On Friday evening I took my annual summertime trip to the bookstore to pick up preview magazines for College Football season. As I perused the magazine covers I noticed a disturbing trend.
First I saw Athlon’s Top 10, and was both shocked and amused to see Florida ranked over Georgia...
Then I noticed that Lindy’s had a similar order...
Lastly, there was the cover of Street & Smith’s preview magazine...
Despite the fact that their preseason rankings indicated that these publications would be worth more as fire starters than actual reading material, I was intrigued. Surely within the pages of one of these magazines I would find some factual information that explained the rationale behind these predictions, right?
Athlon lays out unit rankings by conference in their magazine. Perhaps there I would find some answers to the question of what rationale lied behind picking the Gators over the Bulldogs in the SEC East.
Nope. If anything, this makes the talent gap between Georgia and Florida look even larger than I thought it was. What’s surprising here is that the reason that makes the most sense for picking Florida over Georgia this year is that the Gators return Kyle Trask at quarterback and Georgia has a roster full of talented question marks at the position. Despite that, Athlon ranks UGA’s QB room ahead of the one in Gainesville. They also rank Jamie Newman third on their list of potential Heisman winners.
Lindy’s does not rank team’s units by conference, but it does rank the top ten units at each position group nationally. Neither team is ranked with a top-10 backfield or offensive line, but Georgia does come in at the 10th spot for wide-receivers. Trust me, I was as shocked to read that as you are.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Dawgs rank 10th on the defensive line, 2nd in the linebacking corps and 3rd in the secondary. Florida ranks 4th in the defensive backs category, but doesn’t appear anywhere else on the lists.
By reading these rankings, one would believe that Georgia is the favorite to win the SEC East. So, why was Florida selected to take the division crown this season?
One of the publications points to the fact Florida has had continuity at their coordinator positions. I’m sorry, what?
There is nobody more happy to see Todd Grantham remain employed by the University of Florida than Georgia fans. The man is known by the well-earned moniker “Third-and-Grantham” for a reason. If he was a younger coach it might be logical to reason that he might learn a lesson this offseason about what package to call on third-down. At ten years in, I highly doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon.
I’m happy to see the guy who allowed the worst UGA offense of my lifetime to go 12-18 on third downs against the Gators last year waddle out of the tunnel to coach against my team on any day.
I was also happy to see Kirby Smart replace James ‘Mr Zone-Read” Coley with Todd Monken. Monken is so good at what he does that he almost took Oklahoma State to a national title game while averaging 48.7 points a game, 549.8 yards a game and 7.24 yards a play. He followed that up by taking a Southern Miss team that went 0-12 the year before he arrived to 9-5 in his third season. That team finished in the Top-20 nationally in scoring offense (13th, 39.9 ppg), passing offense (12th, 329.7 ypg) and total offense (12th, 509.5 ypg). The Golden Eagles lead the nation in plays of 20+ yards (109) and ranked second in the country in plays of 30+ yards (54). I will trade that type of prowess from a new coordinator over continuity anytime.
The other two reasons mentioned for Florida ranking ahead of the Bulldogs are as follows. The first, Dan Mullen is a good offensive coach. The second, if not this season, when Georgia replaces a lot on the offensive side of the ball, than when will the Gators ever take the East from Georgia?
First, let’s talk about Dan Mullen. Mullen’s reputation as a offensive guru started when he coached under Urban Meyer at Utah and Florida. As you might have noticed, Meyer’s teams did just fine without him. That reputation really blossomed when Mississippi State got out to a 9-0 start and #1 ranking in 2014 behind quarterback Dak Prescott. The media raved about how Mullen turned a three-star quarterback into a Heisman Trophy candidate. Prescott was a perfect fit in Mullen’s spread-option offense. He was built like a tank and looked like a running back in the open field. He wasn’t the most efficient passer at only a 61% completion percentage, but his running ability made defenses account for his legs and lead to lots of wide-open receivers running freely.
That 2014 season came to a halt for Mississippi State when Dan Mullen’s offense faced Kirby Smart’s Alabama defense. They scored 20 points in a loss that day. It would be the first of three losses in the last four games that season.
Those 20 points are the most points a Dan Mullen coached offense has ever scored against a Kirby Smart defense.
