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Weekly Recon, Week 9: Scouting Florida’s foes at midseason

The Gators have a tough test this week. Past that? Things look a little easier in November.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Miami
Dunno what Shakespeare soliloquy Willie Taggart’s performing here, but he’s giving it his all.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been wanting to run a regular post scouting Florida’s opponents for years — and I really do mean years — but haven’t found the time or the format to do it. So I’m just going to suck it up and write it, call it Weekly Recon, and publish it Wednesdays.

All you have to do is read it, comment, and give me feedback. Cool? Cool.

Charleston Southern: 3-3; No. 194 in Sagarin; lost to Florida, 53-6

As you may have suspected after Florida thrashed Charleston Southern in its season opener, the Buccaneers are not a good team.

They went three weeks without playing after that loss in Gainesville, thanks to Hurricane Florence, and came back to lose to Elon, part of a 1-3 start that would also include a loss to Savannah State — itself the No. 239 team in Sagarin. The Bucs are on a two-game winning streak now, which is nice, but those wins came over Presbyterian (No. 248 in Sagarin) and Virginia University of Lynchburg (VUL), a historically black school with a triple-digit enrollment that plays in the National Christian College Athletic Association and does not have its athletic schedules on its website.

In fact, the last result recorded on a schedule on VUL’s website is a September 2016 game against Grambling — which ended in a 72-12 loss for the Dragons.

It suffices to say that Florida should have beaten Charleston Southern handily, and did.

Kentucky: 6-1, 4-1 SEC; No. 28 in S&P+; defeated Florida, 27-16

These two things can both be true: Kentucky is having one of its best seasons ever, and Florida should still have beaten Kentucky to continue its decades-long winning streak.

The formula that worked for the Wildcats that night in The Swamp — running the ball effectively and relying on a stunningly stingy defense — is still generating wins for the Wildcats, but they’ve gotten narrower and less convincing. Since following up that win with a 28-7 upset of Mississippi State, the Wildcats have a 24-10 win over South Carolina, a 20-14 loss to Texas A&M, and a 14-7 win over Vanderbilt — in which Kentucky had a +3 turnover margin! — to their credit, and have not managed an Offensive Percentile Performance over 40 percent, meaning that they’re underperforming even their own low standards.

A lot of that has to do with the ineffectiveness of quarterback Terry Wilson, who is averaging a pitiful 5.9 yards per attempt, which ranks him well outside the nation’s top 100 in that category. (Naturally, Wilson threw for 9.4 yards per attempt against Florida on the night that the Gators lost cornerback Marco Wilson for the year, and has not topped seven yards per attempt since.)

Still, Kentucky’s defense is legitimately great, even though it has not yet seen a top-25 S&P+ offense, and while the Wildcats have a tough fortnight before them with a trip to Missouri and a showdown with Georgia on the docket, 10 wins is on the table for a program that has not won 10 games since 1977. Florida falling to that team was far from a major loss.

Colorado State: 3-5, 2-2 Mountain West; No. 110 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 48-10

The Rams are bad on offense, bad on defense, and bad on special teams, per S&P+, ranking outside the top 80 in each category. That’s harder than you think: Only five other teams ranked lower than the Rams in overall S&P+ are in that same boat this week, and those teams have combined for eight wins on the year.

(One of those five teams lost to Notre Dame by just eight points!)

Florida’s 48-10 win over Colorado State was about what we should’ve seen.

Tennessee: 3-4, 1-3 SEC; No. 75 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 47-21

On one hand, it’s kind of impressive that Tennessee has played five top-25 teams per S&P+ and gotten a win, given how bad the Vols have been on a play-to-play basis this year.

On the other hand, Tennessee’s Postgame Win Expectancies in those five games have been one percent (West Virginia), zero percent (Florida), two percent (Georgia), 29 percent (Auburn), and zero percent (Alabama). It’s not like these Vols are playing a lot of close games against better teams; they’ve been blown out four times and got an unlikely win over a sloppy, overrated Auburn team.

