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Weekly Recon, Week 14: Surveying Florida’s foes after the regular season

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For some of the teams on Florida’s schedule, it’s the full season that is complete.

NCAA Football: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Previously:

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.

This week, we’re ... well, at least this post is getting published?

Charleston Southern: 5-5; No. 209 in Sagarin; lost to Florida, 53-6

You might think that being 5-5 and No. 209 in Sagarin is a feat, but no: Five of the teams ranked from No. 201 to 210 have more than five wins, and No. 203 San Diego is 9-3.

But much like the Toreros — whose three losses each came by at least 19 points — the Buccaneers are not good. Chaz South got a 12-7 win over Campbell its last time out, but plays Alabama nemesis The Citadel tonight at 7 p.m., and so will likely finish with a losing record for 2018. Scoring some more points would help: The Bucs have posted more than 22 points just three times this fall.

Kentucky: 9-3, 5-3 SEC; No. 41 in S&P+; defeated Florida, 27-16

This has been a really good season for Kentucky.

It is not, contrary to the thoughts of some, a New Year’s Six-worthy season, and it is deeply stupid to argue that Kentucky should be ranked higher than Florida.

Florida lost to Kentucky in September and it’s either that loss — which, c’mon, is “by double digits” because of a fumble return in the waning seconds that virtually every player on the field, to include the returner, thought was whistled dead — or the loss to a ranked Missouri team that is Florida’s worst this year. Florida’s best win is over LSU, and it beat the Mississippi State team that Kentucky beat on the road, while Kentucky won that game at home.

Kentucky, meanwhile, lost to Tennessee in November, and that loss is by far the worst sustained by any of the eight SEC teams in this week’s top 25 — unless we think Auburn is actually worse than Tennessee, and not just a team that lost to Tennessee ... which would transitively imply that Kentucky is worse than Tennessee.

And Kentucky’s best win is either over Florida or Mississippi State, which I think compares unfavorably to Florida’s top two wins over LSU and Mississippi State — especially because the Selection Committee had maintained for a month that LSU deserved to be ranked ahead of Florida despite the head-to-head result, and only barely slotted the Gators in ahead of LSU this week.

Kentucky fans who are upset about their team getting the short end of the stick from the College Football Playoff really ought to direct their ire at their team losing to Tennessee by 17 points. Kudos to the Wildcats for scoring 30-plus points for the first time since a romp over Murray State in each of the past two weeks, though!

Colorado State: 3-9, 2-6 Mountain West; No. 111 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 48-10

Not writing a Weekly Recon piece last week meant not writing about Colorado State’s heart-breaking loss to Utah State on a rescinded Hail Mary touchdown. Mea culpa.

Also worth noting about the Rams: They allowed fewer than 27 points once this year, but still just lost back-to-back games in which their Postgame Win Expectancy was actually 59 percent and actually rose in S&P+ from No. 118 to No. 111 over the last fortnight.

Mike Bobo’s deal runs through 2022. Good luck to all parties.

Tennessee: 5-7, 3-5 SEC; No. 87 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 47-21

Two weeks ago, I semi-facetiously congratulated Tennessee on beating Kentucky.

In the two weeks since, the Vols got bombed by Missouri, 50-17, and then trounced by Vanderbilt by a 38-13 score.

Vandy is now 5-4 against Tennessee this decade, and 5-2 in the last seven meetings; the two-game winning streak earlier this decade was already the first for the Commodores against Tennessee since the 1920s, and their new three-game winning streak is ... also their first one since the 1920s.

To put this a different way: Tennessee is 73-14-2 against Vanderbilt since Herbert Hoover was elected President ... and five of those losses are in the last seven years.

Good luck to Jeremy Pruitt, and also to the Kentucky fans trying to dismiss a loss to this Tennessee team.

Mississippi State: 8-4, 4-4 SEC; No. 12 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 13-6

In Mississippi State’s eight wins, its lowest Postgame Win Expectancy was 89 percent — and that was in a two-touchdown win over Auburn in which the Tigers scored nine points.

In Mississippi State’s four losses, its highest Postgame Win Expectancy was 37 percent — and that was in a two-touchdown loss to LSU.

