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The smaller 2014 Florida football guide: Even after 2013, the Gators could be very good

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Florida's had talent on its roster and made less of it than it could have. This makes it hard to do anything but underrate the Gators heading into 2014. But what if the Gators can do more?

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

So Bill Connelly's beautiful and expansive Florida preview dropped today. Before you continue reading this piece, you should absolutely go read that one: This piece is designed to be a supplement to that.

(waits)

(waits)

(fixates)

...okay, you back? Good.

1. Here is a passage that reads as more pessimistic than it really is

Florida was absolutely dreadful over the second half of last season and enters 2014 on a seven-game losing streak. Even dipping into 2012, the Gators have lost eight of nine games against teams ranked in the F/+ top 50 (all seven in 2013, two of the last three in 2012). It's as if they spent all of their mojo and good karma winning 2012's silliest, most confusing game -- a 33-point win over South Carolina in which they were outgained by eight yards, a result that has the likelihood of lightning striking the same spot twice or Bugs Bunny actually sawing Florida into the ocean -- and have been paying for it ever since.

No one would disagree that Florida was dreadful as its roster got emaciated toward the back half of 2013, but losing eight of nine games against the F/+ top 50 is more about playing six of those seven games in 2013 after losing at least Jeff Driskel and Dominique Easley, and then much more.

Working from the theory that Tyler Murphy was hurt in a way against LSU that would eventually end his season — this is a sound theory — Florida, which finished 2013 at No. 48 in F/+, played games against the No. 1 (Florida State), No. 10 (South Carolina), No. 14 (Missouri), No. 17 (LSU), and No. 22 (Georgia) teams in the rankings without its backup quarterback being healthy, along with a multitude of other injuries. Florida lost to Florida State by 30, and to Missouri by 19, but those other three games against top-25 F/+ teams were decided by five, 11, and three points, and all of those losses came away from The Swamp.

Florida's other two losses to F/+ top-50 teams in 2013 came to No. 36 Miami and No. 50 Vanderbilt — and Florida finished -4 in turnover margin in both of those games. When Florida pulled off that 33-point win over South Carolina in 2012, the Gators were +4 in turnover margin over the Gamecocks; Miami and Vandy beat Florida by a combined 22 points. Even when it was bad in 2013, as it really, truly was for Florida's seven straight losses, the games were closer than numbers suggested they should've been.

And Florida's 1-8 stretch against the top 50 in F/+ in 2013 is a daunting fact ... but Florida was also 4-1 against the top 13 (!!!) in F/+ in 2012, with wins over No. 3 Texas A&M, No. 5 Florida State, No. 10 LSU, and No. 13 South Carolina. Its loss to No. 6 Georgia came despite a -3 turnover margin, and by just eight points.

Put another way: The top 13 teams in F/+ in 2012 lost 28 games on the year, and Florida delivered four of those losses and sustained two of them. Florida's four wins over top-13 teams led the nation: Alabama had three such wins in four games against top-13 teams, and Florida beat the team that gave Alabama its only loss.

Florida was 5-2 against the top 50 in F/+ in 2012, losing to Georgia and No. 28 Louisville (-2 turnover margin there), and 7-2 against the top 60.

I can make 2012 Florida sound like the most accomplished team of the year with F/+, and I can make 2013 Florida sound like a steaming heap with F/+. There are elements of truth to both potrayals.

2. Spotting the outlier

Connelly uses this chart, which should scare Florida fans, to scare Florida fans:

2014floridafplus_medium

Florida goes from being very good to historically great to merely good to very good to being very average, and the slope over the last four years — Will Muschamp's three, and Urban Meyer's last one — is trending downward with alacrity. Asked to spot the outlier in the last four years, the easiest answer is 2012.

There's plenty more ammo for that. These are Florida's starting quarterbacks for the last four seasons against Florida State, in order: Trey Burton, John Brantley, Jeff Driskel, and Skyler Mornhinweg. In three years under Muschamp, Florida's played Florida State with its first-team quarterback for the entire game once — and Florida won that game.

2012 is the positive outlier in terms of F/+ performance and health; I don't think there's a good argument against that.

But Florida's 2013 might be just as strong a negative outlier.

Remove 11-2 from Florida's last four years, and Florida's gone 19-19; remove 4-8, and Florida gone 26-13. Through two years, Will Muschamp was 17-7 at Florida, one win behind Nick Saban's record through two years at Alabama; through three years, Muschamp is 22-15 at Florida, with one fewer win and one more loss than Ron Zook had as Florida's head coach. That is how bad 2013 was.

Connelly, for all his strong analysis, also doesn't factor in injuries to his discussion of Florida in 2013 as much as I think they probably should be factored in.

But an offensive line with former four- and five-star recruits (not to mention two three-year starters) ranked 102nd in Adj. Line yards and 100th in Adj. Sack Rate last year.

