We’ve gotten to the preview magazine portion of the college football offseason, so the conventional wisdom for 2018 is beginning to take shape. One thing has become clear: Mississippi State is generally expected to be better than Florida this year.
The Gators aren’t in a lot of top 25 rankings, between the magazines and post-spring polls. They don’t appear in the top 25 in the Lindy’s or Street and Smith magazines, and they’re not in either the ESPN or USA Today post-spring rankings. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is no worse than No. 21 in any of those.
UF does clock in at No. 17 in Athlon, but the Bulldogs are No. 14 there. Phil Steele is pretty bullish on Florida, and he has the Gators at 17 and the Bulldogs at 21 in his projections of the final polls. That’s something of a reflection of MSU being in the tougher West division though; in Steele’s Power Poll, which ranks teams by projected quality, State is 16th while UF is 23rd.
The only place I could find Florida above Mississippi State was the College Football News rankings from late March, in which the Gators are No. 17 and the Bulldogs are No. 26. It’s that hard to find a media outlet projecting UF over MSU this year.
I know this fact will rankle some. There is a contingent of people, of which I am one, that believes Florida should always be better than Mississippi State given the particulars of the two programs. Besides, UF just hired MSU’s coach. It would feel wrong if the Bulldogs lost their coach and ended up better the very next year than the team that coach went to.
Today, I’m here to tell you both that Mississippi State probably will be better than Florida this year, and that it’s fine for that to be the case.
For one thing, it’s not exactly unusual for the Bulldogs to be the better team of late. According to the Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, MSU has been better than UF four of the last five years. In fact, they were the better team five times in the nine years that Dan Mullen spent in Starkville. There’s a good reason why that job became Mullen’s for as long as he wanted it, Florida fired two head coaches in that span, and UF brought Mullen back to town.
For another, Mississippi State might not have been an elite recruiter (because it’s Mississippi State), but the team brings back a ton of production from a year ago. Performance of teams that don’t load up on blue chip recruits tends to be cyclical based on how experienced the team is. This year simply happens to be one where MSU brings back just about anyone you could name off of last year’s team. Florida returns a lot too, but not as much, and from a team that wasn’t nearly as good as Mississippi State was a year ago.
Perhaps the starkest contrast is at the most important position in the game. Nick Fitzgerald is heading into his third year starting at quarterback, while Florida doesn’t know whether it’ll be starting the underwhelming guy from a year ago or a player who’s never taken a college game snap. Fitzgerald may be a career 55% passer, but he makes up for it by being an explosive runner and not making many mistakes.
It’s true that Fitzgerald and his offense mates are learning a new scheme under Joe Moorhead, but it’s not nearly as big a transition as the Gators are making this offseason. In broad, simplified terms, MSU is going from one kind of spread option to another. UF is going from a non-spread, pocket passing, pro-style offense to a spread option.
And while Moorhead is in his first Power 5 head coaching gig, he’s done the job before. Prior to becoming Penn State’s offensive coordinator, he was head coach at Fordham. While the SEC is just a wee bit different than the Patriot League, Moorhead has already gone through the rookie head coaching stuff. He knows how to pick and manage a staff, make snap sideline decisions about things like time outs and fourth downs, and do myriad little things that come with the office. Mississippi State should encounter considerably fewer growing pains than if this was truly Moorhead’s first head coaching job.
We don’t have to wait long to see how the two teams stack up. Florida travels to Starkville on September 29, and the home team and crowd will be amped up for Mullen’s return. Maybe Mullen will find a way to win like he did when visiting his former place of employment at Swamp in 2010, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see MSU win that game. It shouldn’t surprise you either.
It speaks well on Mullen that the program he built won’t collapse the instant he left it. If the Bulldogs win nine games and challenge for a New Year’s Six game while the Gators win eight and go to the Outback Bowl, that’s all right for one year. Mullen left the cupboard about as fully-stocked as it gets in Starkville, and as far as Florida goes, there’s only so much that can be done in one year.
If we’re still talking about Mississippi State being better than Florida in a year or two, either Moorhead is a true genius or things have gone wrong in Gainesville again. We can discuss those particulars should they come up. For this year, though, MSU almost certainly will be better than UF. It’s not going to feel good, but think of it as a sign that UF might finally become a stable, winning program under a guy who’s done it before.