When these Bulldogs won and lost, they won and lost.

LSU: 9-3, 5-3 SEC; No. 18 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 27-19

Two weeks ago, I suggested that LSU was having a better season than Florida, if only very slightly. Getting shuffled behind Florida in the New Year’s Six pecking order by finally losing one of the games that the Les Miles-era Tigers would have found a way to magically win makes that tougher to argue.

LSU is now all but aced out of the Sugar Bowl — it needs Georgia to beat Alabama in Atlanta and for both of those teams to make the Playoff, while it could have theoretically ranked ahead of Georgia had both of those teams ended up with two losses after this weekend — and could be headed for a no-win Fiesta Bowl game against UCF.

Pair that with LSU fans being mad online about that loss to Texas A&M and the ugly, stupid skirmish afterward, and the scales tip toward Florida.

Oh, well. At least LSU just landed a top-100 2020 QB who is literally the son of Florida State QB Brad Johnson and the nephew of Mark Richt and yet does not seem to have been hotly pursued by either his dad’s alma mater or the program his uncle runs.

That’s probably a really good sign, right?

Vanderbilt: 6-6, 3-5 SEC; No. 66 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 37-27

Two weeks ago:

My presumption is that Derek Mason remains employed at Vanderbilt, rather than outright fired or fired effective at the end of the season because Vandy still doesn’t have a permanent athletic director in place to search for Mason’s successor.

But it’s possible that Mason, whose efforts seem to have plateaued, is still safe at Vandy because a 4-6 record with one SEC win isn’t that bad, historically, and I think it’s possible to justify keeping Mason if the Commodores at least split their final two SEC games against Ole Miss and Tennessee.

The trouble will be getting those wins, especially given this Vandy team’s penchant for coming up just short. The ‘Dores are 1-4 in games decided by seven or fewer points, and the one win coming over Tennessee State while the four losses have come to three SEC foes and Notre Dame should tell you all about which teams Vandy can and can’t close out.

Vandy got one of those seven-point wins in a 36-29 triumph over Ole Miss and then plastered Tennessee, 38-13, and ... I guess Mason’s staying now?

The Commodores will have a chance to post their first winning record of the Mason era by winning their bowl game — which could conceivably take place in Nashville, should Vandy get sent to the Music City Bowl, where it is 2-0 all-time.

Georgia: 11-1, 8-1 SEC; No. 3 in S&P+; defeated Florida, 36-17

Since that loss to LSU, Georgia has found its form, winning its previous five games by a combined score of 198-92 and only allowing more than 21 points in its 66-27 thumping of UMass, which has a future NFL wideout in Andy Isabella and threw to him 15 times for 219 yards and two touchdowns. (You may recall Isabella from his three-catch, 95-yard performance in an otherwise dreary game against Florida in 2016.)

That bodes well for the Dawgs in Atlanta, I think — but, then, Alabama has multiple future NFL wideouts, and the best quarterback in college football throwing to them.

With a loss, Georgia is almost certainly bound for the Sugar Bowl — where it could meet either Oklahoma in a rematch of last year’s high-octane College Football Playoff semifinal, or West Virginia in erstwhile Gator Will Grier’s collegiate swan song.

Missouri: 8-4, 4-4 SEC; No. 16 in S&P+; defeated Florida, 38-17

There was a time this season when Missouri was 4-4, and had just lost to Kentucky in a fashion that would have devastated a lot of programs.

Since then, Missouri has ripped off four wins, three by 21 or more points, and Drew Lock has finished one of the better careers a Missouri player has had with as much buzz as he’s going to get entering the 2019 NFL Draft. The Tigers’ reward for their close is likely to be a Florida bowl game, with the Citrus, Outback, and TaxSlayer Gator bowls all seemingly in play.

Also, Chase Daniel won an NFL game! As a starter! By doing just enough to not screw things up beyond repair for his team’s incredibly good defense!

South Carolina: 6-5, 4-4 SEC; No. 36 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 35-31

Of course, Missouri would be bound for a bigger and better bowl had it not lost to South Carolina in the middle of a monsoon rain. That win, for better or worse, was the high-water mark of the year for the Gamecocks: Their best win apart from that one was either one over Tennessee or Vanderbilt, and those aren’t exactly pelts to put on the wall. (Though, yes, it’s better to beat Tennessee than lose to Tennessee. Have I made my point about Kentucky?)