That offensive line was on its fourth- and fifth-string tackles by November, didn't have one of those three-year starters early on, and shifted its highly-touted recruits around because of those injuries. (It was also reportedly trying to do things its own position coach thought it couldn't do, thanks to conflict between offensive line coach Tim Davis and offensive coordinator Brent Pease.)

But a trip to LSU exposed the flaws of both Murphy and the remaining UF offense, and a trip to Missouri finished the Gators off. They gained 391 yards and allowed 827 in these two games, and as the injuries began to mount on defense, things took a turn.
  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Florida 27.0, Opponent 14.0 (plus-13.0)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 7 games): Opponent 25.5, Florida 19.0 (minus-6.5)
  • Florida played Missouri with four starters on defense "out" — three players were injured; a fourth, Cody Riggs, was ejected on the game's first play — and gave up more yards to the Tigers than an even more injured team did to Florida State, which had one of the best offenses in college football history.

    Connelly's Adjusted Points Per Game metric has Florida's defense being 11.5 points worse over seven games played against six top-50 F/+ teams (and Georgia Southern) than it was against four teams outside the top 60 in F/+ and Miami ... which got it all the way to giving up just under four touchdowns per game for that stretch, and to 20.7 Adjusted Points Per Game allowed in 2013.

    Florida's 2013 offense, terrible though it was, averaged 22.5 Adjusted Points Per Game. And Connelly's Adjusted Score numbers say that Florida should've gone 7-5 in 2013, outperforming their record by three wins. (And that metric has Florida losing to LSU by 0.2 points, and to Florida State by 2.6.)

    In 2013, Connelly's Adjusted Score numbers said that Florida should've produced a different record than it did — but that Florida should've been 12-1, not 11-2.

    If 2012 was great performance based on good health and good luck, 2013 strikes me as terrible performance based on terrible health and awful luck. What went right for Florida in 2012 did not go as right as what went wrong for Florida in 2013 went wrong.

    3. The brilliant banality of balance

    The narrative that Florida has been openly hostile to the forward pass under Will Muschamp — Connelly writes that Florida "will have to overcome its fear of the forward pass" — is based on Muschamp's Florida smartly avoiding passing for passing's sake when it has known it has a better chance of success when running, and the discrepancy between a long-running perception of Florida being one of the nation's best passing offenses and Florida being average at best at passing of late. That's it. That's all.

    Here are Florida's passing stats from the last four seasons, including that not-great one that Urban Meyer oversaw:

    Completions Attempts Yards YPA TD:INT ratio
    2010 230 381 2,396 6.3 12:12
    2011 182 320 2,414 7.5 13:13
    2012 183 288 1,902 6.6 13:5
    2013 199 311 2,051 6.6 11:9

    Florida threw the ball more in 2010 with a throw-first quarterback who stayed healthy all year than it did in 2011, when that guy was hurt for half the year; in 2012, when its starter was a sophomore whose legs were ahead of his arm; and in 2013, when injuries forced a three-quarterback rotation. And yet 2011 is the most "productive" year of the four for the passing game, 2012 was the most productive year on the field, and 2013 was "better" than 2012.

    Balance in the form of an explosive passing game that dovetails with an explosive running game would be nice, but all Florida's really needed out of its passing game under Muschamp is a counterweight to a running game that can also get yards and a minimum of mistakes. And Charlie Weis's 2011 offense was as "explosive" as it's been for Florida since Tim Tebow left (Florida averaged over nine yards per attempt in each of Tebow's three years as a starter), but the mistakes made in the passing game were arguably not worth the risk.

    Connelly also writes this:

    Roper's high-efficiency, spread-lite approach could be a nice bridge between the gritty, plodding offense Muschamp seems to prefer in a perfect world and the more wide-open attack more suited for his personnel.

    Muschamp said this in January:

    "We needed more tempo, we needed to create more snaps, we needed to create more space plays," said Muschamp, who grew increasingly frustrated with every loss last season. "I felt like being in the gun would help some of our personnel, and that's where we're headed."

    ...

    "Philosophically, all I've ever asked is to be balanced," Muschamp said. "I feel like you've gotta be balanced in this league. We've run the ball at times extremely well. ... We need to throw it better. We've said that all along. We need to be more efficient in throwing the football and certainly looking forward to that progress."

    Muschamp has not wanted a grind-it-out offense: He has wanted the offense that best positions Florida to win games, and in search of it, he has chased the same balance that Saban has craved at Alabama, only for Florida to have alter its offense to fit personnel on hand time and again when balance proves unobtainable. And I'm hard-pressed to say that that tailoring hasn't worked, even with backup quarterbacks, at least until those backups are too hurt to play.

    Florida made mincemeat of very good teams in 2012 with Jeff Driskel running a fair bit and throwing only a little; it made mincement of bad teams in 2013 with Tyler Murphy — who, with respect, was Driskel's inferior in virtually every respect as a quarterback — doing the same thing; it nearly upset South Carolina in Columbia with Skyler Mornhinweg's pool-noodle arm used almost exclusively to hand the ball to Kelvin Taylor. (This is all in no small part due to Muschamp knowing that he could often ride his reliable defense and special teams, of course: When those units rolled snake eyes at times in 2013, Florida suffered.)