And Florida’s Adjusted Scoring Margin against Tennessee (35.5) was slightly better than Alabama’s (33.0), a suggestion that the Gators did very well to drum the Vols as they did.

Mississippi State: 4-3, 1-3 SEC; No. 20 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 13-6

You can be No. 20 in S&P+ and 1-3 in the SEC, as it turns out. The Bulldogs are the only top-20 team in S&P+ with fewer than five wins, and one of just two teams with three losses — but they did beat the other team with three losses, Auburn, and their SEC losses have been ones in which a superior defense still couldn’t do enough to help a moribund offense keep the outcome of the game in doubt for the full 60 minutes.

The loss to LSU was also a bit deceptive: LSU was +3 in turnover margin and had six Scoring Opportunities, but mustered just 3.3 yards per play and scored just 19 points. If erstwhile Heisman candidate Nick Fitzgerald had not thrown half as many interceptions (four) as he did completions (eight), the Bulldogs might very possibly have kept that game close.

Instead, LSU got a two-possession win despite averaging under four yards per pass attempt and just over three yards per carry.

LSU: 7-1, 4-1 SEC; No. 15 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 27-19

And so LSU is being seen this week as a trendy College Football Playoff pick, and by at least one pundit as the nation’s No. 2 team.


LSU has four good wins, true, and one of them — over a Georgia team that had nearly every break go against it in Death Valley, and that cratered after an early and futile fake field goal — may be great. But LSU has also lost to a team in the same S&P+ range as Miami, Auburn, and Mississippi State, and its win over Auburn was decidedly lucky (Postgame Win Expectancy: 16 percent), suggesting that the Tigers are closer to parring the course against those teams than making birdies and tossing in an eagle of a victory over Georgia.

Alabama, of course, gets a chance to dash any hype around and title hopes within LSU’s program in two weeks. But the Tigers believing deeply now — and pundits believing in them — are buying into one big win that masks an otherwise standard season for a good SEC team.

Vanderbilt: 3-5, 0-4 SEC; No. 80 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 37-27

There is a non-zero chance that Vandy’s near-miss against Florida — in a game in which it gave up 576 yards, a full 240 more than it gained — featured the Commodores’ final double-digit lead of the season.

Vandy led Kentucky 7-0 in the first quarter last Saturday before the Wildcats rallied for a 14-7 win — weird note on Kentucky: three of its last four games have featured zero made field goals — in Lexington, and now faces Arkansas, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Tennessee to finish the season, or three teams that can score and Tennessee.

If Vandy loses out and goes 3-9 in Derek Mason’s fifth year, it will have the same overall and SEC records it did in his first year. That would make firing Mason an easy call for most athletic directors, I’d reckon — so, uh, it’s probably too bad that Vandy doesn’t have a fully-fledged one at the moment, huh?

Georgia: 6-1, 4-1 SEC; No. 5 in S&P+; faces Florida October 27th

The Bulldogs were bad, at least by their standards, in their loss to LSU.

The Tigers clicked off 5.9 yards per play and 6.5 yards per carry — with miniature tank Clyde Edwards-Helaire getting 7.6 per rush — and capitalized on four Georgia turnovers by scoring a healthy 4.5 points per Scoring Opportunity. And though Jake Fromm struggled, completing 16 of 34 throws for just 209 yards, Georgia’s bigger problem was that Fromm was put in that position in the first place, as its early hole neutralized (or swayed Jim Chaney to effectively abandon) a running game that was entirely respectable when D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield were combining for 129 yards on 19 carries.

Florida and LSU are also Nos. 14 and 15 in S&P+ this week, with Florida having a marginally better offense than LSU does and a marginally lesser defense. And though Georgia would seem more likely to be able to exploit Florida’s occasionally leaky run defense than LSU’s stouter front, the Gators have a running game that could control the day against the Dawgs, and a secondary that could prey on Fromm should he be forced to throw.

Missouri: 4-3, 0-3 SEC; No. 25 in S&P+; faces Florida November 3rd

You can be No. 25 in S&P+ and 0-3 in the SEC, as it turns out.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Missouri has a pyrotechnic offense led by a talented quarterback, but its production has come against overmatched teams, and its defense is susceptible.