But you know what’s weird about this Will Muschamp team? It can really score, putting up 30 six times this year — and doing so against decent to excellent defenses, like Missouri’s, Florida’s, and Clemson’s. Muschamp’s Gamecocks cracking 30 against Florida and Clemson this November made it the fourth calendar month in which his teams put up 30-plus points twice or more Power Five teams — and three of those four months have come in the last two seasons.

So it would be helpful for South Carolina if Jake Bentley opted to stay, yes.

Idaho: 4-7; No. 172 in Sagarin; lost to Florida, 63-10

If you watched that game two weeks ago, you know exactly how bad Idaho is.

A thing you might not know: Idaho opens its 2019 schedule at Penn State, and plays in five different states over its first five weeks.

That would be a recipe for a tough start even before the inevitable addition of Bobby Petrino to his brother Paul’s staff to help coach his nephew Mason.

Florida State: 5-7, 2-5 ACC; No. 84 in S&P+; lost to Florida, 41-14

And now we get to the part of the post where I get to write facts about Florida State to counter the shaded judgments that FSU fans proffered while masquerading as truth-tellers and seers when it came to Florida over the last half-decade.

Fact: 2018 Florida State is likely to finish about as low in S&P+ as 2017 Florida, the worst Gators team this decade.

The Seminoles sit at No. 84 with their season complete, and would seem unlikely to either rise or fall very far, with most teams rated similarly also having no further games to play. The worst any Florida team finished this decade was No. 86 a year ago, and that team’s S&P+ Percentile (35.2%) and Margin (-2.2) were slightly worse than this FSU team’s 40.9% and -1.8 marks.

But this FSU team also played one more guarantee game than last year’s Florida team did — and Florida having its game against Northern Colorado cancelled cost those Gators a chance to compile some stats against the overmatched Bears, who would subsequently give up 40-plus points in each of their next four outings.

Last year’s Florida team, bad as it was, also lost three games against SEC foes by eight or fewer points, tallying 4.8 Second-Order Wins — loosely, the number of games it should have expected to win based on its underlying performance — in just 11 games. This year’s Seminoles, thanks to some close wins, posted 4.4 Second-Order Wins over 12 contests.

2017 Florida was unlucky to win just four games. 2018 FSU was lucky to win five.

Fact: Florida State could very easily have gone 2-10.

The Seminoles probably should not have won any of the games they lost this year; their highest Postgame Win Expectancy in a loss was 28 percent in that opener against Virginia Tech, and even that collapse at Miami came with just a 12 percent chance of winning. But that Virginia Tech number was higher for the Seminoles than their Postgame Win Expectancy a week later against FCS Samford, which only fell to FSU because of some well-timed turnovers in the fourth quarter: Samford QB Devlin Hodges threw for 475 yards against the Seminoles, and FSU got 11.5 points of Turnover Luck from its +4 margin.

And FSU could very easily have lost to Louisville and Boston College, too, had those teams’ coaches not made crucial errors.

The Cardinals led 21-7 at halftime and 24-21 in the fourth quarter, but inexplicably opted to throw the ball on first and 10 at the FSU 21 with under two minutes to play, got intercepted, and gave up the game-winning score on the subsequent drive.

The Eagles led 21-16 and had fourth and one on FSU’s 40 with under three minutes to play, but declined to go for it — despite being 3-for-5 on fourth down prior to that point and converting on a fourth down earlier that quarter — and gave up the game-winning score on the subsequent drive.

One can credit the Seminoles as “clutch,” perhaps, for making those plays and preying on opponents’ mistakes. But if one does that, one should apply this lens to 2017 Florida, too.

Those Gators won squeakers over Kentucky and Tennessee by a combined seven points on some rock-dumb stupidity by the Wildcats and a Hail Mary to beat the Vols, and topped Vanderbilt by 14 points only because a clock-killing drive had a touchdown appended to it.

But if FSU deserved its wins in this season that derived in large part from its foes’ stupidity, then Florida’s similar wins from 2017 are deserved in the same vein.

