ESPN's FPI predicts Florida will go 8-4. Is the ceiling even higher for Dan Mullen in Year 1?
GAINESVILLE — Florida has a new head coach drawing rave reviews, a new strength and conditioning program setting a demanding standard, and a proven coaching staff that is already changing the culture of mediocrity that has engulfed Florida football for nearly a decade. Coveted recruits aren’t just visiting, they are coming and singing Florida’s praises again, and more are headed in for Saturday’s spring game. NFL alumni that felt ostracized under the prior staff are returning in waves, feeling welcome and serving as a reminder of what Florida football was, and what it again can be. As one Gator upperclassman told me last week — it’s already “night and day” under Dan Mullen. For the first time in a long time, there’s a palpable buzz- and something beyond blind optimism- swirling around Florida’s football program.
But for all the buzz and fanfare, Gators fans should remember that rebuilds don’t happen overnight, and even with the right guy in place, Year 1 can be more about removing the toxins and laying a strong foundation than immediately competing for championships.
Recent history in the SEC confirms this warning.
Kirby Smart’s first Georgia team underachieved at 8-5, at least in terms of the talent at their disposal, but laid a cultural foundation for what was to come. Nick Saban’s first Alabama team memorably went 7-6 and lost a home game to lowly Louisiana-Monroe, but processed out the excess in a program destined to become America’s best in the years that would follow. The history mostly holds at Florida too, where Urban Meyer’s first team finished 9-3, suffering crushing defeats to LSU and Alabama, but planted the seeds for the dominant half-decade to come.
Perhaps the challenging history of SEC coaching transitions explains the recent ESPN FPI prediction that Florida will win 8 games in 2018.
ESPN's FPI has updated its preseason numbers for the 2018 season. Here are the projected win/loss records and percentage of winning the league for every SEC team: pic.twitter.com/K8eA0vNC3R
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) April 5, 2018
The 8-win projection points to a larger reality that for all the warranted praise surrounding the beginning of Mullen’s tenure in Gainesville, this is a Florida team that enters Saturday’s spring game, and the 2018 season beyond it, with plenty of the same questions that have defined the program for the last eight seasons.
Who will the quarterback be?
Dan Mullen must decide between a reclamation project in Feleipe Franks, a lightly-regarded sophomore who hasn’t played a down in Kyle Trask, and two freshmen, highly-coveted Emory Jones and redshirt freshman Jake Allen. The early buzz says Franks is the leader in the clubhouse, but how long will he be able to keep Jones at bay, especially if the freshman excels in run packages?
How will Florida adjust to the change in defensive scheme from Randy Shannon’s basic 4-3 to Todd Grantham’s Steelers 3-4?
While I remain convinced that Todd Grantham’s decision to relentlessly blitz Jalen Hurts in the second half cost Miss State a “W” last season against Alabama, I also think Grantham didn’t get enough respect nationally for the job he did turning Miss State around defensively. The Bulldogs went from 73rd in national S & P+ defense in 2016 to 19th in 2017, by far the largest improvement in college football. Grantham’s work with Montez Sweat, a talented but by no means freakish athlete who led the SEC in sacks, was especially impressive.
In Gainesville, Grantham will arguably inherit a more talented group of personnel, led by the freakish Cece Jefferson, who will play the Sweat role on the outside of the 3-4. Florida’s defense was young last season, and torched at times — especially in losses to Georgia and Missouri. But they also improved dramatically at the end of the season, even as the walls were crumbling around them.
How much Grantham can improve a linebacking core that is fundamentally sound but also undersized and in the case of MLB David Reese, slow sideline to sideline, will tell the tale.
Will Florida’s offensive line be good enough to create creases for a talented group of running backs?
The good news, as I wrote last week, is that in Mullen’s run-heavy spread the offensive line isn’t asked to blow defenders off the ball at the point of attack. Florida doesn’t have the personnel up front to do that, even with the return of senior Martez Ivey and a healthy Brett Heggie, who graded out as Florida’s best lineman a year ago before being lost in November to injury, despite being a freshman. Instead, Mullen’s scheme calls for zone blocking that creates creases for runners to hit fast and vertical, which should suit Florida’s stable of talented running back personnel, led by Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and All-SEC freshman Malik Davis.
For Florida to be successful in 2018, a strong and effective running game that can lighten the load on a developing quarterback situation is a must.
The good news?
A change in culture can be a great thing. And for all the history supporting the idea that Year 1 transitional teams can struggle, there are exceptions.
Gus Malzahn’s first Auburn team went 12-2 and came a perfect Jameis Winston 2-minute drill from winning a national championship. Auburn was 3-9 the year prior.
Les Miles’s first LSU team went 11-2, a two-win improvement over Nick Saban’s last LSU team that finished with only 9 wins despite a dream team coaching staff of Saban, Jimbo Fisher (OC) and Will Muschamp (DC).
The 1989 Florida Gators limped to a 7-5 mark despite a defense full of future NFL players and a running back by the name of Emmitt Smith. They lost Emmitt; but added Steve Spurrier and promptly went 9-2 a year later, winning the SEC Championship until the NCAA stripped the title for infractions committed by the prior staff.
In other words, a culture change can pay immediate dividends.
Of course, Florida’s schedule is daunting
The usual cross-division battle with LSU looms, as does the annual Cocktail Party in Jacksonville and a year-end tilt at Florida State, which has owned Florida this decade. There’s also a trip to Knoxville, where the Vols will want to avenge the “Heave to Cleve”, and a rare but difficult trip to Miss State, which will want to defeat the coach who left them in a place where Florida has only one win in its past five trips dating to 1986.
In the end, with that schedule, 8 wins seems realistic.
But as for me — I’m buying into the Mullen Magic — so put me down for 9 wins in Year 1.
Looking at the schedule, Georgia and Florida State seem like losses. But four games are genuine toss-ups: at Tennessee, at Miss State, LSU and South Carolina. If Florida goes 3-1 in those four and win a bowl, they can claim 9 wins Year 1, and a lay a foundation for Gator greatness to come.