When Smart was in Tuscaloosa from 2008-2016, Mullen’s Mississippi State teams put up the following amount of points against Alabama- 7, 3, 10, 7, 7, 7, 20, 6, 3.
Since Smart has become head coach at Georgia, he and Mullen have faced each other three times. All three of those contests have been Georgia wins. In those games Mullen’s offenses scored the following amount of points- 3, 17, 17.
Mullen was an early adapter of the spread offense. He embraced something new and innovative to help him gain an advantage at a school where he didn’t have the same amount of talent that his competition did. For that, he deserves credit. Variations of the spread offense is employed now more than ever in college football, and what has become clear is that elite speed on defense neutralizes it better than anything else.
Georgia has that type of speed, and it recruits that speed every year. Kirby Smart’s defenses were one of the first to figure out Mullen’s version of the spread, and Mullen has been unable to develop enough new wrinkles to get an edge over Smart and Georgia. An offensive genius wouldn’t fail to innovate against an opposing coach over a twelve year period.
The development of Dak Prescott is the thing Mullen defenders point to first when they call him a QB guru. While there’s no denying that Mullen employed his skill set well, it’s also clear that Prescott wasn’t your run-of-the-mill three-star quarterback. He became an All-Pro for the Dallas Cowboys, and his passing mechanics have improved over that time. That’s not a guru. That’s a head coach who lucked into a generational talent that ended up at Mississippi State because he was misevaluated by the recruiting industry.
The other guy that Mullen defenders point to as an example of his ability to develop quarterbacks was Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a 2-star recruit who shocked the SEC when he rushed for over 1,300 yards his first season as the starter in Dan Mullen’s offense while completing 54.3% of his passes. The next year he rushed for 400 fewer yards. His yards per an attempt went down by a yard, his number of touchdown passes lessened and he threw more interceptions. There was no development there. Mullen couldn’t turn him into a passer. When teams were strong enough up front to neutralize him as a running threat, Mississippi State’s offense was listless. That’s exactly what happened in Georgia’s 31-3 thrashing of the other Bulldogs in 2017.
The question that nobody seems to be asking is why Dan Mullen has had to develop so many quarterbacks that were three-stars to begin with. If he is such an incredible developer of the position shouldn’t blue-chip quarterbacks be lining up to play for him? If he’s such a quarterback whisperer than why does Georgia land a grad transfer with five-star pedigree like JT Daniels with Mullen down the road in Gainesville? How is it that the Dawgs secure a commitment from 2021’s #1 ranked high-school quarterback in Brock Vandagriff with Mullen in their same division?
Maybe Mullen’s reputation in the media is different from the one he has among high-school coaches and recruits.
Now about the whole “if not this year than when” belief...
A lot of the hype around Florida in 2020 centers around the return of Kyle Trask. Trask came in last year and made Florida’s offense better when he replaced Felipe Franks. If nothing else, he valued ball security much more than Franks and gave the Gators a consistent personality behind center. It’s probably another indictment against Mullen that Trask was ever on the bench behind Franks, but any coach can tell you it’s better to be lucky than good.
Even with the improvement under center, Florida’s offense was only the 45th best in college football when it came to yards per game. The Gators ranked 34th in points per game. Trask also put up an impressive 354 yards per game, but that was really the only way Florida could move the ball in 2019. The Gators finished 117th nationally with just 118 rushing yards a game. Florida finished the year with just 4.0 yards per an attempt on the ground.
This is where we need to talk about expectations versus reality. When it comes to how the media assesses teams in the preseason, there’s often far too much weight put onto who the quarterback is, and whhat that quarterback did the year before.
Six of Trask’s top eight pass catchers in 2019 are now gone. If you think this doesn’t matter, I would like to remind you of the production that was lost going into Jake Fromm’s final season at Georgia.
We know that Florida couldn’t run the ball well in 2019. Should we really expect them to run the ball better in 2020 with an offensive line that returns all but one starter from 2019? If new players don’t break into the rotation up front Florida is in trouble in 2020.
Grantham’s defense was held together last season by a strong line that was excellent in pass rush, and a linebacking corps that was good against the run. Jonathan Greenard lead the SEC in sacks, and Jabari Zuniga also caused havoc for offensive lines. They’re both gone to the NFL. Also gone is linebacker David Reese, who was an excellent run stopper. UGA transfer Brenton Cox was the best linebacker on the team the moment he arrived in Gainesville, but Mullen hasn’t acquired any other talent at the position. Florida is likely to struggle against the run and rushing the passer, which will put a lot of pressure on a good secondary. Will they be as good in coverage if they’re having to help stop the run? No.
