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Friday Forum: On the Florida Gators, and not having to lie to kick it

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I’ma be as real as I can with this.

NCAA Football: Florida Spring Game Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things I love most in this world is the Florida Gators.

One of the things I hate most in this world is lying.

I never, ever want to do the latter in service of the former — and Florida’s flurry of recruiting success in the last week and change makes it a lot easier to accurately depict a sunny future for the Gators without doing the former.

You see, Florida’s recruiting has been much-maligned from several corners for a variety of valid reasons in recent years. In 2010, Florida landed what is still the last top-ranked recruiting class per the 247Sports Composite not assembled by Alabama — and that class, with five five-star defenders, began a stretch of classes that were ultimately underwhelming, essentially because of a lack of offensive firepower .

That 2010 class? Its best offensive skill position player was either Mack Brown or Quinton Dunbar. Its best offensive player might have been Chaz Green.

The 2011 class? It was, at that point, a low-water mark for Florida — just No. 11 nationally! — and was headlined by Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, neither of whom would ultimately finish their careers with the Gators — something also true of every other offensive four-star in the class.

Florida’s 2012 class was only saved from being similarly lacking in playmakers by Matt Jones — the few other non-lineman offensive players in the class either transferred (Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson), underwhelmed on the field (Latroy Pittman, Raphael Andrades), or both (Skyler Mornhinweg).

Florida’s 2013 class, the first built off the back of a 10-win season at Florida since that 2010 class, was supposed to be an infusion of offensive talent. Its best offensive players were Kelvin Taylor and Demarcus Robinson, with Alvin Bailey, Ahmad Fulwood, and Adam Lane rounding out the four-star signees on offense. That that crop of players — which boiled down to Taylor and Robinson — actually did count as an infusion of offensive talent says plenty about how dire things truly were.

The 2014 class — a top-10 class despite a 4-8 season — could have theoretically included Dalvin Cook, if things had gone well enough on the field in the fall of 2013 to help keep him in the fold. It did have Will Grier, whom most would agree has been Florida’s most competent quarterback on the field this decade. But the players that stuck as contributors from it were Treon Harris, Brandon Powell, and C’yontai Lewis — and this was a recruiting cycle with plenty of hidden-gem in-state playmakers (Tony Brooks-James, Quinton Flowers, Isaiah Ford, Isaiah McKenzie) that Florida might have been able to feature had it pursued them more assiduously, or reeled them in more persuasively, or had the right offensive coordinator for the entire cycle.

Firing Will Muschamp — speaking of lying to kick it, this may be the first time I’ve written here that Florida actually did fire Will Muschamp, given that the program itself made every effort to style his firing as anything but a firing in as many words — and hiring Jim McElwain prior to the 2015 recruiting class coming to fruition, then, was supposed to boost offensive recruiting efforts, at least in part. And it did, even though that was still arguably Florida’s worst recruiting class ever, viewed through the lens of National Signing Day: Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett may be the best Florida wide receiver and running back of this decade, respectively, despite being part of desiccated offenses.

The 2016 class seems to have yielded as much or more fruit, with Tyrie Cleveland leading a crop of good wide receivers, Lamical Perine proving that hitting on Scarlett was not a one-time find of a diamond, and a brilliant slow play of Feleipe Franks panning out to give Florida its most talented quarterback signee since Grier at least.

The 2017 class? It’s far too early to say anything definitive, but it’s got a quarterback (Jake Allen), a positionless weapon (Kadarius Toney), a couple of running backs (Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons), and a few pass-catchers (Kemore Gamble, Daquon Green, and hopefully James Robinson) that could make it better than most of those misses.

But you can still squint at many of those classes and find things to fault, especially on offense. Here’s Mike Farrell of Rivals, writing earlier this week (and using “pizzazz” in one of the weirdest ways possible):

Head coach Jim McElwain has been criticized by fans and opponents alike for a lack of recruiting pizzazz, and this author has been no different.

...

I was critical of McElwain’s class last year despite the No. 9 finish in the country because the class itself was missing some big-time playmakers and a few guys (James Robinson, Brad Stewart, etc) fell to the Gators because others ran out of room or backed off.

Whether or not you think that’s fair, it’s a criticism that existed.

Here’s the other half of what Farrell wrote this week:

But when the time comes to give credit where credit is due, I am ready, and this past weekend/week was a huge one for McElwain, his staff and the Gators.

How does a five-star quarterback from California, a four-star wide receiver steal from Louisiana, a four-star tight end from Pennsylvania, a massive in-state offensive line target, some 2019 help with excellent potential and a couple of additional three star in-state gets at key positions sound? No, it’s certainly not the best week in Florida recruiting history nor is it the best week of any program for this spring and summer, but it’s still huge for a coach who has been under fire for his inability to close on big-name guys.

But the likes of Matt Corral, Ja’Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts and Curtis Dunlap, the headliners of the recent commitments, were coveted by many programs. Now they have the quarterback of the future with a high ceiling (whether he remains a five-star or drops to four in our next rankings, he’s a talent), a game-breaker at wide receiver who will wow fans, a reliable tight end who will be a serious red zone threat and a massive interior lineman who will pave the way for the run game.

