Okay, yes, I’m way behind on these Top Fives. Hopefully, I’ll be through the second set by Sunday.
Dan Mullen’s first year at Florida wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to the program — an undefeated national championship-winning campaign would have been better, I guess — but it wasn’t far off. 10 wins, big rivalry and road victories over Tennessee, Mississippi State, and (thankfully) Florida State, a resounding bowl triumph over Michigan, and a finishing flourish that felt like a corner being turned all did wonders not just for the prestige of the Florida program but for the morale of Gator Nation.
One of the complications of that success, though, is that that season will create expectations, just like any half-decent season Florida puts together does. And, especially in this 2019 season, it would seem very possible for Florida to either get better (or worse) on a down-by-down basis without a dramatic shift in record.
The Gators’ schedule this year seems slightly tougher to my eye than it did in 2018.
None of their eight common foes — their SEC East opponents and Florida State — from year to year have made significant strides or slips from where they were a year ago, but Florida swaps home games against Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, and South Carolina for road trips to all four ... and the Gators went just 2-2 at home against those teams in 2018, needing a stirring comeback to beat the Gamecocks and a late pick-six to seal the Tigers’ fate.
Florida swaps a road game against Mississippi State for a home date with Auburn and arguably gets a slightly easier second SEC West contest in the process, but also doesn’t get major bumps from Tennessee and Vanderbilt coming to Gainesville, and is still playing Georgia in Jacksonville.
And the non-conference schedule is inarguably harder, if only because Miami is on a different plane than any of Charleston Southern, Colorado State, and Idaho. Tennessee-Martin and Towson are pushovers, of course, but Florida has just two of those on its non-conference slate, not three.
Florida’s over/under for wins this season is going to hover around nine, probably, which would match the regular season win total from a season in which Florida won a couple of close games against SEC West teams, lost two home games it was favored in and a neutral-site game in which it was the underdog, and more or less held serve in its other games. The Gators could get to 9-3 again in 2019 by merely going undefeated at home — where Auburn might be the toughest test — and sweeping Miami and Florida State, but only getting one true road win. Or they could split those road games and fall to Miami. Or they could sweep the road games but fall to Miami, Auburn, and Georgia.
And one more win or loss anywhere along the way means a season “better” or “worse” than the one put together in 2019.
It will always be hard for teams in good Power Five leagues — like the SEC, of course, but not exclusively the SEC — to show that they are well and truly improving ... or, in some cases, for true signs of backsliding to show. A top-10 team is going to lose to top-20 teams with some regularity; top-five and top-two teams do this, too. And top-20 teams can stage upsets without making true gains.
Those teams could also see their proficiencies and/or efficiencies shift without much movement in the W and L columns. Post-Mullen Mississippi State provided a great example of this last year, as the players Mullen brought to Starkville helped form the spine of the nation’s No. 1 defense (and No. 8 team!) per S&P+, but a transition from Mullen’s offense to Joe Moorhead’s meant the Bulldogs were a middling No. 32 in Offensive S&P+.
Yet that team was emphatically better on a per-snap basis than the Bulldogs were in Mullen’s last year, when Mississippi State was No. 40 in Offensive S&P+, No. 18 in Defensive S&P+, and No. 19 in the stat overall.
But 2017 Mississippi State went 9-4, put a scare into Alabama, and won its bowl game, appearing to be ascending; 2018 Mississippi State looked more like an outfit that plateaued, as the Bulldogs held every foe to under 30 points but also scored in single digits in their four regular-season losses, then lost their bowl game to settle for an 8-5 record. (And the relative “success” of those seasons might well come down to 2018 Mississippi State winning the Egg Bowl in a rout, anyway.)
So I am keeping in mind the possibility that Florida could be better or worse — even much better or worse — on a per-play basis without it showing up in Florida’s record. I’m assuming that we’re going to have to look closely to see whether the supposed momentum is still in place, and the augured development took place.
I do not think this is a year with simple expectations and clear benchmarks for success. And while that will complicate our efforts to assess this team, it’s also maybe more interesting than a more cut-and-dried scenario.