We have it on good authority that Alec Baldwin has been brought in by the football program as a motivational speaker for the Gators coaching staff to hammer home the theme of the last few weeks of recruiting: ABC — Always Be Closing. Of course, the signing class is just the beginning — as I wrote last week, great players are the raw materials, not the final products leading to SEC titles and BCS national championships — but while the coaches work hard to get their hands on the new Glengarry leads, it is a good time to look at what they are chasing. More specifically, what the signing class of 2013 will be chasing. PUT THAT COFFEE DOWN! Having recently witnessed the conclusion of the careers and eligibility of what is regarded as one of the best signing classes in Florida history, and a major part of the senior class that set a school record for wins, it’s a good time to better quantify that title of “the best” in Gators recruiting annals. The winningest senior class in school history — an achievement won by the graduating class of 2009 — is pretty definitive. Four years of empirical numbers serves as a strong basis for comparison. But a signing class has five years of eligibility, so there’s more there. There are also far more metrics than wins and losses: championships, individual awards, individual citations like All-SEC, total contribution in terms of letters and starts, star power, NFL impact, etc. All have their importance and impact in the perception of which has earned the title of “The Best.”
We’ll start with wins and losses.
The graduating class of 2009 finished school with the most wins in four years of any group of seniors, but that straddles two signing classes. Let’s look at the five-year eligibility windows of every class since 1990, Steve Spurrier’s first class, through c/o 2006, the last class to complete all 5 years before the Great Gator Gulch of 2010-2011. Given the bizarre circumstances of the 2010 Urban Zombie season and the difficult transition year of Will Muschamp’s first season, it would be unfair to hold those classes up to the same scrutiny. Given that Ron Zook took over a loaded program and Meyer took over a troubled program that was though still loaded with talent (and had no problem having a strong Year 1 and a national championship in Year 2), I see no reason to carve those years or classes out of the equation. When I revisit this analysis in a few years, I’ll consider the classes of 2007-2008 in the comparisons for sake of continuity, but for now, I’ll omit them. Aside from their special circumstances, they accounted for the two worst records since the 80s.
Given the record for the 2009 grads, it’s no surprise that the two classes with the most wins are class of 2005 (57 wins) and the class of 2006 (56 wins). But the win total is owed partly to the extra games the NCAA began to allow a few years ago. The highest winning percentages were logged by the class of 1993 (.859) and class of 1994 (.857), followed by class of 2005 (the class of 2006 is actually sixth, behind 1992 and 1995 as well). So there is no easy way to define a best class this way without a coin.
The next way to measure the quality of a class is the championships it wins. Meyer earned well-deserved praise for performing the dizzying feat of winning two national titles in his first four years at UF, but Spurrier pulled some pretty amazing early magic himself. Of the 17 recruiting classes from 1990 to 2006, only four of them won four SEC titles: Spurrier’s first four classes. Three of them also won an additional SEC East title to boot. But the 1992 class tipped the scales by being the only class ever to win four SEC titles, five SEC East crowns and a national championship. Enter the Meyer-Spurrier conundrum: how to weigh SEC and national titles relative to each other. The classes of 2005 and 2006 both won two SEC titles, three SEC Easts and TWO national titles. Most people would trade two SEC titles for one national title, but is it more difficult to win two natties in five years, or four SEC titles in five seasons? It’s not clean without making some arbitrary calls.
So with these metrics measured and no clear king of the signing classes emerging, we’ll need to go further and examine additional differentiating elements. This will also help to mitigate some misleading anomalies of the foregoing statistics.
For instance, the class of 1993 has the highest five-year winning percentage of all time at Florida, yet the class itself was somewhat of a mess. Twenty-two players signed their Letters of Intent in February of 1993, and only nine completed their eligibility. Niiine players, Mrs. Bueller! A whopping 13 players — 60 percent of the class — fell to attrition: one did not qualify, one transferred, three were kicked off the team and dropped out of school, four quit the team and four flunked out. And this was back in the days where it was rare to push unproductive players out of a program (and it was in the middle of a very stable coaching staff run, so there was none of the natural staff transition purging going on). It was also in the days where players did not transfer schools like they were changing drink orders at the local fast food counter. This was a remarkably high percentage of attrition.
The class only produced a mere five starters, so the .859 winning percentage was not really a tribute to the quality or strength of their class. Ironically, the class with the highest winning percentage may actually end up grading out as the worst of the group — although they will have to surpass the 2001 class, which was the only class in the entire 17-year span that did not win at least one SEC title — or even an SEC Eastern divisional crown — and it had the lowest winning percentage (.677) of any class over that span. That is actually quite a testament to the quality of the recruiting and coaching since 1990 across 3 regimes (yes, we must give props to Zook, whose class of 2004 also won two SEC championships and two national titles).
And after seeing what Muschamp has done in less than three recruiting cycles thus far, it is safe to say that elite recruiting success has been carried over to the fourth-consecutive coaching regime. After keeping most of his inherited transitional signing class intact in 2011, and notching a top-3 signing class last year, Muschamp is closing in on another class that at least on paper on National Signing Day will conjure up images and discussions of potential for competing for the title of best Gator signing class ever.
As I crunch more numbers and consider all the contributing factors to use in this comparison, this is shaping up to be a three-part series. In Part 2, I will take a look at more differentiating statistics to see if we can determine which class is the true standard bearer to which the class of 2013 and all future classes should aspire. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.