The Gators will kick off their unprecedented 10-game, conference-only 2020 campaign against Ole Miss in just seven days. Here’s an analytical look at who they’ll play and how they stack up.
Florida lucked out with its schedule this year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic essentially canceled out-of-conference play for the SEC, the Gators’ schedule was already light. But adding Arkansas (0-8 in the SEC last year) while avoiding No. 2 Alabama and No. 8 Auburn makes this a very manageable Florida schedule.
UF’s opponents were a combined 36-44 (.450) last season, and only three had a winning record in SEC play. Five went to a bowl game in 2019.
Let’s take a look at how Florida and its opponents looked last season on both sides of the ball using Predicted Points Added (PPA), collegefootballdata.com’s Expected Points Added (EPA) model. Higher numbers are better for offenses, while lower numbers are better for defenses.
LSU was only rivaled by Alabama last season, but the Tigers have also lost most of their talent on both sides of the ball. According to ESPN writer Bill Connelly’s returning production metric, LSU is 127th after losing Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. That number doesn’t even include wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who opted out of the season in August.
Aside from LSU, there were a couple of defense-first teams in Georgia and Missouri, an Ole Miss team that was fine offensively but couldn’t stop a nosebleed, two terrible teams in Vanderbilt and Arkansas and four teams somewhere in between.
Let’s focus on offense for a bit.
Again, LSU was completely dominant offensively, but the rest of Florida’s schedule left a lot of room for improvement in 2020. Teams like South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt were just bad, while Tennessee and Missouri were decent throwing the ball but couldn’t run it. Kentucky, forced to run the Wildcat offense after its quarterbacks were hurt, likely won’t have the same extreme disparity between the running and throwing the ball this season.
Along with PPA, I’m using something called success rate, which is the percentage of plays that are deemed successful. Success is defined by obtaining at least 50 percent of the required yardage to move the chains on first down, 70 percent on second down, 100 percent on third and fourth down or scoring.
There’s definitely a case to be made that the best offense Florida will face in the regular season will be in practice. LSU’s offense is up in the air with so many key players from last year gone, and Florida quarterback Kyle Trask might be the best returning passer in the conference. Last season was not a banner year for SEC passers. Outside of Burrow, Trask and Alabama’s duo of Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, few were better than average.
It was obvious to anyone who watched a few snaps of the Gators’ offense last year, but their running game was abysmal in 2019 outside of a couple big plays. Returning four starters on the offensive line while adding graduate transfer Stewart Reese will help, but it’s still an obvious weak point for Florida. There wasn’t an SEC team worse than UF at running the ball last season.
Below is a table showing how teams performed across various offensive metrics. It’s shaded from red (bad) to blue (good). Passing downs are second downs with at least seven yards to go or third and fourth downs with at least five yards to go. All downs that are not passing downs are standard.
Let’s look at PPA for defenses, but remember that these are defenses: Smaller numbers are better. Thus, the “best” defenses are going to trend toward the top right.
Florida’s offense could have something resembling a tune-up game Week 1 against Ole Miss, whose defense gave up more than 26 points and 400 yards per game last season. But the Gators will have to quickly work out any kinks offensively because four of its next five opponents finished in that upper quadrant in 2019.
Georgia and Missouri both finished last season in the top 10 nationally in PPA per play defensively and both have plenty of returning pieces. The Bulldogs, fresh off a season where they topped the Power 5 in PPA per rush, return 14 players who played at least 200 snaps. Dan Mullen’s work is cut out for him in Jacksonville.
The good news for Mullen and the offense is that the schedule thins out toward the end of the season. Immediately after the World’s Largest Outdoor Socially Distant Cocktail Party, the Gators face Arkansas and Vanderbilt in back-to-back weeks. Both teams were pitiful defensively last season, and there’s little reason to believe anything different will happen this year.
Looking at last season’s stats, Florida was a team that did well against the run (10th in the country in PPA per rush) and was solid against the pass when it wasn’t facing Joe Burrow. Aside from Georgia, other standout defenses were Missouri and LSU, while Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky had some positives.
Connelly’s SP+ model has UF’s defense as the No. 3 defense in the country, behind only Georgia in the SEC. The issue is that six of Florida’s opponents will start the season in the top 25 defenses according to SP+. While the Gators have a lot of advantages offensively, that doesn’t mean it will be easy sledding every week.
As previously stated, considering that the Gators will be facing 10 SEC teams this season, they could have done a lot worse than what’s in store for them.. Florida will still face three teams in the top 15 of the preseason AP poll, but the only way this would have been easier for them would be if the road trip to Texas A&M was swapped for Mississippi State.
The Gators also have a lot of room to flex their continuity on the sidelines and under center, which should be especially important this year because of their limited offseason. Ole Miss, Missouri and Arkansas will all be debuting new coaches this year, while others, such as Georgia and LSU, have had to bring in new offensive and/or defensive coordinators. Six teams will also be starting a new quarterback.
It’s no wonder then that fans and analysts look at Florida’s team and its schedule and see a threat for both the division title and the conference championship. Anything can happen on any given Saturday — and the bizarre offseason makes it feel like almost any team in the conference could go on a run. But the Gators’ situation is very favorable this year.
Contact Brendan Farrell at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Bfarrell727.