Last year, it made sense that Florida would be overlooked. Tennessee was the popular pick, and based on every statistical measure, the Vols were the smart choice based on analytics. In fact, the only reason I chose the Gators was the large advantage Jim McElwain gives Florida with his in-game coaching decisions compared to Butch Jones.
This year the popular pick is Georgia, albeit with significantly less certainty. I actually have to admit that initially I thought Georgia was a good pick. But after looking at the statistics a little bit closer, there are some significant flaws in its roster. Because of that, there’s really only one path to winning the SEC East for the Bulldogs.
2016 season comparisons
In 2016, Florida was clearly a better team, even if that’s not completely reflected in the records. Because of Hurricane Matthew and subsequent cancellation of the home game against Presbyterian to accommodate LSU, Florida went 9-4 instead of 10-4. That makes it appear that Georgia was close behind the Gators with an 8-5 record. But that is far from reality.
For the season, Georgia only outscored its opponents by seven points (319 for vs. 312 against). That’s typically the profile of a team with a 7-6 or 6-7 record. And that score differential isn’t due to one blowout skewing the results. The Bulldogs played seven games that were decided by a touchdown or less, winning four of them.
Georgia fans might point to the miracle loss to Tennessee as an indicator that the team is close to breaking through. But Florida fans can point to the struggle at home against Nichols State as the real Georgia. Likely the truth is somewhere in-between.
That’s not the case for Florida, though. In 2016, Florida outscored its opponents by 93 points (311 for vs. 218 against). This value is skewed somewhat by the losses to Florida State (31-13) and Alabama (54-16), who finished No. 8 and No. 2 in the final AP Poll, respectively. Regardless, that kind of scoring differential is still indicative of a 9-4 team, exactly where Florida finished.
The difference becomes even more stark when looking at SEC play. Besides the head-to-head matchup, the teams played five common opponents in the SEC East. Georgia played the easier SEC West schedule of Auburn and Ole Miss (combined 13-12 record) while Florida played LSU, Arkansas and Alabama (combined 29-10 record).
Despite this, Florida outscored SEC opponents by 3.9 points per game. Georgia was outscored by its SEC opponents by 3.1 points. Again, this value is skewed by the Alabama game as Florida outscored its other SEC opponents by 9.1 ppg.
Florida also beat Georgia head-to-head, winning 24-10. The takeaway is that the 2016 Gators were significantly better than the 2016 Bulldogs.
This isn’t 2016 anymore, and that is the crux of the argument for anyone picking Georgia to win the East. The thinking is that Florida relied on its defense in 2016 and that much of that defense is gone to the NFL.
I actually agree that the Florida defense is going to take a step back. I’m just not sure that the Georgia defense is ready to take a significant step forward.
Comparison of 2016 defensive ranks and 2017 talent and experience level for Florida and Georgia. (Will Miles/SEC Country)
Florida’s defense was elite last season while Georgia’s defense was just average. This was the real difference between the two teams. And this year, Georgia has a lot of players back on defense, with an average of 3.5 years of experience. That’s a lot of juniors and seniors.
Those players are also talented as well, with an average 247 composite star ranking of 3.7. So this is a slam dunk for Georgia right? Florida’s defense will take a step back while the extra year of experience will allow the Georgia defense to improve?
Well, in a vacuum you might say yes to those questions. But experience does not equal productivity. For that extra year of experience, Georgia isn’t bringing back much more production than Florida.
Returning productivity for Florida and Georgia on defense, normalized based on total tackles for Florida. (Will Miles/SEC Country)
It is true that Georgia is bringing back significantly more total tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and interceptions than Florida. But those players have a full year more experience than the Florida players. With the loss of Marcell Harris, Florida is replacing eight starters on defense compared to only two for Georgia.
