I try to be fair when assessing individuals’ performances and not throw out hot takes. The latter approach can and does work for others, but I prefer to take a more systematic approach.
I’ll admit, Todd Grantham makes it hard. I still try. I am the only media-adjacent person I’m aware of to attempt to construct a positive case for retaining him after the 2020 defensive debacle, though I didn’t manage to convince even myself that it was a good idea.
With Gator fans’ ire directed at Grantham again after an inexplicably ineffective performance of run defense against LSU, it’s time to take a close look at his record. Is Grantham the right guy for the job or not?
What is the goal here?
To tell whether Grantham’s the right guy for the job, we first have to define what “right” means. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple: the defensive coordinator at Florida should produce a championship-level defense far more often than not.
No one gets it every single time; even Charlie Strong had 2007. But the Gator defense should be good enough to facilitate winning titles in most years.
What is a championship-level defense?
Like so many seemingly simple questions, the answer is that it depends. Tell me how good the offense it’s paired with is, and I’ll tell you how good a defense has to be.
By now, we don’t have to guess. Shortly after Grantham was hired, I laid out a framework for deducing how well a defense must perform to give the team a good shot at an 11-1 record given various scoring levels for the offense. Achieving at least an 11-1 record is a necessary, if not always sufficient, requirement for putting a team on a path to win titles.
You can read that link if you want the details of how it works, but it’s based on Pythagorean expectation.
How much do Dan Mullen’s Florida teams score?
With Feleipe Franks as the starting quarterback, Mullen’s Florida averaged 34.6 points scored per game. That includes the 2019 Kentucky game when he got hurt. This figure is not adjusted for non-offensive scores; no per-game figures in this piece are because that data isn’t easily accessible.
With Kyle Trask as starting quarterback, Mullen’s Florida scored 36.9 points per game. If you narrow that down to just 2020, it’s 39.8. Toss out the Cotton Bowl, which Mullen didn’t treat as a normal game, and it’s 41.6 per game.
So far in 2021, Florida has averaged 34.4 points per game. It’s almost exactly the same rate as when Franks was the starter. Obviously this year’s figure is mostly with Emory Jones at the helm; we’ll see how that might change if/when Anthony Richardson starts to get most of the snaps.
Only in 2020 with Trask playing at a Heisman finalist level did points per game rise out of the mid-30s. Unless Mullen can more routinely coax Heisman finalist-level play out of his quarterbacks, scoring in the mid-30s is a fair expectation.
What’s good enough, then?
Let’s split the difference between the Franks era and 2021. A team averaging 34.5 points per game can only give up an average of 12.5 points per game to expect an 11-1 record without needing some good luck.
Maybe you’re willing to ask for a modest amount of good luck and only go for an expectation of 10.5 wins, because that rounds up to 11. In that case, a 34.5 PPG offense must pair with a 15.1 PPG defense.
How about with Trask’s amazing pre-bowl performance in 2020? At 41.6 PPG scored, a defense must hit 15.1 PPG allowed for an 11-game win expectancy or 18.3 PPG allowed for 10.5 wins.
Has Grantham hit those marks as a defensive coordinator?
Once, sort of, with a caveat.
In 2019, Florida allowed 15.5 PPG. That’s almost low enough to hit the 15.1 PPG needed to expect 10.5 wins with a mid-30s PPG offense or 11 wins with a 2020 regular season-level offense.
Other than that? No. The next-fewest points per game allowed by a team with Grantham running the defense was 19.6 from Georgia in 2012.
The caveat I mentioned is that UF shut out two FCS teams in 2019. Those were good showings, but they weren’t even against good FCS opponents.
Against just FBS opponents, the ’19 Florida team allowed 18.3 PPG. That’s no longer close to the levels needed to hit 11-1, though it would hit the 10.5 expectation with a 2020 offense. If the ’19 team had faced two FBS cupcakes and allowed, say, ten points to each, then you’re looking at 17 PPG allowed. That’s better but still high.
What have championship teams actually done?
I want to take a moment and be careful in definitions because I’m shifting gears in two ways right now. One, I’m following the caveat above and looking only at games against FBS competition. The prior projections regarding what it takes to get to 11-1 made no such distinction. Two, I’m moving out of the tidy world of math-based projections and into the messier realm of reality.
In Grantham’s career as a college defensive coordinator — 2010-13 at Georgia, 2014-16 at Louisville, 2017 at Mississippi State, and 2018-21 at Florida — the team he’s worked for has only kept FBS opponents below an average of 20 points per game once: 2019, at 18.3. The next-fewest have been 2012 UGA (20.1) and this year’s Florida (21.1, through LSU).
In the same time frame, only two national champions have allowed more than 20 points per game to FBS competition: 2014 Ohio State (22.0) and 2019 LSU (22.4).