Florida’s offensive talent digresses in 2020. So will their defensive talent. On the flip side, Georgia returns almost all of the nation’s #1 scoring defense. The Dawgs gave up just 12.9 points a game in 2019. Florida looked explosive during a lot of games in 2019, but the contest in Jacksonville wasn’t one of them. Should we expect a Florida offense with less talent to produce a better output against a Georgia defense that returns more? No.
Georgia does replace their quarterback, running back, starting wide-receiver Lawerence Cager and three starters along the offensive line. The difference between Georgia and Florida is that Georgia fills the holes left by graduation and the NFL Draft with five-star talent at almost every spot. In some cases, that talent goes two and three deep. If an expected starter isn’t living up to expectations there’s almost certainly someone who can and will.
Dan Mullen might be able to scheme a three-star quarterback into being successful against most of the teams on his schedule, but Kirby Smart can recruit the talent to assure that Georgia isn’t one of those teams.
Georgia’s offense was extremely average and unexplosive in 2019. The Gators had a roster stacked full of key contributors who were either seniors or draft bound underclassmen in 2019.
When you take all of that into consideration and look at what the two teams have coming back in 2020, it becomes clear that Florida’s best chance at beating Georgia for the foreseeable future was last year.
To assume that just because Mullen is entering another year at the helm at Florida means his team is pulling closer to, or surpassing, Georgia is a fallacy. The reality is that Mullen’s predecessor recruited better talent than he has, and he is relying too heavily on a transfer market that didn’t bring him any difference makers this offseason.
With the way Kirby Smart has recruited, his team gets better each year one class graduates and another one comes in.
Georgia fans spent much of the nineties relying on the false hope that time would inevitably skyrocket the Dawgs past Tennessee and Florida in the SEC East hierarchy.
Jim Donnan recruited the core of an SEC Champion. It took Mark Richt to organize it properly. Richt’s inability to recruit at a truly elite level lead to his eventual downfall. It took Kirby Smart’s recruiting abilities to turn Georgia back into a true powerhouse.
Dan Mullen’s organizational abilities have been lauded for years, but we watched his team burn two timeouts at the start of last year’s Cocktail Party because his team was wearing the wrong wristbands.
Mullen has tried to create an illusion of closing the gap against Georgia. He said the gap between his team and Georgia was “seven points” after last year’s loss. The offseason prior he used his spring game attendance number to troll Georgia over not winning a national title since 1980. Recently he said he expected to go undefeated this coming season.
Creating those types of headlines is a tradition at Florida, that goes back to Steve Spurrier’s time in charge. However Mullen needs to realize that Spurrier also won six SEC Championships in twelve seasons. In twelve seasons as an SEC head coach, Mullen has yet to appear in an SEC Championship Game.
Maybe he’s puffing his chest out in an attempt to hype his program up in the eyes of elite recruits. If he is, it isn’t working. Florida’s been a tier or two below Georgia in the 247 Sports Composite Rankings each of the last three years, and Tennessee is starting to recruit on the same level as the Gators.
If he isn’t careful, Mullen’s big talk could backfire. If things don’t go as planned this year in Gainesville, he could find himself under pressure. If he does, he will be a victim of the expectations he helped create.
Somewhere in my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house lays a magazine from the 2000 preseason. On the cover lies a picture of #17 in red and black. Above the picture reads, “Quincy Carter aims for the Heisman Trophy and the SEC Crown.” As an eleven year-old diehard Georgia fan I bought the hype. Two weeks into the season Carter would go 10-of-24 for 108 yards and 5 interceptions. A few months later Georgia would fire Jim Donnan.
Looking back, there were painfully obvious signs that all along pointed to the fact that Donnan wasn’t going to be the guy. However college football fans are an optimistic bunch, and hope springs eternal every summer. Florida fans of today remind me of Georgia fans in the late-90’s. They are believing something good will happen under Mullen because they desperately want it to be true, despite all the evidence that the guy in charge might not be capable of what they want him to be.
In that old magazine cover therein lies a lesson I vowed to never forget...
Don’t buy the hype if the math doesn’t add up.