Drew Lock leads the Tigers’ great passing attack, and he’s helped by a pair of reliable runners in the form of Larry Roundtree III and Damarea Crockett and a fleet of receiving options that has produced four players with at least 295 receiving yards on the year. (For perspective, Florida has zero such players.)

But Lock has had to be great to compensate for a defense that has been shaky. Missouri has allowed at least 33 points in each of its last five games despite one of those games coming against South Carolina in a driving rain and another coming against a Memphis squad that has cobbled together a great offense but still lacks SEC-level talent.

Missouri’s run defense has been surprisingly good — the Tigers are fourth in Defensive Rushing S&P+, and are also one of just eight teams nationally yet to concede a 30-yard run — but it has not yet faced a challenge like it will this week, when Kentucky and Benny Snell come to town, and foes have known to throw on the Tigers, anyway.

South Carolina: 3-3, 2-3 SEC; No. 54 in S&P+; faces Florida November 10

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A Will Muschamp-coached team is relying on its defense and a mercurial quarterback and having an up-and-down season because of it.

Impressively, the Gamecocks have a win with a four percent Postgame Win Expectancy — beating Missouri while playing on a lake, getting outgained by more than 100 yards, and giving up over seven yards per carry was unlikely, turns out — and a home loss with a 25 percent Postgame Win Expectancy (Week 7’s loss to Texas A&M), so the ol’ Muschamp tradition of being able to play up and down to competition would seem to be in effect.

South Carolina also doesn’t have consecutive wins or losses this year, which means that its last winning or losing streak of any kind came last year, when the Gamecocks defeated Florida and Wofford back to back.

Sounds like fun to be a South Carolina fan right now!

Idaho: 3-4; No. 167 in Sagarin; faces Florida November 17th

I could tell you that Florida’s cursed luck against Idaho — which got this game as restitution of sorts for that weather-scrubbed 2014 opener, and then did Florida the favor of deciding to reclassify to FCS in hopes of playing at a level where it could someday win a title, sticking the Gators with two FCS opponents in 2018 — is a bad sign for this game.

Or I could tell you that Idaho lost 79-13 to Fresno State in its season opener, has dropped multiple games to FCS teams outside the top 100 of Sagarin by three or more touchdowns, and counts as its only wins triumphs over Division II Western New Mexico, Portland State, and Southern Utah.

Barring massive injuries or another anomalous Saturday of weather, Florida should be able to name its score against the Vandals, who still have the heart of their Big Sky schedule between them and the season-ending trip to Gainesville.

Florida State: 4-3, 2-3 ACC; No. 57 in S&P+; faces Florida November 24th

Finally: You can be No. 57 in S&P+ and still have hopes of a winning ACC record, it turns out.

To be fair, though, those hopes are faint for the Seminoles. They’re still projected to lose out by S&P+, even after scoring their first 100 percent Postgame Win Expectancy of the Willie Taggart era against Wake Forest last week — coming back from a 10-0 deficit to get it in a 38-17 victory — and look like heavy favorites to take drubbings against Clemson and at Notre Dame. Only getting Florida in Tallahassee rather than Gainesville makes that game look to S&P+ like a single-digit defeat rather than a third double-digit affair.

Splitting their remaining ACC contests — which would likely require beating N.C. State and topping Boston College, things Florida State failed to do last year under Jimbo Fisher, if there is no stunning upset to be had against Clemson or Notre Dame — would get the Seminoles to that final game of the year at 5-6. And so they would need win over Florida to maintain that having been to a bowl in each of the last 37 seasons is impressive, even though that streak includes a vacated loss to Kentucky that negated the streak in the NCAA’s eyes and last year’s utterly shameless November scrambling in order to secure passage to Shreveport.

Taggart’s bunch has improved since its dreadful 1-2 start in which the 1 was a home escape against Samford, and the Seminoles’ win over Louisville was less fluky than a late bone-headed call by Bobby Petrino backfiring made it seem suggest. But this is still not a good FSU team — and Florida may get a chance to finish its season in ignominious fashion.