I didn’t have time to examine production per snap, but total tackles are somewhat indicative of time spent on the field. If you normalize based on tackles (Georgia had 1.79 more chances), Florida’s returning defensive players were far more explosive than Georgia (10.6 more tackles for loss and 1.7 more interceptions). This is without Marcell Harris, who is out with an Achilles injury.
This means that while Georgia is more experienced, the talent that Florida is bringing back has shown better production per play. I’m not sure Bulldogs fans should expect a marked improvement from the Georgia defense. It’s the same guys with one additional year of experience and a lack of explosiveness. Florida – on the other hand – has the explosiveness and will gain significant experience throughout the year. The challenge for the Gators will be to avoid the big mental mistake that leads to a broken coverage or shooting the wrong gap that allows a big run and also to avoid major injuries that put even more inexperience on the field.
Georgia is more experienced. But that experience does not mean they are better.
Georgia’s defense likely improves a little bit. Florida’s likely regresses a little bit as well. But the Gators are going to be better overall, likely significantly so.
Gators fans were undoubtedly frustrated with the offense in 2016, particularly the quarterback play. But the combination of Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby actually had a higher completion percentage and QB rating than Georgia’s 5-star QB, Jacob Eason.
The Florida duo completed 58.8 percent of its passes, while Eason was at just 55.1. The QB rating edge favored Florida 123.4 to 120.2, as did passing yards (2,805 vs. 2,430).
Eason was a true freshman, which means there should be some improvement. But the fact remains that any Florida fan who hated watching the offense in 2016 can take solace that Georgia fans were going through the exact same process. There’s no guarantee that this isn’t who Eason is, and if so, Georgia’s offense isn’t going to be any better.
Statistical rankings of offenses in 2016 and experience and talent level for 2017 for Florida and Georgia. (Will Miles/SEC Country)
Georgia’s offense is more talented, buoyed by the 5-star ratings of Eason and running back Nick Chubb. But both units have the exact same experience level coming into 2017. Both were terrible in 2016. And the likelihood of a major improvement for either is unlikely.
There are major questions about Chubb and whether he can be the same back he was before a major knee injury suffered in 2015 against Tennessee. Prior to the injury, Chubb averaged 7.1 yards per carry in 2014 and 8.1 yards per carry in 2015. He only averaged 5.0 yards per rush in 2016, which brings into question whether he is still an elite back or whether the injury has sapped much of his explosiveness.
Florida’s running backs from 2016 were nearly as productive as Georgia’s, averaging 4.8 yards per rush compared to 5.2 for Georgia. The real advantage for Florida is in the passing game, where the Gators bring back experience and production. The Gators receivers and tight ends return 55 more catches than Georgia, despite both teams having roughly equivalent QB play.
The position that is critical for both teams is quarterback. Georgia’s offense has a higher upside than the Gators likely do. This is because Chubb could return to form, but really because Eason could turn into a monster.
Jacob Eason’s high school statistics. (www.maxpreps.com)
This is the one way that Georgia wins the East. I wrote a few weeks ago about QB accuracy and how it translates from high school to college. Eason started out struggling with accuracy in high school, staying below 60 percent his freshman and sophomore years. But he averaged 69 percent his junior and senior years.
Those last two years are what worries me. That type of accuracy typically carries over from high school to college. The 14.4 percent difference in accuracy between his senior year of high school and freshman season at Georgia is not typical. And if Eason shows the type of improvement this year that he showed in high school, he’s going to be a weapon.
That’s why media members are picking Georgia. If Eason improves his accuracy to 64 percent with the same number of throws, and everything else stays the same, his QB rating is going to end up around 140, which would improve the Georgia offense by 40 or 50 spots in the rankings.
Of course, Florida has a transfer QB who could significantly improve its offense, too. In limited action, he has put up better stats than Del Rio, Appleby or Eason (QB rating of 149.3). If he can replicate that in Gainesville, then Florida will see a significant uptick in offense.
