The Florida Gators may be defending back-to-back SEC East Division champions, but they still haven’t done enough to impress the media that covers the conference.
In 2015, the Gators were picked to finish in fifth place, behind Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina. They finished 7-1 in conference play, two games ahead of the Bulldogs and Vols.
Last season, Florida was picked to finish second behind Tennessee. It finished 6-2 in the SEC, two games ahead of Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.
Now this season? The Gators are picked to finish a close second behind Georgia.
So can we expect another media debunking, or is there a candidate to rise up and dethrone the Gators? Let’s break down the stats in search of the answer.
Point differentials of SEC East teams
The media was actually correct to pick both Tennessee and Georgia ahead of Florida in 2015. Both the Vols and Bulldogs posted better point differentials than did Florida against FBS opponents. Both, however, had the misfortune of having Alabama on the regular-season schedule, essentially putting them a game behind the Gators from the start.
No such excuses existed for 2016. While Tennessee did have to play Alabama again, the Vols significantly regressed with an average point differential more than nine points lower than 2015. Georgia regressed as well in its first season with head coach Kirby Smart, their differential falling to essentially that of a .500 team.
The Gators posted a point differential of 7.1 points, significantly better than its SEC East competition. Looking closer at games within the SEC, Florida again showed it was the class of the East. The Gators were the only team to post a positive point differential against SEC opponents, and this was with road games against Arkansas and LSU as well as the SEC Championship Game drubbing against Alabama.
Strength of schedule for 2017
It is true that Florida leaned on its defense the last two seasons to put up those point differentials. It is also true that after losing safety Marcell Harris for the season to injury, the Gators are going to have to replace eight defensive starters. But as mentioned above, Florida was legitimately two games better than its competition last season.
So the key question is whether the losses on defense — plus any improvements by the competition — can close that gap.
The first thing to do would be to look at the schedules. Does any team have a noticeably easier schedule this season than last?
The only team to see a significant drop-off in quality of opponent, based on 2016 records, is Tennessee. The Vols’ opponents won 61 percent of their games in 2016 versus only 56 percent in 2017. However, this is significantly offset by the fact that Tennessee’s most difficult games are on the road, with a 65-percent winning percentage.
Conversely, Florida does have a more difficult schedule. But the Gators’ toughest games are mostly at home, and much of the difference in schedule strength is attributable to the nonconference game against Michigan to start the season.
Georgia has a slightly more difficult schedule in 2017. This normally would be fairly insignificant, except that the Bulldogs played seven games decided by 7 points or less. That small increase in schedule strength could be a big problem for Smart if his team doesn’t show marked improvement. And as illustrated in the point-differential chart in the previous section, Georgia actually got worse in Smart’s first season compared Mark Richt’s final season in Athens.
SEC East QB Play
The SEC East does have a fair amount of continuity at QB going into 2017. Only Tennessee — and potentially Florida — is replacing its starter. However, just because there is experience doesn’t mean those players are very good.
Certainly Gators fans were disappointed by the Luke Del Rio experience in 2016. However, his numbers last season were on par with Jacob Eason, Georgia’s 5-star true freshman QB. While it is true Eason possesses a better arm than Del Rio, his accuracy was worse (55.1 percent to Del Rio’s 56.7).
In fact, if you eliminate Quinten Dormady as an unknown because he’s only thrown 39 passes, Del Rio was only outperformed by South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson, and Eason — slightly.
South Carolina and Kentucky were just average teams with the better QB play. That does reflect that the rest of the team is weaker and is being buoyed by the QB? If either player takes a step back — or if they have a little bit less luck in close games (8-3 in one-score games in 2016 combined) — neither of these teams is really a significant threat to Florida.
The only QB capable of showing the kind of improvement to threaten the Gators is Eason, and he has true freshman Jake Fromm breathing down his neck. So the takeaway is that while Florida fans are uneasy about the QB position — with good reason — that shouldn’t put the Gators at a significant disadvantage in the East.
Experience and talent level in the SEC East
The chart below looks at average years of experience and average star rating for each team’s offense and defense. Clearly, youth is one area that should concern Gators fans, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Florida is painfully young on the defensive side of the ball compared to its SEC East brethren. While this could certainly mean a significant decline in play on defense from the starters, more likely this means that any injuries will be exacerbated by the need to then rely on true freshmen as a replacement.
