meanwhile, good teams held Florida’s offense in check, while bad ones mostly did the same. The Gators’ ground game got rolling against Missouri’s miserable run defense and showed flashes against South Carolina and Iowa, but for the most part the difference between average and awful offense was simply dependent on the opponent.
Coordinator Doug Nussmeier has put together a confusing résumé.
- His lone year as Fresno State OC (2008) was disappointing; the Bulldogs fell from 24th to 53rd in Off. SP+.
- His three years at Washington (2009-11) were a rousing success. He inherited a unit that had ranked 88th and improved it to 39th, then 30th, then 16th.
- His two years at Alabama (2012-13) were good, too. He inherited an attack that ranked 20th and graded out at seventh, then ninth.
- His lone season at Michigan (2014) was a disaster. He was hired to save a mediocre Wolverines attack (61st in 2013) and made it worse (89th).
- His two seasons at Florida have been … inconsequential. The Gators were below average and have neither improved nor regressed.
In 2016, the Gators were neither efficient nor explosive:
We still have memories of Tebow and Percy Harvin and the near-perfection of the late-2000s offenses, so despite nearly a decade of mediocrity, it’s still a little jarring. Nussmeier basically operated the 2016 Gators attack like an underdog would:
- He slowed the tempo to a crawl (113th in Adj. Pace).
- He called constant passes on running downs (56 percent run rate on standard downs, 89th in FBS).
- He called plenty of runs on passing downs (37 percent run rate on PDs, 37th).
That belies a concerted effort to avoid exposing his quarterback, giving the QB easy pitches and catches on downs in which opponents are minding the run and keeping him out of hostile third-and-longs. It can be useful.
Unfortunately, Florida still ranked 94th in passing success rate and 55th in Passing SP+. After leaning on Will Grier, then on Treon Harris, and ranking 41st in 2015, Nussmeier leaned on Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio and regressed.
Del Rio returns in 2017, but we could see two more new QBs atop the depth chart: redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. If they both start at least a game, they would become the 10th and 11th different Gator starting QBs in eight seasons since Tebow left. Funny how a complete and total lack of continuity and quality at QB can drag you down a bit.
Franks is a 6’6, 220-pound former blue-chipper, but Zaire might be the most interesting. He generated Heisman buzz while completing 19 of 22 passes against Texas in the 2015 opener, but he struggled against Virginia the next week (7-for-18), then broke his ankle and was lost for the season. He returned in 2016 but never found a rhythm as DeShone Kizer’s backup, completing just 11 of 23 passes.
We have no idea who the real Zaire might be, but the best news would probably be Franks winning the job. At the least, that would suggest a reasonably high ceiling and provide an exciting path forward for an offense that could still be pretty young.
There are some upperclassmen involved. Running back Jordan Scarlett is a junior, and the top four returning targets (receivers Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell, tight ends DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis) are either juniors or seniors.
Scarlett has had his moments — 7.2 yards per carry against Missouri, South Carolina, and Iowa (and, yes, 4.2 against everyone else) — and evidently Callaway’s upside is worth the constant, frustrating discipline he has warranted off the field.
Some of the most exciting players on this offense, however, are sophomores. The trio of Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, and Freddie Swain combined to average 18.5 yards per catch (Callaway: 13.4) with a 47 percent success rate (Powell and Callaway: 45 percent). Callaway’s season-opening suspension might open up some opportunities for young former blue-chippers. Throw in freshmen James Robinson and Daquon Green, and you’ve got a five-some of young former four- and five-star recruits who might have both the ceilings and floors to outshine their elders.
Lamical Perine had 17 carries for 105 yards against Kentucky and 11 for 106 against Missouri before fading. He still has plenty of time to grow, as does a line that had to battle constant injury/shuffling — eight guys started at least once, seven started at least four times, and only one started all 13 games — and returns seven players with starting experience, only one of whom is a senior. Guard Martez Ivey leads a line that has almost no choice but to improve.
As long as it has been since Florida had a good offense, it’s been even longer since the Gators had a less-than-elite defense. An incredibly young 2007 unit fell from third to 52nd in Def. SP+ before surging back into the top five the next two years, and ever since, the Gator D has been somewhere between excellent and the best in the country. That tends to be what happens when you mix blue-chip recruits with blue-chip coaches.