Zaire’s high school track record is nowhere near as impressive as Eason’s (56.6 percent completions his senior year). This makes me think it is more likely that Eason will turn around the Georgia offense than Zaire turns around the Gators offense.
But both teams have significant uncertainty around their signal callers. It seems ridiculous that Florida would have more patience with Zaire than Georgia would with Eason. But if the Bulldogs get off to a rough start offensively, Eason has highly rated recruit Jake Fromm as a potential replacement. That kind of thing can mess with a QBs head, and could potentially derail any significant improvement.
Still, the upside of Eason is hard to ignore. I think both offenses improve marginally, but Georgia improves slightly more than Florida.
I’m a big fan of Jim McElwain’s in-game coaching strategies. I think he gains edges for his team that other coaches leave out on the field. This is reflected in a 7-1 record in close games (7 points or less) at Florida, and an 8-3 record at Colorado State before coming to Gainesville. These types of close games are typically won about half the time, so for McElwain to win these games at an almost 80-percent clip is indicative that he is doing something different than his cohorts.
Contrast that to Kirby Smart. Smart has only been a head coach for one year and has a limited sample to examine, but his 2016 team did play seven close games. Georgia went 4-3 in those games, which is in line with what you would expect with an average coach.
Certainly this could change, and Smart could prove to be an excellent coach. But the edges that I believe McElwain gains mostly have to do with being aggressive in situations where other coaches apply a more conservative tact. In limited study of late- game situations, Smart has not shown a propensity to be very aggressive.
An example of one of those close losses last season for Smart was the game against Tennessee. Georgia had just completed a Hail Mary pass to go ahead 31-28 with 10 second left. The game was won.
Fans will remember Tennessee’s subsequent Hail Mary as the play that won the game for Tennessee. But the Vols never would have been in position to complete that pass if not for the absolutely indefensible decision to kick a pooch kickoff before the play shown above.
This decision by Smart shows he makes suboptimal decisions at critical junctures in a game. By being “conservative” and not kicking deep, Smart was trying to avoid a kickoff return for a touchdown. But the Tennessee player still had an opportunity for a return, and then Tennessee was in position to try a deep throw.
Smart gave Tennessee two shots to win the game instead of one, and his team paid the price. McElwain has a track record of being aggressive in these types of situations, and I believe that his record in close games reflects that. You may criticize the number of close games that Florida is in – which is a fair criticism – but I wouldn’t want any other coach on the sidelines once you’re in a dogfight.
Does Florida or Georgia finish with a better record in the SEC?
Georgia will probably be a better team in 2017. But based on point differential, they weren’t a very good team in 2016, so that’s not a high bar to exceed. Conversely, the Gators were a much better team overall but are losing a lot of talent on defense.
However, based on this analysis, Florida’s defense should be better than Georgia’s even with those losses. That means the only hope for Georgia is if Jacob Eason becomes an elite college quarterback. That is certainly possible with his pedigree, but it’s also possible that he flames out and is replaced before he gets the opportunity to right the ship.
Georgia struggled against SEC competition last year, and is basically bringing back the same team. While Florida is replacing quite a few players, the Gators played really well against SEC competition. Yes, the Gators struggled against FSU and Alabama, but those are elite teams Georgia didn’t have to play. And even with a major step forward from Eason, Georgia isn’t going to be elite.
The coaching difference is what I believe will separate the Gators from the Bulldogs. While I’m not a big fan of Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, he has been a part of the 7-1 record in close games under McElwain. And the consistently aggressive attitude that McElwain brings into games means that he pulls off wins in games where maybe he shouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t consistently.
The schedule certainly favors Florida, as the Gators have seven home games and only three true road games. And I can envision a scenario where the SEC East comes down to pulling out a road win against an inferior opponent like South Carolina or Missouri late in the season while Georgia is going to Auburn in November.
In that scenario, I trust Jim McElwain. And maybe just as importantly, I don’t trust Kirby Smart.