I don’t know how good Auburn will be this fall, and basically no one else does either. Anyone who says they do is overconfident. AU had a stunning bowl win, but it will play a quarterback who’s never received a collegiate snap and returns an offensive line that wasn’t terribly good last year. The Tigers could be great. They could be bad, leading to Gus Malzahn being fired. No one knows.
While puzzling over that game on the schedule, it occurred to me that Florida seems to get rotating SEC West opponents when they’re on an upswing. For instance, last year was supposed to be a cyclical peak year for Mississippi State, and it actually was one for the Bulldogs’ defense. It would’ve been for the offense too had Dan Mullen still been around. For far too long Joe Moorhead thought he could turn Nick Fitzgerald into a good passer, but that was a bad bet.
I looked at the Gators’ non-LSU West opponents since 2008, which consisted of 15 total teams. I compared the number of regular season wins the opponents had to the four years prior. For the opponents before SEC expansion in 2012, UF was still doing consecutive home-and-home series with rotating West opponents, giving those programs two chances to hit a peak while playing the Gators.
The results? There were five instances in 11 years when teams played Florida in a peak season. Counting home-and-home series opponents as one team instead of two, in nine times among 12 opponents did a team play UF while winning more games than the average over the four years prior.
2008 Ole Miss
8 wins; prior 4-year average of 3.5 wins
This was the first of two consecutive Cotton Bowl teams for Houston Nutt when he took over the Rebels. He was able to ride the tailwind of Ed Orgeron’s good recruiting for a little while before crashing the program. I think you remember how this game turned out. I think I remember someone giving a speech after or something.
2010 Mississippi State
8 wins; prior 4-year average of 4.8 wins
Mullen’s second team in Starkville got a significant bump in its second year and rode a risk averse game plan to a surprise win over the Gators.
2012 Texas A&M
10 wins; prior 4-year average of 6.0 wins
The SEC wanted its new teams to have showcase inter-division games, so it gave a contest against Alabama to Missouri and one against the Gators to the Aggies. UF was fortunate that Kevin Sumlin didn’t quite know what he had in Johnny Manziel in Florida’s 20-17 win in Week 2. Even Will Muschamp seemed relieved afterwards, as he saw glimpses of the future Heisman winner’s brilliance in an offensive game plan designed to protect a freshman quarterback against a tough defense.
2015 Ole Miss
9 wins; prior 4-year average of 6.0 wins
This was the second of two peak years for Hugh Freeze, as he won nine regular season games in 2014 as well. Despite beating Alabama a couple weeks before, the Rebels found themselves trucked by the Gators in the best game they played in the entire Jim McElwain era. It’s the progenitor of a thousand what-ifs, many of them about Will Grier.
7 wins; prior 4-year average of 5.0 wins
This is another case of a second consecutive peak year as Arkansas won seven regular season games in 2015 as well. A seven-win campaign isn’t much of a peak, though the Hogs played in a tough SEC West, but UF still got stomped in this one 31-10 after forgetting to show up and play hard. This one was one of the primary bits of evidence that McElwain’s two East titles were something of a mirage.
Above Average Teams
2009 Mississippi State
5 wins; prior 4-year average of 4.3 wins
How bad was State when Mullen took over? Almost making a bowl was an improvement over the average of the prior four-year period. MSU did make a bowl with seven wins in 2007, but it was a one-year fluke.
7 wins; prior 4-year average of 6.8 wins
This barely qualifies, and the actual peak year was when UF played the Razorbacks for the conference title in 2006. That was a really good Arkansas team that won ten regular season games.
9 wins; prior 4-year average of 9.0 wins
The mostly Steve Addazio-led Gators in Urban Meyer’s last year were in no position to take advantage of a “down” Saban Alabama team this season. Too bad. At least Steve Spurrier got them.
11 wins; prior 4-year average of 9.8 wins
The rolling average here picks up Nick Saban’s first season of six wins and the down-by-his-standards nine wins of 2010. It doesn’t qualify as a peak year by my measurement of wins since the Tide went undefeated in the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons, but this ’11 team was better than both of those with a historically good defense.
11 wins; prior 4-year average of 10.8 wins
Again, this one barely qualifies. It only does because of that 2010 season being the oldest in the prior four-year average. With a loss in the semifinal to Ohio State, this counts as one of Saban’s lesser teams of recent seasons.
2018 Mississippi State
8 wins; prior 4-year average of 7.8 wins
Again, Moorhead’s mismanagement of his offense hurt this team, but it still squeaked ahead of the four-year average. The peak season was the oldest in the average, Mullen’s ten-win campaign and New Year’s Six appearance in 2014.
5 wins; prior 4-year average of 6.8 wins
Florida would get a better-than-rolling-average Razorback squad the next year, so this one almost doesn’t count as a reprieve. Then again, they both kind of do because it was in 2010 that Bobby Petrino got the Hogs rolling for a pair of ten-win regular seasons.
7 wins; prior 4-year average of 8.0 wins
The four-year average doesn’t do it justice. UF missed a 14-0 wrecking ball of a team by one season. That is a true dodged bullet.
3 wins; prior 4-year average of 7.8 wins
Bret Bielema inherited a mess at Arkansas and his first team there was wretched. The Gators got them early enough in the year before injuries set in that they were able to cruise to a 30-10 win. Turns out, it’d be their last win of the year.
2017 Texas A&M
7 wins; prior 4-year average of 7.8
After Manziel left, Sumlin won either seven or eight games the rest of his tenure. If you want to talk more counterfactuals, what if Florida had beaten its two West opponents in 2017 instead of losing by a combined three points? Mullen might well be the head coach at Tennessee right now. Sometimes, losing isn’t the worst thing.
The Last Word
There is absolutely no causal link other than an orange and blue tinted Murphy’s Law, but rotating West opponents tend to win more than their prior four-year averages when they play UF.
Auburn’s regular season average for the last four years is 7.8 wins. That implies that AU will win at least eight regular season games. They start with Oregon in JerryWorld before having road games at Texas A&M, Florida, and LSU and home games against Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama. It’s a rough schedule. For the Tigers to win at least eight, they’re going to have to be pretty good.
Therefore based on 11 years’ worth of coincidence, I’ll predict that Auburn will be a good opponent and a tough out this year.