Since 2003, Florida’s coordinators have been Charlie Strong (53 wins in seven years as an FBS head coach), Teryl Austin (now Detroit Lions DC), Dan Quinn (now Atlanta Falcons head coach), D.J. Durkin (now Maryland head coach), and Geoff Collins (now Temple head coach). That’s a high bar for Randy Shannon.
Shannon had consistently strong defenses at Miami as coordinator and head coach, but he’s bounced around since. He spent a year as TCU linebackers coach, then two in the same role at Arkansas before landing with McElwain in 2015. He was listed as “co-coordinator” the last two years, and he’ll probably be fine.
He has quite a few holes to fill in the back, though. He was already tasked with replacing corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson (combined: 5.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, 12 breakups, and two spots in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft) and stalwart safety Marcus Maye; in July, he was dealt another blow when leading returning safety Marcell Harris tore his Achilles. He was a lovely near-the-line complement to the ball-hawking Maye.
This could be another case in which one year’s injuries become another year’s experience. Davis, Anzalone, and Maye all missed at least four games in 2016, meaning sophomores like safety Chauncey Gardner and linebackers David Reese and Kylan Johnson all got more playing time than expected. That Gardner had six passes defensed and Johnson had five tackles for loss is pretty exciting.
Throw in a few old hands — corner Duke Dawson (eight passes defensed, 3.5 TFLs) and safety Nick Washington — and you’ve probably got yourself a solid first string. But if the injury bug bites again, the Gators will field a lot of freshmen in a short amount of time.
There could be depth issues up front, too, at least in the middle. The loss of Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie means that only two returning DTs (Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark) saw much of the field last year. Bryan is a potential play-maker (three of his 13 stops were behind the line), but this is still only two guys for two positions. Monstrous freshmen Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell and little-used, undersized sophomores Luke Ancrum and Jachai Polite will likely be thrust into action.
You never know how and where your depth will be tested, though. If the tackles hold up, the ends could dominate. The foursome of juniors Cece Jefferson and Keivonnis Davis, senior Jordan Sherit, and sophomore Jabari Zuniga combined for 23 TFLs and 11.5 sacks — not amazing numbers, but good enough to create pressure without blitzing a ton.
With a small number of injuries, this defense should be just fine — the upside is still high, and Shannon is a steady hand. But with a couple poorly placed injuries, the Gators could have one of the youngest defenses in the country.
It hasn’t been the case every year post-Tebow, but it’s felt like it: in 2016, you could again make the case that Florida’s punter was its best offensive contributor. Johnny Townsend averaged a staggering 47.9 yards per punt last year, and top-10 punt efficiency basically helped to add an extra first down or so to the end of every Gator drive.
Townsend is back, as is kicker Eddy Pineiro, a human touchback on kickoffs and mostly automatic place-kicker; he made 10 of 12 field goals under 40 yards last year and 11 of 13 beyond 40.
It’s no surprise that these two legs gave Florida a No. 2 ranking in Special Teams SP+. The Gators will probably be in the top 10 again this year, especially if Callaway is still around to return punts.
You could say SP+ is punting on figuring out Florida this year. The Gators were 15th last year and project 15th this year. They were 8-4 in the regular season last year and project 8-4 this year. Boring, right?
There are almost no senior contributors, which means 2017 feels like a table-setter for 2018.
There is opportunity for both progress and peril this fall, however. The Gators face only three teams projected worse than 60th (Northern Colorado, Vanderbilt, UAB) after facing seven such teams last year. Meanwhile, they play three projected top-10 teams, which McElwain’s track record suggests are three likely losses. That puts a hard cap on the Gators’ ceiling.
But look at the home-road splits. Florida only has three true road games, and none are against teams projected better than 36th. They face SP+ No. 3 FSU, No. 4 LSU, No. 19 Texas AM, and No. 24 Tennessee at home, and they get No. 10 Michigan and No. 20 Georgia on a neutral field. If the Gators slightly exceed their No. 15 projection, they could threaten 11 wins.
If they suffer some defensive injuries and underachieve their projections, however, then the near-total lack of truly likely wins is alarming. Another four-loss season appears to be the most likely scenario, but the range of outcomes here is enormous.