A lot of bad things have happened to Florida football since its last national title.
The title-winning head coach’s bad practices caught up to him, leaving a mess for the next guy to clean up. The next guy did clean up a lot of things but didn’t win enough. Then the next guy didn’t win enough. Then the next guy didn’t win enough. Two seasons went by with only four wins, FSU won a national championship, and out-of-state powers began raiding Sunshine State talent with impunity.
Now, for the final insult, Georgia has won a national championship. The 1980 jokes are dead, and anyone living in border territory, or who just knows some Bulldog fans, will never hear the end of it in the coming months.
If there’s any solace for Gator fans, it’s in these facts.
UF is already trying to fix it
Scott Stricklin made the right call to pull the plug on the Dan Mullen era. Mullen’s trajectory was not in the right direction, and the gap between the program and Alabama and Georgia was not closing. He did supply one more top offense — the only UF teams to score at least 39 points per game since Spurrier left all had Mullen calling plays (2007, 2008, 2020) — but his bad habits of retaining underperforming staff and not putting top effort into recruiting were too much to overcome.
It’s not like 2022 is going to be 2014, where a lame duck head coach is hoping for the improbable. Or like 2021, when a highly questionable decision to retain a coordinator hangs over the program like an ominous cloud.
Florida wiped the slate clean and hired someone who is the opposite of Mullen in terms of organization and recruiting. There’s no way to know right now whether Billy Napier is the guy who can get the Gators back to the mountaintop, but he at least has a chance to. The old staff, like the two before it, was never going to get there. UF isn’t going to waste another season hitting its head against that particular brick wall.
Napier is of the right mold
The Nick Saban model is the dominant one of the 13 seasons. In the time since Urban Meyer burned himself out in Gainesville, more national championships have been won by either Saban (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020) or a former Saban assistant (2013, 2021) than not. The five exceptions consist of two lightning-in-a-bottle seasons (2010, 2019), a temporarily resurgent Meyer (2014), and the emergence of Dabo Swinney as a top coach (2016, 2018).
Now, just because a guy worked for a legend, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything for that guy’s own future. None of Spurrier’s offensive assistants ever did much of anything on their own after all, and you could fill up an Econoline with former Saban assistants who apparently learned nothing about program building and management.
Napier worked for both Saban and Swinney, so he’s seen the two post-2008 repeatable championship programs from the inside. He’s also renowned for being detail oriented and engaging in self-reflection. He takes notes about everything and then reviews how things went at the end of every season to find the places for improvement. You might think that’s table stakes for being a great head coach, and you’d be right. But, the longer I follow the game, the more I realize just how few head coaches actually do that kind of thing in earnest.
To be sure, Napier has a lot to prove. He is building out an organization in the mold of Alabama and Georgia with a million off-field assistants, analysts, and staff, but he’s also doing unusual things like choosing to call his own plays to make room for a second offensive line coach. He’ll be a genius if it works, but it’s not like he has many impressive attacks on his resume like Mullen did. It’s also debatable how much the Clemson experience should count, since Swinney’s elite run began after he fired Napier to save his own job early on.
I’m sure Napier learned some good things about recruiting, management, and process from that time. Whatever he picked up was not from the Dabo who wears big shiny rings, though.
Still, if pulling someone off of a coaching tree is going to yield similar success, it’s going to be with someone like Napier who paid close attention and took notes.
UGA’s title doesn’t make things harder
This win for UGA isn’t like 2010 Auburn or 2019 LSU. It’s not even like 2006 Florida, when a coach early in his tenure got a shot of validation to supercharge things. Georgia won the national title because it’s been recruiting and largely competing at a title-worthy level for half a decade now.
This year the Bulldogs were in a dead heat with Alabama for prize of most talented roster in the Team Talent Composite era (2015-present). They had as many 5-stars as 3-stars, with 19 each. The last time they signed fewer than four 5-stars in a class was 2017, when they signed three. There just isn’t much headroom under the scholarship limits for this title to give them a recruiting bump.
The Bulldogs also won’t actually be this good every year either. UGA’s team had a number of players who could’ve gone pro already but chose not to, none bigger than Jordan Davis. That was also true the last time they made the national title game when guys like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel stayed an extra season when they didn’t have to.
Plus, look at the team that lost last night’s game. Saban famously adapted to the times, but he was still winning it all with rushing and defense as late as 2015. Having Derrick Henry helped in that way. For perspective, the ’15 Tide scored just 0.1 points per game more than Mullen’s first Florida team did.
The rocket fuel that made things take off in Tuscaloosa was some truly absurd wide receiver recruiting. The 2017 class brought DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs, 2018 netted Jaylen Waddle, and then 2019 included John Metchie. All those dudes panned out spectacularly.
Even for as well as Bama recruits, it was unsustainable. The Crimson Tide probably wouldn’t have been there last night had future first rounders Chris Olave and/or Garrett Wilson gone pro last winter, because otherwise Jameson Williams is starring for Ohio State instead. As we saw in the title game, Bama was lost once Williams and Metchie were off the table. Saban’s run of spectacular receivers couldn’t last without a break.
Georgia too will not have as many 4 and 5-stars who panned out this well and had this much experience. Witness the Bulldogs of just one season ago in 2020. They too were atop the Team Talent Composite, but they weren’t competitive with Alabama or Florida and squeaked by Mississippi State and Cincinnati.
UGA isn’t necessarily at its ceiling under present management techniques. If you could somehow combine Jake Fromm, a QB with a higher ceiling than Stetson Bennett, with the 2021 defense, then you’d have a better team. But the Bulldogs are very close to that ceiling until and unless Kirby Smart has a Saban-like change of heart about offensive strategy and aggression. Last night’s game result doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that would prompt such a turnaround.
The task for Napier is tough. The SEC isn’t getting any easier: Saban and Smart are at the top of the game, Jimbo Fisher is in the process of building a similarly well appointed roster at Texas A&M, and Oklahoma will soon be a conference member. Mario Cristobal, if nothing else, will get Miami’s recruiting house in better order than it’s been in for 20 years. Clemson still lurks, Ohio State remains Ohio State, and Lincoln Riley might finally give the west coast something of a counterbalance to the southeast’s dominance.
Nothing about Georgia winning a national title changes the state of play. Smart was already undefeated in regulation in national title games before last night and was recruiting at a level commensurate with that fact.
Florida does have a very tall hill to climb, but it wasn’t made any higher last night.