An idea I’ve been toying with this offseason is whether, at the highest end of its potential, the 2019 Florida football team could replicate the 2006 team’s run of riding close wins to a national championship. They did need to do well in close contests; five of the Gators’ 12 regular season games were decided by one score, and they went 5-0 in those games. There was definitely some luck involved there.
In the grand scheme of things, they didn’t end up with an outrageous luck score in the way that I like to define it. That method is using Pythagorean expectation and comparing actual wins to expected wins. The 2006 Gators had a Pythagorean expectation of 10.5 regular season wins, and in reality they won 11. Their luck in this measure was only positive 0.5 wins, which is negligible. Most teams in a given season have a luck score between -1 and 1 wins.
Back when Todd Grantham’s hire was announced, I wrote up a piece for GC using Pythagorean expectation showing that he hadn’t yet proven himself a national championship-caliber defensive coordinator. After 2018, he still hasn’t.
For a team to have a reasonable shot at the College Football Playoff, it needs to finish 11-1. That’s very hard to do. The line coming out of the Florida staff this summer has been that it’s easier to go from four wins to ten than ten to 11. To whatever extent that’s true, it’s a fact that UF didn’t win ten games in the regular season in 2018. They won nine, so presumably it’s harder to go from nine to 11 than ten to 11.
Last year, the Gators allowed 20 points per game on the dot. That was a touchdown’s worth of improvement over 2017’s 27.3 points per game allowed, but it’s not championship level without an impossibly good offense or lots of luck.
To get a Pythagorean expectation of 11 wins while allowing 20 points a game, a team must score at least 56 points per game. Only three total teams across the last decade have scored more than 50 per game, the highest being 2012 Baylor at 52.4. No Dan Mullen offense will hit 50 a game, much less 56, because of how often he runs the ball and how much running moves the clock.
I think we’re all expecting some kind of defensive improvement this year, if for no other reason than how much an upgrade Marco Wilson is at corner over a platoon of a true freshman and CJ McWilliams. How much to expect I’m not sure yet, but I do think it will be measurably better.
Grantham’s best scoring defense was his 2011 Georgia unit. They allowed 16.1 offensive points per game. This figure leaves out non-offensive scores like pick-sixes or punt return touchdowns that UGA opponents had.
In the event Grantham could match that figure in 2019 — and if UF didn’t allow a single non-offensive point, which is very hard to do across a whole season — the Gators would need to score 45 points per game to have a Pythagorean expectation of 11 regular season wins.
Last year, UF scored an even 35 per game. The highest scoring power conference team Mullen’s been around as a head coach or coordinator was the 2008 Gators that scored 43.6 points per game. The 2004 Utah Utes scored 45.3 points per game, but they were playing in the Mountain West at the time. They also failed to hit as many as 45 points against three of their four power conference opponents of Texas A&M (scored 41), Arizona (23), and Pitt (35).
If the 2008 Gators couldn’t score 45 a game, then it’s questionable whether any Mullen offense at Florida could hit that threshold. I undersold the 2018 offense in that original piece I mentioned above where I thought that last year’s team would top out at 28 per game, but I’m a thousand percent confident that the ’19 Gators won’t outscore the ’08 team.
Now, the ’18 team’s scoring defense had a rough four-game stretch in the middle of the year. In consecutive games they allowed 27 points to Vandy, 36 to Georgia, 38 to Missouri, and 31 to South Carolina. In the other nine games, they allowed 14.1 points per game.
Suppose in the most ideal world that the 2019 scoring defense could somehow match that nine-game rate across the entire regular season. That’s unrealistic, since UGA, Missouri, and South Carolina should again have some of the best offenses that the team will face, but just go with it for now.
To have a Pythagorean expectation of 11 wins while allowing 14 points per game, the team would have to score 39 points per game. After scoring 35 per game a year ago, that threshold actually seems doable. It’s too bad the accompanying scoring defense rate does not.
Like I said, though, the 2006 team didn’t hit a Pythagorean expectation of 11 wins. It had an expectation of 10.5 and still won 11.
To hit an expectation of 10.5 wins with 14 points per game allowed, the team would need to score 33 points per game. They already beat that last year. At 16 points per game allowed, they’d need to score 37 points per game. That’s less than a field goal per contest above 2018. The sweet spot of realistic improvement on each side of the ball is probably scoring 39 and allowing 17 points per game to get to 10.5 expected wins.
Let’s say you’re willing to stretch the luck further. You just want an expectation of ten regular season wins, and God smiles on the Gators enough to give them a bonus win to get to 11 actual victories.
In this case, they could score 40 points per game and allow the same 20 a game as last year to hit the mark. We think the defense will improve, though. If they do a field goal per game better than 2018 and allow 17 per game, then they could score as little as 34 points per game to have an expectation of ten wins.
Of course, after going 11-1 in the regular season, there will be other games to play. Provided the one loss wasn’t to a UGA team that itself had no more than one conference loss, there’s likely to be Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. If UF somehow won that one, they’d have to win two more games in the College Football Playoff. One of those would almost certainly be against the game’s other current juggernaut, Clemson.
So no, Florida probably doesn’t have a shot at winning the national championship 2006-style this fall. There are three teams generally considered above the rest right now — Bama, Clemson, and to a slightly lesser extent Georgia — and the Gators would have to go at least 2-1 against them to win a title. That doesn’t feel likely. Using the S&P+ system, all three of them were better last year than any team was in 2006.
With that said, 2006-level luck would allow a pop to 11-1 while needing to score four more and allow three fewer points per game than in 2018. Those improvements are not out of the realm of possibility, so maybe getting to 11 wins won’t be quite as hard as billed.