When even Farrell — a weathervane, not a meteorologist — is begrudgingly praising Florida’s recruiting, that recruiting has gone past arguably good to genuinely good. There is no lying to kick it needed for fans of the program that stands to land Matt Corral and Ja’Marr Chase — something reinforced by fans of rival programs stubbornly trying to claim Corral is a four-star passer, or hoping that Chase comes to his senses and defects to LSU.

And, in truth, that’s probably what Florida needs to do on offense to compete for national championships. Florida’s managed to cobble together good-to-great defenses throughout this decade of recruiting mismanagement on offense, and under a slew of coordinators and play-callers; what it has not done, except for stretches that are best measured in weeks, not even months, is pair a resilient defense with a potent offense.

Now, Florida has its best chance yet since Tim Tebow to do so. And while I’m admittedly being optimistic about the future, I ain’t lying when I say I’m not the only one seeing it.


The flip side of not having to lie to kick it in regards to the Florida Gators in recent years is how easy it is to tout basically anything and/or everything other than the football program as outstanding.

The University of Florida is, by virtually any reasonable measurement of consensus and/or any national ranking you like, the most prominent and vital university in Florida; when the University of Miami snuck ahead of UF in the well-known U.S. News and World Report rankings in 2016, it was described as “just nipping” the school in Gainesville, and the piece explaining that fact had to also advise readers that Florida was ahead of Miami the year prior, and that “because U.S. News tweaks and tinkers with its criteria every year, it’s nearly impossible to figure out the significance of small advances or retreats in the ratings.”

When Florida State University placed more than 40 spots behind both Florida and Miami in the same 2016 rankings, it spun the news as “FSU leaps ahead in national rankings,” touted “the greatest gain of all of the Top 50 public universities” for jumping to No. 92 from No. 96.

Lying to kick it, right?

So it’s really not a surprise that Florida touted another such ranking this week, when McElwain’s Twitter account tweeted out a (very well-designed, if somewhat inaccurate on the precise location of Gainesville) graphic celebrating Florida being ranked the No. 1 school in Florida by TIME magazine.

That’s a very neat distinction, and one many Gators were proud of, given the literal thousands of retweets. It’s also not quite the entire truth.

Florida is the No. 1 school in the state per a rankings compiled by a Time Inc. publication, but that publication is MONEY, which is both separate from and less-known than TIME, and the criterion is more specific than “best school” — it’s “Best Colleges For Your Money,” a distinction arrived at based on a formula incorporating quality of education, affordability, and post-graduate outcomes.

For my money — a lamentable, unintentional pun — it’s really Florida’s No. 18 ranking nationally, a perch that means Florida is ahead of Ivy League schools Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Pennsylvania, that is the most notable takeaway from that ranking. Being the No. 1 school in Florida, after all, wasn’t hard at all: Florida is the only Sunshine State school in the top 250 of those rankings, and checks in an astounding 233 places ahead of No. 251 Florida State. Miami is No. 277. the University of South Florida is No. 374, and the University of Central Florida is No. 422.

I think it’s fair to say that, based on these MONEY rankings, you would be doing a tremendous disservice to encourage anyone to go to a four-year college in Florida that isn’t the University of Florida — and I think an explanation of that fact is more compelling, if less ready-made for chest-puffing, than simply proclaiming “We’re No. 1!”

But the graphic is also deceptive in two other ways.

First: Florida actually fell in these MONEY rankings, something The Alligator made the lede of its less sensationalist reporting on the rankings two weeks ago. UF slid from No. 15 in 2016 to No. 18, getting passed by schools like the University of California, Davis, but obviously remained miles ahead of any other Florida school — something The Alligator noted, too.

That fall was obviously a small one, and largely meaningless: I imagine the number of prospective college undergrads choosing between Florida and Cal-Davis is either zero or rather close to it, and that the number of people making college decisions based on this MONEY list is also small. But noting that Florida’s No. 1 (in the state) and not that it slipped is lying to kick it, isn’t it?

And taking a quote from MONEY in 2016 and representing it as one from TIME in 2017 is absolutely lying to kick it.

The quote Florida uses on the graphic is this one:

Students get access to some of the world’s top professors, well-respected programs in fields as diverse as astronomy and journalism, and sports teams that often dominate their leagues.

That’s from the 2016 MONEY article — albeit one hosted at “time.money.com” — running down the best schools in each state from the 2016 MONEY rankings.

The University of Florida is one of the biggest bargains in higher education, with tuition of just $6,300 a year for Floridians. For that low price, students get access to some of the world’s top professors, well-respected programs in fields as diverse as astronomy and journalism, and sports teams that often dominate their leagues.

That obviously sounds good. But why would Florida’s football program use bits of the 2016 writeup on Florida and attribute that to TIME in July 2017 when there’s a 2017 writeup on Florida? What could possibly be different between the two pieces?

It couldn’t possibly be because the 2017 writeup is a little less charitable to the football program, could it?

The Gators, of course, are one of the strongest college sports franchises in the country. The football team routinely wins a bowl berth, but athletic success is widespread: Starting in 2013, the women's gymnastics team won the national championships for three straight years and the softball team was back-to-back national champions in 2014 and 2015, plus a 2017 trip to the College World Series.

You ain’t gotta lie to kick it. And if you do? I promise I’ll notice.