Phil Steele is great, but no Florida in the preseason Top 25? Come on, man
Phil Steele makes college football better. There’s no denying it.
There’s something special about being able to go to your local grocery store or book store and finding that thick, loaded magazine full of college football goodness during the dead of summer. We want it. We need it. Even in the Year 2021 wherein college football content galore is a click away, Steele’s college football preview is gospel.
Good. I got that out of the way. Remember those kind words as you, reader of this column, interpret these not-so-kind words.
Steele not putting Florida in his preseason Top 25 is a wild overcorrection.
There are not 25 better teams than Dan Mullen’s squad, no matter what anyone tries to say about the Cotton Bowl fiasco or the loss of the passing game production. Leaving a team with 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl berths out of the Top 25 to start the year is a head-scratcher at best. It’s flat wrong at worst.
For starters, remember that preseason rankings are supposed to be based on what a team looks like Week 1. It’s not supposed to be an end-of-season projection. Strength of schedule should have zero impact on where a team is ranked to start the year.
And let’s also get rid of any notion that Steele has some anti-Florida bias. Before 2018, he predicted the Gators would completely flip the script in Year 1 of the Mullen era, and he was right:
Phil Steele names Florida as his Most Improved Team in the nation for 2018. He named the Gators as his #1 surprise national title contender heading into 2017; they finished 4-7
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) June 12, 2018
So maybe Steele is incredibly concerned with the end-of-season performance. Perhaps that’s why he ranked teams like LSU, Wisconsin and Penn State, all of which started horribly but finished 2020 on winning streaks just to get back to mediocrity. Arizona State earned a Top 25 spot for Steele, which was probably a product of finishing on a 2-game win streak … and I’m guessing those rankings were due before the Sun Devils were at the forefront of a national recruiting scandal that put the future of the entire coaching staff in jeopardy.
At least I’d hope.
But let’s focus on Florida because while I wholeheartedly disagree with ranking TCU, Arizona State or Penn State ahead of the Gators, this comes down to the perceived drop-off between last year’s team and this year’s team.
Losing 8 players to the NFL Draft and other undrafted guys like Trevon Grimes and Brad Stewart is definitely significant. Brian Johnson was also extremely valuable within that locker room, and now he’s the Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach. The questions in the passing game are viable. There’s also no denying that rival Georgia will have more talent in 2021.
Having said that, let’s not pretend like the Gators are in position to fall off the face of the earth.
Mullen might not have Kirby Smart-level recruiting ability, but it’s been nothing but top-12 classes in his full cycles. Last year, the Gators ranked No. 7 in the 247sports team talent composite rankings and will, at the very least, be a borderline top-10 team in that department in 2021. Mullen also added 5 transfers from Power 5 programs. He has a new starting quarterback in Emory Jones, yes, but it’s someone who has had 3 years of time to develop in his system. Mullen is the same guy who helped turn Nick Fitzgerald and Feleipe Franks into solid SEC quarterbacks.
And even if you think Todd Grantham should be out of a job, you can at least acknowledge that this defense is poised to improve.
Kaiir Elam, Zachary Carter, Ventrell Miller and Brenton Cox all have legitimate first-team All-SEC upside. Defensive line transfers Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) should provide a key lift up front, as well. Shelton is really going to get the push up front — against the run and against the pass — that plagued Florida far too often. As much as we talk about the edge guys in Grantham’s defense, it starts with the defensive tackle spot winning that matchup.
Not ranking Florida in the Top 25 suggests Steele doesn’t forecast improvement coming from that defense, which certainly struggled with consistency in the herky-jerky 2020 season. Or at least he’s not forecasting enough improvement to warrant that early-season ranking.
What’s bizarre is Steele’s ranking — or lack thereof — seems to be based more on the 3-game losing streak than the fact that in 3 years of the Mullen era, Florida only has 2 losses against teams that finished unranked. Say what you want about Florida’s upside. The floor has still proven to be well worthy of a set-it-and-forget-it Top 25 ranking. The Gators are riding a streak of 36 consecutive games played as a Top 25 team.
In all likelihood, that’ll continue in 2021. Steele’s ranking certainly isn’t the consensus. Looking at 5 national publications — SDS (No. 12), ESPN (No. 17), The Athletic (No. 17), Sporting News (No. 8), CBS Sports (No. 13) — the consensus ranking for the Gators is No. 13. And all of those publications voice concerns over the passing game shift. It’s still not enough to completely remove a team with — I cannot stress this enough — 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl appearances.
Mullen, despite his flaws, has done more than enough to show that he has one of the country’s better teams until proven otherwise. Some will say rankings don’t matter, especially in the preseason. They’ll say that if you win the SEC, the rest will take care of itself. That’s all well and good. A sport with an 8-month offseason does, however, have a unique emphasis on hype and expectations.
Florida earned the right to have those expectations. Maybe they aren’t national title expectations or even Playoff expectations, but an unranked start to 2021? Let’s not lose our minds.
In his career delivering college football gospel, Steele made more accurate preseason calls than all of us combined — Florida outside his preseason Top 25 just isn’t one of them.