Florida’s 31 game-winning streak over Kentucky is no more, snapped Saturday night in The Swamp by a hungrier, just-as-fast and far more physical Kentucky program.
Read that again for effect, and marinate on this: As painful as it was for the Gators to see the Kentucky flag planted on the 50 yard-line of Steve Spurrier Field, the result was no fluke. The fourth-longest streak in an uninterrupted series in FBS history ended because Kentucky was unequivocally better at football than Florida.
That’s where Florida football is in 2018.
Mark Stoops’ program at Kentucky is healthier, more physical and more consistent than the program Dan Mullen took over in Gainesville last November. Kentucky isn’t more talented, per almost any recruiting or returning personnel metric. But the culture is presently better, the consistency in performance is superior, and Saturday, that played out on the field.
Let’s get something else out of the way as well.
Dan Mullen knows he can’t lose to Kentucky.
Florida is a blue blood, one of the SEC’s bell cows. Beating Kentucky is an expectation at elite programs, and Florida is no different.
It’s not a knock against Kentucky or what Stoops has built in Lexington. It’s just a reality. It’s hard to find an elite team in the last few decades that has accomplished any of its goals or won a league championship while also losing to Kentucky. The one exception is LSU 2007, which lost in three overtimes to a brilliant Kentucky team led by QB Andre’ Woodson in Lexington and still went on to win the national championship. That was a damn strong LSU football team. It was also a bizarre historical outlier, as both a team that lost two games and won a national championship and a team that lost a football game to Kentucky and lived to accomplish its championship goals.
Florida can’t lose to Kentucky and be elite.
And yet, to borrow a phrase from the Florida coach most responsible for how the Gators got here, therein lies the rub.
Any postmortem on Florida’s loss to Kentucky should point to a broader reality: As of today, as of September 2018, Florida isn’t an elite football program.
Florida is a program with a rich history, the winningest SEC football program since 1990, the second-winningest since 1980. Florida is the flagship university in one of if not the most talent-rich state for prep football in America, with a prestigious academic reputation and an immense endowment. It has a tremendous fan base, a steamy cauldron of sound for a home field advantage and new and improved administrative support and facilities — with more upgrades on the way — to help it recruit. There is a pathway back to the summit of the mountain.
But right now, Florida is struggling to gain a foothold at the mountain’s first base camp.
Mullen knows this.
“You don’t go from here to here in one step,” the Florida head coach said Monday.
Culture matters and Florida’s was broken
The first component of Florida’s journey “from here to here” is undoubtedly cultural, and it is a portion of the voyage many fans discount.
Mullen mentioned culture directly this week, when he talked about the frustration of watching too many Florida practices with little physicality and urgency.
“It starts even just how we practice,” Mullen said. “They just have to learn how to practice the right way. I watched some of the stuff — when you’ve got scout periods, you go to the other team’s looks, they kind of treated that as walkthroughs, and it’s not. You’ve got to thud. You’ve got to wrap up. You’ve got to drive back. Scout teams have got to perform better and be a little bit more physical. It’s a mindset of how you practice and how you treat every day.”
Florida’s cultural issues spill over beyond the practice field.
A year removed from the Credit Card Nine scandal that cost Florida nine scholarship players and derailed an entire season before it even began, Florida continues to battle entitlement issues off the field.
The presumed face of the program, senior All-SEC DE/LB Cece Jefferson has missed the season’s first two games due to academic issues. It is unknown when he’ll return.
Another player, sophomore running back Adarius Lemons, blew up in the locker room after Florida’s loss to Kentucky about his lack of carries (he was fifth on the running back depth chart) and announced his transfer in an iPhone note less than an hour after the game. Lemons has to do what’s best for him and his family, but typically, fifth-string running backs aren’t that entitled.
Another proud southern program has been through this less than a decade ago.
When Dabo Swinney took over as head coach at Clemson, he sensed a program where players didn’t practice hard and the team generally was divided in cliques. A former walk-on who consumed football like air, Swinney couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to work hard. But he did know that he had to repair the culture first and foremost.
“That was the thing about Dabo. He knew culture impacted recruiting. Kids want to go where they can get to the league, that’s never going to change,” a former Clemson assistant told me this summer.
“But Swinney knew culture impacts winning. He had been an assistant, of course, so he was there and could sense it was off. But he wanted it to be a family. He said ‘Clemson family’ and meant it. Kids are drawn to the idea that they are all in this together,” he said.
“Yeah, you can go the league at Florida,” he added. “But if your choice is between Florida and another place you can go to the league, if culture is great at one and not the other, it isn’t a hard decision for families. Culture is a huge part of recruiting, and recruiting is everything.”
Florida needs more talent
The second component of the journey “from here to here” is about talent.
Put plainly, assembling a roster chock full of blue-chip (4 or 5-star recruits) talent is essential to (re)joining the college football elite.
Dating to 2003, every national champion had a roster composed of at least 52 percent blue-chip talent. Last year’s national champion, Alabama, had an astonishing 80 percent blue-chip players. Even 52 percent is low, but the team that won with that blue-chip ratio was Clemson in 2016, and they featured Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Given this decade and a half trend, Bud Elliott at SB Nation has compellingly argued that the blue-chip ration minimum for any national title contender is 50 percent.