    Balance could have been achieved under Pease — whose involvement in Boise State offenses (that ran more than they passed) duped a bunch of smart people into thinking that Florida was going to have Boise State's passing game (but none of its trademark downhill running, I guess?) — with health, I believe. Balance can be achieved under Roper, too, and Roper's offense should also provide efficiency — Connelly notes both of these things.

    If that balance, whatever it means for Florida's passing numbers, helps the Gators win in 2014, can we please retire the meme that Muschamp is Woody Hayes in orange and blue?

    4. Florida's defensive problems are good ones to have

    Florida's defense under Muschamp has been predicated on the same thing that Saban's defense always have been: Forcing the offense to make bad decisions by playing sound football. And when, in 2013, Florida couldn't force opponents to pass — LOUD COUGH GEORGIA SOUTHERN LOUD COUGH — it didn't do a great job of that: Teams that did well on early downs against Florida tended to move the ball against Florida.

    Remember how Connelly noted that Florida's defense was worse in Florida's last seven games than in its first five? This is the best damn reason why:

  • Third Down Conversion Rate Allowed (first 5 games): 23.9 percent (14 for 61)
  • Third Down Conversion Rate Allowed (next 7 games): 41.6 percent (37 for 89)
  • Over its first five games, Florida allowed just one third down conversion three times. Florida's 2008 and 2009 defenses, which had much better offenses to lean on (and thus, more capacity for taking risks) and much better talent (in theory), had two such performances ... over 28 games.

    Alas, injuries mounted, and Florida played better offenses, and that incredible edge on third downs — in the last seven years, two teams, 2008 TCU and 2009 Alabama, have allowed first downs on fewer than a quarter of third downs faced, and neither one dipped under 24 percent — evaporated. So be it.

    But Florida did all that without the pass rush that Connelly worries about the 2014 team not having. And Connelly notes that Florida's thoroughly dominant 2012 defense only ranked 40th in Adjusted Sack Rate.

    And I think that the 2014 version of Dante Fowler, Jr. is very, very likely to be the best pass-rusher Muschamp has had to work with in his time at Florida.

    I'm not worried about the pass rush.

    Connelly also notes that Florida's secondary is going to be young. That's a fair point.

    Florida's secondary also has a consensus top-five corner (and by many estimates, a top-25 player) in college football in Vernon Hargreaves III, a five-star corner to place across from him in Jalen Tabor, a slew of options at safety and nickel back that have both talent and experience (Jabari Gorman, Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye, and Brian Poole), a handful of other four-star recruits who have spent at least a semester in the Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson Advanced Placement Program for Defensive Backs, and summer enrollee freshman J.C. Jackson, who has looked very good despite being in a non-contact jersey thus far in fall practice.

    And, according to a tidbit from Florida's media guide noted by 247Sports' Thomas Goldkamp, if Will Muschamp University was a school, its pass defense would be the second best in college football since 2002.

    I'm not worried about Florida's pass defense.

    5. Ultimately, Florida's biggest obstacle is its schedule

    From Connelly's conclusion:

    Thanks to recruiting and 2012, in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 the Gators get a faithful No. 30 projection, with a likely record of 7-5 (29 percent chance of 8-4 or better, 38 percent chance of 6-6 or worse). That's as good a starting point as any for expectations, but the odds of another 2012 are small.

    Here's what the book said about Florida in 2012:

    The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 likes the Gators quite a bit (projected rank: 10th) because of the recruiting success and the high quality of three and four years ago; it says they have a 49 percent chance of finishing 9-3 or better and the second-best odds of finishing 7-1 or better in conference (they have a 14 percent chance, while Georgia is at 38 percent).

    That 2012 team didn't play Alabama, of course, but swapping 2012 Texas A&M for 2014 Alabama is trading a hurdle covered in barbed wire for ... another one with barbed wire. And I think 2012 Florida played a better version of both Georgia and South Carolina than this one is likely to see, though LSU should be as beastly, and Missouri will be better than it was. And yet the Alamanac ultimately wasn't bullish enough on the 2012 team, which had to play and beat better teams to compile its record than 2014 Florida will likely have to play and beat to decide its record.

    I'd guess that Florida will play six games against teams that finish in the top-30 in F/+ in 2014: Alabama and Florida State definitely will, and LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, and Missouri all should. (Connelly projects all six of those teams to finish in the top 25 of F/+ — and all but Missouri to be in the top 12.) But Florida, as it does in even years, will play five of those games in the Sunshine State, and three of them at home. Even-numbered years are kind to Florida — note that Florida has never won a national championship in an odd-numbered year — and 2014 is an even-numbered year.

    The difference between Florida going 2-4 or 3-3 in those games and Florida going 4-2 or 5-1 in those games is likely the difference between Muschamp being fired or returning in 2015. And there aren't a lot of teams that can go better than .500 against a slate full of "true" top-25 teams.

    Two years ago, though, Florida was one of them.