The former averaged 44.8 PPG and the latter 47.2 PPG against FBS foes. Both of those marks are well above the best Mullen has ever done as a head coach (2020’s 39.8 overall or 41.6 pre-bowl). Both also had some good luck residuals from Pythagorean expectation. The ’14 Buckeyes had an expectation of 12.7 wins and went 14-1, while the ’19 Tigers had an expectation of 12.0 wins and went 14-0 against FBS foes (including 2-0 in one-score games).
Two other champs managed to fall between 19 and 20 PPG allowed, and they have similar stories. The 2016 Clemson Tigers only hit 37.8 PPG scored but did have some good luck. They went 13-1 against FBS teams despite an expectation for 11.6 wins. Then 2020 Alabama averaged 48.5 PPG scored and beat their expectation of 11.7 wins by going 13-0.
So, if you want to win a national title while allowing more than 20 points per game to FBS teams, you had better have an offense that scores more than any team Mullen has run as a head coach and get a little lucky in the process.
Across the end of the BCS era from 2010-13, two of the four national title game losers gave up more than 20 points per game: 2010 Oregon (20.3) and 2013 Auburn (26.4). The former — you guessed it — scored a Mullen-beating 45.2 PPG while the latter got extra lucky with the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six in consecutive weeks.
Ten College Football Playoff participants that didn’t win it all have allowed more than 20 points per game. Let’s put those into buckets.
- Had to face Big 12 offenses: 2015 Oklahoma (22.0 PPG allowed), 2017 Oklahoma (27.1), 2018 Oklahoma (33.3), 2019 Oklahoma (28.3)
- Dismissed from Playoff via blowout: 2014 FSU (26.6), 2014 Oregon (24.4), 2015 Michigan State (21.7), 2020 Ohio State (25.8), 2020 Clemson (22.0)
- Luck liked them: 2015 Clemson (22.5)
The four Oklahoma teams never had a chance at going under 20 PPG allowed for the competition they played, though some of them had bad defenses anyway. The ’15 Clemson team had a Pythagorean expectation of 10.8 wins but went 13-1 against FBS opponents. The other five teams lost badly when they made their exits, and the only wins among them came against other teams in that bucket (’14 Oregon over FSU, ’20 Ohio State over Clemson). They could get close to the mountaintop, but their defenses buckled when it counted.
To be in true national championship contention, you’re going to need to do at least one of two things: give up fewer points per game than all but one team that has ever employed Grantham as a DC, or score more than Mullen ever has while serving as a head coach. Failing those, you have to hope for luck.
No, I don’t believe Grantham should remain Florida’s defensive coordinator. He’s been a DC at the power conference level for almost a dozen years now. The teams that employ him do not allow few enough points to support a legitimate title run with any regularity.
The best Mullen has ever done as a play caller was the 43.3 PPG that the 2008 Gators hit with Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, and all those guys. The 2020 team might’ve made a run at that mark with its original schedule that included Eastern Washington, South Alabama, and New Mexico State. At the ’08 scoring average, the team would need to hit 15.7 PPG allowed to expect an 11-1 record or 19.1 PPG allowed to expect 10.5 wins.
A Grantham team has gotten below 15.7 once, and it had a pair of FCS shutouts pulling that number down. The next-fewest any of his teams has gotten to was 19.6, which is a half-point too high to hit the more forgiving target.
The game has changed, and the SEC in particular has shifted more towards offense in recent seasons. Grantham has not kept up, with his 2018 and 2020 units being among Florida’s most generous with points since 2007. It’s not just fancy schemes getting him either. His 2021 defense couldn’t stop a basic counter run play against an LSU team that hadn’t been able to run all year. A UF opponent record held by Herschel Walker just fell. That’s completely unacceptable in 2021 when you compare the style of play of today to the early ’80s.
In theory and in practice, Grantham’s Florida defenses just haven’t earned the status of “championship-level defense”. It’s due to both those defenses’ own deficiencies and head-coach Mullen’s demonstrated inability to score enough to make up for them. Grantham could be a championship-level coordinator, but he’d have to work with someone whose teams score more than Mullen’s typically do.
If Grantham can replicate what was his best-ever performance by a comfortable margin, and if Mullen can get another Heisman finalist behind center, and if luck smiles upon the Gators, then Mullen might be able to win a national championship with Grantham by his side. Every “if” in that sentence unnecessarily removes some margin for error, and there’s no reason to make that the plan when there are better defensive coordinators out there that Florida could pursue.
Some of them are also better recruiters than is Grantham, who’s not exactly a game-changer on the trail. That’s part of the job too, and there almost certainly are good defensive players wearing other teams’ colors right now because Grantham was Florida’s DC instead of a better recruiter.
There is no case to be made for retaining Grantham anymore, to the extent there ever was one. His contract expires at season’s end. His tenure in Gainesville should too.