Mullen’s first roster is comprised of 41 percent blue-chips following the departure of 2018 WR/DB signee Justin Watkins this summer. For perspective, that’s 36 percent below this year’s national champion, Alabama (77%), 28 percent below SEC Champion Georgia (69%), 26 percent below Willie Taggart’s first team at Florida State (67%) and 22 percent below SEC West annual crossover opponent LSU (63%). Those numbers alone are instructive: On at least three Saturday this season, Florida will line up against teams that are overwhelmingly more talented than they are.
One interesting moment of Saturday night’s SEC Network broadcast was when Steve Spurrier was interviewed in the booth, and the architect of 6 SEC Championships and a national championship at Florida and three consecutive 11-win seasons at South Carolina noted Florida’s need for a talent influx:
Spurrier wisely speaks to the necessity that Florida recruit at a higher level than it did under Jim McElwain and do so immediately. Not only that, but Florida must recruit with more balance than it did under Will Muschamp, a good enough blue-chip recruiter but one whose Florida classes were defined by debilitating imbalance (64%-36% blue-chip ration defense to offense).
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Florida needs to improve the talent.
What will bother some is the pace in which Mullen is capable of doing that. Mullen did sign what on paper is inarguably the best transition class in school history last season. He has also picked up some momentum in August and September after a frighteningly slow start to what analysts often call the “bump class”– the second class under a new coach and the one where recruiting sees the biggest “bump” due to excitement around the hire and the staff’s vision for the future.
As a result, Florida’s 2019 class has moved from the 30s in the 24/7 composite recruiting rankings (behind Duke) to the high-teens (currently No. 18).
Still, while a top 10 class is possible, it’s also possible, if not likely, that Florida will finish just outside the top 10 again, a recruiting result that likely would unleash a wave of criticism on Florida’s new staff.
Here’s where I’d offer a word of caution: Florida doesn’t have the look of a fast rebuild.
The dreaded ‘P’ word — patience
For one, the talent is not on par with a quick rebuild.
Jim McElwain inherited a blue-chip ratio of 54% and promptly took the Gators to Atlanta, even if the Gators were a mess after the suspension of QB Will Grier.
Kirby Smart inherited a blue-chip ratio of 62% and a 10-win team and promptly lost five games anyway. A year later, however, he got the last laugh as his team was playing for a national championship.
Even Nick Saban, the mastermind of eleventy billion (OK, six) national championships at LSU and Alabama, inherited a roster with blue-chip ratio of 46% from Mike Shula, five points higher than what Mullen inherited from McElwain. Saban’s first Alabama team was miserable, but the program itself was one bad season removed from a Sugar Bowl when he took over.
Dan Mullen inherits a program that has won 4 games twice in five years and whose best win in that span is either a home rout of Ole Miss with Grier or an Outback Bowl win over Iowa.
Florida is nowhere near where Georgia or even Alabama were when Smart and Saban took over, from either a talent or a cultural standpoint. Those schools were, at most, one-prong rebuilds. Insert talent or install culture and go.
Smart inherited a 10-win team and a good culture from Mark Richt. He added talent and installed a better culture, but there is still no comparison to Gainesville.
Saban’s talent level was closer to Mullen’s, with his roster a season removed from a Sugar Bowl. He won 11 games with mostly the same players in year two. The main changes were almost entirely cultural.
Florida? It’s been miserable.
It’s hard to dominate in living rooms when your culture is fractured and your football team is dominated by Kentucky.
Here again, the Clemson model seems to stick out.
Clemson provided blue print, but it took time, too
Swinney’s rebuild was a two-pronged, slow rebuild, similar to what Mullen has ahead of him.
Clemson had a proud fan base, incredible administrative support and a strong recruiting base on the South Carolina/Georgia border to tap into. There are other tangible similarities as well. Swinney had to contend with a powerful rival being built in his conference — Florida State — and an in-state rival playing the best football in program history — South Carolina. Given these constraints, things moved slowly.
Swinney’s first two recruiting classes finished outside the top 25 and on the field, mustered nothing more than a Music City Bowl win. It wasn’t until Year 3 that Swinney landed the crucial “bump class,” signing the first of a string of top 20 classes at Clemson, hough he wouldn’t collect another top 10 class until 2015, when the Tigers finished ninth (per 247).
“I think the builds are very similar, both on scheme and culture” a SEC assistant told me this summer.
“Schematically, Dan wants to do something entirely different, just like Dabo. Culturally, there is an even bigger difference between Mullen and (McElwain) than there was with Dabo and (Tommy) Bowden. Dan got a 4-win culture and maybe an 8-win roster, which is about where Dabo was the first full season. People know Gainesville is a special place just like they know Clemson is a special place. But there’s a tax to all those years of mediocrity.”
There will be differences, of course.
Florida plays in a better conference, for one, and the impetus is on Mullen to recruit to the SEC standard, which might demand more Top 10 classes in the first five years than Dabo had at Clemson, to begin with.
But Mullen isn’t without advantages of his own.
His first class was better and his second is on track to be. His in-state rival, Florida State, isn’t winning 11 games his first two full years on the job, even if his in-division rival, Georgia, is becoming a fully-operational death star.
No two jobs are ever the same.
The point is less about the exactness of the comparison and more about the need for patience.
All fan bases are impatient. Expectations at a place like Florida should be high. They should also occasionally be tethered to reality.
Florida’s reality right now?
It was just dominated by Kentucky in football on its homefield.
It’s a long way back from that.