If you’ve read much of my work around here, you know I’m an adherent to Bill Connelly’s Five Factors of winning for football. Like Dean Oliver’s older and more famous Four Factors of winning for basketball, the five for football boil the game down to something easily comprehensible. The factors are explosiveness, efficiency, finishing drives, field position, and turnovers.
The Florida offense improved by a lot in its first year under Dan Mullen. I’m sure even the most ecstatic Gator fans would agree that there’s still room to improve. Only so much can be done in one year with players recruited to another system.
I’m going to discuss some of the biggest areas of improvement for both offense and defense during the offseason, but I will start on offense with the most important one: explosiveness.
Explosiveness is all about generating more longer plays than shorter ones. According to Connelly’s math, it is the single most important of the five factors. One team being more explosive than the other is a better predictor of who won a game than looking at which team won any of the other factors, including the turnover battle.
Florida was in the middle of the pack nationally in explosiveness in 2018. In Connelly’s main measure, the Gators ranked 70th in the country. The UF passing game ranked better in the nation than the rushing game did, and the team was better at generating longer plays on standard downs than on passing downs. Passing downs are 2nd & 5 or longer and 3rd or 4th & 5 or longer, while standard downs are anything else.
Are there things Mullen can do to make a more explosive offense? Yes and no.
It’s important here to draw a distinction between the rate and timing of explosive plays. The rate is simply the percentage of plays that end up in big gains. The timing refers to whether a team can create a long gain on a given specific play when it wants to.
It is possible to try to influence the rate with scheme. All else equal, the Fun ‘n Gun will generate more explosive plays than 3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust. The “all else equal” is doing a lot of work here, as it covers ground from an offense’s own execution level to the ability of the defense to stop big plays.
It’s all those complicating issues that make it much more difficult to affect the timing of explosive plays. As best as Connelly can tell, big plays are random.
Unless you’re running the quarterback sneak in short yardage or are really close to the end zone and therefore are out of space, any play can be explosive. Even Les Miles’s Neanderball offense can generate big plays if the toss dive is blocked well enough. It’s all about getting the ball to the right guy in the right place at the right time.
Let’s actually break down that last sentence for a sec. The “right guy” is mainly about having better skill position players than the defense has defenders. Mullen has been working on that. Whether it’s fast guys like Jacob Copeland or big guys like Kyle Pitts, he’s been recruiting to upgrade the skill positions on the roster. They were already in decent shape when he arrived, but if the new guys develop well, they should get better.
“The right place” is about scheme and players’ knowledge of it. Mullen’s offense is a proven commodity, and the guys really seemed to be getting it by the end of the year. The days when receivers would run verticals too close to each other because no one was making sure that everyone knew the whole playbook are over. Things should get even better here in the second year of the system.
“The right time” is about execution. It’s one thing to know what to do; it’s another to be able to do it. It’s for this reason that, for me, this was the single most encouraging play of the Peach Bowl:
Florida was not more explosive earlier in the year in part because Feleipe Franks consistently overthrew Van Jefferson on deep routes. This play wasn’t a deep go route, so it’s not exactly the same thing as what Franks was overthrowing for much of the year, but he does drop a longer pass right over Jefferson’s shoulder in stride. It suggested to me that perhaps the two of them had spent good time in bowl practice getting the timing down.
In fact, the trends had been pointing in the right direction before the Peach Bowl, even if the progress was in fits and starts.
The way I count it, a play is explosive if it’s a run of 10+ yards or a pass of 20+ yards. The Gators had 11 explosive runs on South Carolina, 21% of all run plays, though not a single explosive pass play. The explosive run rate fell to 10% against FSU, but the explosive pass rate jumped up to 18%. Then against Michigan, the run rate went back up to 22% with the pass rate at a decent 15%. The Wolverines arguably had the best defense UF played all season, and it was the first time they hit 15% in both explosive run and pass rate in the same game against a Power 5 opponent.
It is also worth mentioning that Lamical Perine had no run longer than 25 yards all year until hitting a 74-yarder on FSU and a 53-yarder against Michigan. If he can be more explosive as the lead back, that’ll be a big help. So would getting a fully healthy Malik Davis. His 6.7 yards per carry in 2017 was the highest for any UF running back with at least 50 rushes in a year since Chris Rainey’s 7.2 in 2010.
The seeds of improvement in explosiveness were planted in the final few games of 2018. UF is never going to lead the country in this category under Mullen because he calls too many run plays and too few deep jump balls to receivers, but they can get well above the middle of the pack where they were last year. It will be tough to do so if the rebuilt offensive line struggles, but improved timing between Franks and his receivers will certainly help.
If the Gators are able to increase their explosiveness without compromising their high efficiency, that’ll be a sign that the offense is taking the next step forward.