Fact: The 2013 Florida team that Florida State fans have mocked relentlessly was not just better than this 2018 FSU squad, but way, way better.

2013 Florida finished 4-8 despite a plague of injuries, yeah, but at a downright good No. 33 in S&P+ (78.3%, +9.7), almost exclusively because of its badass defense finishing at No. 4 in S&P+. (Florida was the only team with a losing record in the top 40 of S&P+ in 2013; only one team, a spectacularly unlucky 2016 Notre Dame outfit, has made the top 40 with just four wins since.) And those Gators earned 5.3 Second-Order Wins by very much deserving the wins they did get, with all four coming by double digits even though three required at least three quarters of play from the previously unused Tyler Murphy at quarterback, and only sort of deserving some of the losses, given that they fell by single digits against Georgia, South Carolina, and Georgia Southern.

Those Gators also played six nine-win teams, but took just one defeat by more than 20 points — and that was to eventual national champion Florida State, which still didn’t muster 40 on a then-emaciated Florida defense and allowed a team quarterbacked by Skyler Mornhinweg to score an offensive touchdown.

2018 FSU needs N.C. State to win its bowl game to have played four nine-win teams this year, as Clemson, Notre Dame, and Florida are the only teams to have done so thus far. (Of course, those teams also pulverized this FSU team like 2013 FSU did Florida: 2018 FSU’s three losses in those games came by an average of 35 points.)

And finally, it should be noted that Florida’s much-maligned offense was arguably better in 2013 than this FSU team’s offense was this year. The Gators finished No. 83 in Offensive S&P+ and scored just 226 points in 2013, both nadirs not seen in decades in Gainesville.

This year’s Seminoles are currently No. 107 in Offensive S&P+, which is seventh-worst among Power Five programs, and scored just 263 points — not just almost 100 fewer than they scored last year, but their worst output since 1981.

Yeah, there’s a disparity in raw points scored there — but S&P+ accounts for many of the reasons for that disparity. Yeah, that 2013 Florida team lost to Georgia Southern with walk-ons trying to defend the triple option — but 2018 FSU almost lost to Samford with its defense almost entirely healthy. Yeah, 5-7 is better than 4-8 — but we have ways of evaluating football teams beyond wins and losses, and we should use them where we can.

And, hell, if you lined up 2013 Florida and 2018 FSU, do these Seminoles score?

The final fact I would like to note about FSU this year vis-a-vis the two four-win Florida teams of recent vintage is the one that is likely to be most delightful to Florida fans: Those bad Florida teams would soon be rid of their coaches, but FSU appears stuck with Taggart for now.

There was an intense and sustained frustration in Gator Nation that Florida did not part ways with Muschamp after 2013, and anyone who knew anything about college football knew well that Florida needed to win big in 2014 for Muschamp to have any prayer of saving his job. The Gators did not win big in 2014 — they finished No. 24 in S&P+, but that translated to just six regular-season wins — and so Muschamp was out of a job.

Jim McElwain, meanwhile, was out of a job just over halfway through the 4-7 campaign Florida fans endured last fall, and after two SEC East titles. Some of that was thanks to McElwain bizarrely speaking publicly about apparently unfounded death threats and making it very easy for Florida to fire him for both on- and off-field performance, but the effect was the same: Florida playing sub-standard football was fairly swiftly followed by a firing.

Barring something utterly shocking, Willie Taggart is going to coach Florida State in 2019, marking the first time FSU has brought back a coach after a losing season since Bobby Bowden went 0-6 in 2007 after the NCAA inval ... okay, since 1977, when Bowden began his second season on the heels of a 5-6 record in his FSU debut.

Bowden led the Seminoles to a 10-2 record in 1977, and would never again post a losing record in Tallahassee. (Without the NCAA’s eraser, anyway.) You can expect an offseason of Seminoles fans spinning 2019 as Taggart’s chance to do the same.

But if it doesn’t happen, which would be in keeping with Taggart failing to post a winning season in Year 2 at his only prior head-coaching stops that involved a Year 2? Taggart’s under contract through 2023, and his buyout is 85 percent of the remaining value of the deal — so it will remain an eight-figure buyout through the 2020 season.