In 2015, 247 Sports introduced the Team Talent Composite, which adds up the 247 Composite talent ratings for each team’s entire roster. It makes it a lot easier to compare talent levels between programs.
As a quick check, I decided to compare Florida’s talent level by this metric against how the team has performed. Going off of recruiting rankings isn’t perfect for a lot of reasons you already know, but with the Team Talent Composite, at least it accounts for attrition (mostly). Here is what I found:
|Season||Team Talent Rank||Final AP Rank||Final S&P+ Rank|
The figures for 2018 are based on where the team is right now, not final for the year, obviously.
Last year’s crash aside, the Gators have been right about in line with their talent ranking in the four years the team talent metric has existed. The 2015 season is a bit weird since there was such a huge difference between before and after Will Grier’s suspension. To that end, UF was 8th in the AP Poll and 5th in S&P+ during the week that Grier disappeared from the lineup when the team was 6-0. The Gators were ahead in that moment, right on in 2016, and right on so far this year.
I said “mostly” above in reference to attrition since the Team Talent Composite doesn’t account for suspensions. The nine players missing a year ago certainly had an effect on the team, and it showed up in the comparative metric in addition to everywhere else it was evident. The Gators were 39th in the AP Poll, counting the “also receiving votes” list, and 59th in the S&P+ through six games before Jim McElwain decided to throw a molotov cocktail into the middle of his career.
In any event, the Gators are playing like the borderline top ten team that their talent ratings say they should be. What’s remarkable to me is that they’re doing it without a lot of clear standout players.
They don’t have an all-conference quarterback. Feleipe Franks has a passing efficiency of 132.7 against FBS opponents, which for reference is almost identical to John Brantley’s 132.6 in 2011. It’s not bad, but it’s not able-to-carry-the-team good either.
The running backs and receivers have been good as expected, but they’re kind of uniformly good to an extent. None stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest, in part because they’re so different from each other. Jordan Scarlett is more efficient; Lamical Perine is more explosive. Van Jefferson is well out in front with 19 catches, but his 13.9 yards per catch is nothing special and Freddie Swain has the same number of touchdowns (four) in barely more than half as many targets.
Behind Jefferson, five receivers have between nine and 11 receptions, and they’re not evenly distributed. For example, Josh Hammond had eight of his ten catches in the last three games, while Trevon Grimes had seven of his 11 in the Charleston Southern and Mississippi State games. Tight end is a true platoon, one that is only expanding as time goes along. These are quality units, but aside from Perine’s performance against a poor Vanderbilt defense, it’s hard to say any of them have dominated at any point.
The offensive line certainly hasn’t dominated. Dan Mullen has experimented with lineup changes at three of the five spots, with Brett Heggie occasionally appearing at one of the guard spots and Stone Forsythe subbing in for Jawaan Taylor here and there for a few games earlier on. They were shaky at the start, solid-to-great for the Colorado State-Tennessee-Mississippi State stretch, and back to shaky for LSU and Vandy. No one stands out for kudos here.
It’s not until you get to the defensive front that a player truly shines: Jachai Polite. He’s looked like someone who will be a high NFL Draft pick this upcoming April. Jabari Zuniga has had his good moments too. But everyone else? It’s hard to say.
Kyree Campbell has stolen snaps from TJ Slaton and Elijah Conliffe with his good play of late, but Marlon Dunlap and Adam Shuler have too. Shuler looked terrific for a couple of games but then was last seen getting pushed off the ball frequently for a big chunk of the Vandy game. I have few complaints about Cece Jefferson and Jeremiah Moon, but I have few highlights for them as well.
Linebacker has solidified as time has gone on. David Reese was a real difference maker, as it was night-and-day before and after he returned from injury. He’s also been limited somewhat by that lingering ankle sprain. Vosean Joseph played the game of his life against LSU but has been unremarkable at times too.
The secondary has really turned it on despite the loss of Marco Wilson. CJ Henderson has been as good as advertised in coverage and added highly effective blitzing to his repertoire. He’s up there with Polite for the honor of biggest standout player. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has broken out in the new star position, though I’d put Henderson above him overall.
The rest have their plusses and minuses. Brad Stewart is the best cover guy besides Henderson, though Trey Dean has nipped at his heels in the past two games for that title. Stewart and Dean aren’t great in run support, though, as they take bad angles too often. Donovan Stiner is better at that phase, but he’s less good at coverage. Shawn Davis has worked his way into some quality playing time but there are only so many snaps to go around. CJ McWilliams earned the start against LSU due to his work in practice according to Mullen, which may have been partly to reinforce his culture change and partly to light a fire under Dean. If the latter is true then it worked, even if the Tigers picked on McWilliams en route to their 7-0 lead.
Evan McPherson is the last candidate to be named a top standout with his reliable accuracy. Tommy Townsend isn’t quite his brother, but he’s a more than able replacement who, as we just learned, isn’t afraid of contact. Special teams as a whole has improved greatly, and much of it was from getting a massive talent infusion from starters in the other phases of the game. Tyrie Cleveland turns out to be a great punt gunner, but we’d never have known under the past staff.
So as much as anything, the success of this year’s Florida team is due to different players stepping up at different times. It truly has been a team effort. There is talent, and it’s been deployed appropriately towards winning games and not necessarily boosting anyone’s award campaigns.
It’s also being developed, considering ten of the Gators’ 35 players with 4-star or 5-star ratings are on track to redshirt this year and a handful of others would be redshirting too if they hadn’t already taken one. This isn’t a case of the top-rated players doing everything.
Quite a few major contributors only were 3-stars coming out of high school. It’s one thing to hear that Florida has the 12th-most talented roster in the country and another to look at who’s actually out there on the field. I haven’t done the calculations, but I doubt that Florida has as high as the 12th-best two-deep in the country by recruiting rankings.
These Florida players have been through a lot. The fifth-year seniors signed with Will Muschamp, the veterans rode out one of the most bizarre coaching tenure ends there’s been, and everyone experienced a dramatic culture change with the new regime coming in.
There’s been remarkably little attrition as a result. No borderline players went pro early to escape the transition. Only three players transferred during the offseason, and they were buried on the depth chart with no real path to playing time. In other words: the kinds of players who’d leave a program like Florida in any given year. Only one player, Adarius Lemons, had a frustrated exit, which is almost unheard of for a new head coach’s Year 1. These players are in it for each other and the school.
In a year where college football has reminded us that coaching changes can be really rough in the first year, Florida hasn’t been one of the examples. Mullen is getting the most out of the team, and each win in a new fashion each time only creates a positive reinforcement loop. They’ve won big. They’ve won close. They’ve led. They’ve come from behind. They needed an early wakeup call, but they recovered exceptionally well.
Polite, Henderson, Zuniga, Gardner-Johnson, Perine, McPherson. Some guys have had superlative years. Most, though, have had their highs and lows. It all has averaged out well, with only one game so far where a critical mass of them had lows at the same time.
If Mullen keeps Florida’s four-year trend of rising recruiting rankings going, we will soon be back to watching a Gator team with All-SEC candidates everywhere. For now, though, appreciate this team for the fact that it has won and lost truly as a team.