Offensive experience for the Gators (with Feleipe Franks as QB) is middle-of-the-pack. The sentiment in Gainesville is that there is no excuse anymore for the offense as it is no longer young and has had two-plus years in coach Jim McElwain’s system. With the youth on defense, that likely is going to need to be true, particularly early in the season.
But all the other teams have warts, as well. There is a clear demarcation in talent in the division after Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Based on talent level alone — and indicated by 2016 point differentials — Florida should be expected to outplay Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina.
Georgia is clearly the most talented team offensively, led by 5-star recruits Eason and running back Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs are also bringing back significant experience and talent on defense as well, though as I outlined a few weeks ago, that talent has been less explosive than its star rating would indicate.
Tennessee — which struggled mightily on defense last season — brings back experience and a ton of talent based on star rating. But those players were as bad as Florida was on offense and the Vols lost defensive end Nick Barnett, who terrorized Florida and was their best defensive player. The offense is really talented, but also as young as Florida is on defense. There will likely be some growing pains with the Vols offense, which will be a problem if the defense does not improve.
Interestingly, Vanderbilt’s point differential from 2016 does not appear to be a flash in the pan. While Vandy’s offense is likely to struggle again, the defense is just as talented as the big boys in the East and has as much talent as anyone. If the Commodores can get even a slight improvement on the offensive side of the ball, they will be able to scare some teams. While QB Kyle Shurmur hasn’t been any good in his two seasons behind center, he is a former 4-star recruit (297 overall by 247 composite). If he can put things together in his junior season, Vanderbilt has the defensive talent and experience to be the second-best team in the East.
2017 SEC East prediction
For many of the reasons outlined above, a lot has to occur for Florida to succumb to another team in the SEC East. Missouri is going to have to close a three-touchdown gap with the Gators and that just isn’t happening. Kentucky and South Carolina outperformed their point differentials, and are likely to take a step back. Georgia was a .500 team based on its point differential and was fortunate to go 8-5.
That leaves two main threats to Florida: Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee is already starting behind the 8-ball with a road game against Alabama on its schedule. The Vols will also be breaking in an inexperienced QB on the road against Florida. If they lose those two games, that would mean Florida would need to lose three conference games to be passed by the Vols. I just don’t see a scenario where that occurs considering all of the Gators’ difficult SEC games are in the Swamp.
I believe the bigger threat to Florida is Vanderbilt. Recently on the Gators Breakdown podcast, we discussed potential trap games for the Gators. Fans and analysts tend to think of those as always being road games. But Vanderbilt is coming to the Swamp right before Florida plays LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. That might be the game where the Gators would be primed to overlook an opponent.
But again, the Alabama imbalance in the SEC is going to play a role in the East race. While Vanderbilt does get the Tide at home, that is likely a loss. Additionally, the Commodores’ most difficult remaining SEC games are on the road — at Florida and at Tennessee. What that means is that to compete for the East, Shurmur is going to have to really make gains that are fairly unlikely.
2017 is a transition year for Florida and McElwain. The 2018 and ’19 recruiting classes look loaded, and fans should be excited about what the future holds for the Gators. Florida isn’t going to be a juggernaut, but the reality is that the rest of the East just isn’t very good.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a path to victory for the Gators’ opponents. If Eason becomes one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Georgia’s offense would improve to a point where they would be a threat. If Tennessee can maintain the offensive statistics of 2016 while improving significantly on defense, the Vols will be a tough out. And Vanderbilt has an established, experienced defense and is just going to require a functional offense to be in every game.
But I go back to the records from the last two seasons. With an inferior team to Georgia and Tennessee (based on point differentials), Florida pulled out a 7-1 conference record. Last season, the Gators improved while their main competition regressed.
And if you believe — as I do — that Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are the Gators’ main competition, the key question is this: Do you trust the limited track records of success for Smart, Butch Jones or Derek Mason? Or do you trust McElwain, a coach who has shown an ability to win close games at an impressive clip?
Framed that way, I’m confident taking Mac and the Gators to win the SEC East.
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