Interesting hypothesis from David Wunderlich:
The new Team Talent Composite for 2021 is not out yet as of this writing, but Florida will probably rate highly in it.
The team was seventh last year, and five of the eight Gators to go in the NFL Draft — including early selections Karadius Toney and Kyle Trask — were 3-star players. Undrafted free agent Trevon Grimes is the biggest loss in terms of recruiting ranking, but he’s more than offset by Demarkcus Bowman transferring in. Plus, the 2017 class has largely gone by now, and the new 2021 signing class collectively rates higher than it. We’ll see if teams full of super seniors can pass up UF on sheer volume alone, but I strongly suspect the Gators will be in the top ten again.
It matters because there are clear patterns that emerge when you match up Dan Mullen’s teams against their opponents in terms of team talent. The TTC goes back to 2015, so I looked at his teams from that season through 2020 to see how they fared based on team talent differential alone. Recruiting ratings aren’t everything, but they do mean a lot.
To classify the matchups, I made tiers based on the points. If the point differential was more than 160, which is about how far the No. 1 overall team is than the tenth or eleventh in a given year, I called Mullen a heavy favorite or underdog depending on which team was on top. If the difference was less than 30 either way, it was a tossup. I didn’t include any games against FCS teams, none of which ever beat a Mullen team anyway.
The results came out about like you’d expect, considering the programs Mullen has coached.
Heavy Favorite: 16-3 (.842), Scoring Margin +15.6
Favorite: 10-1 (.909), Scoring Margin +15.7
Tossups: 10-5 (.667), Scoring Margin +7.3
Underdog: 7-8 (.467), Scoring Margin +1.7
Heavy Underdog: 2-7 (.222), Scoring Margin -11.0
Here’s where the rub comes in.
Regardless, talent clearly matters. Mullen has a reputation for being one of the best game planners for a reason, but even he struggles to win consistently when faced with a noticeable talent deficit. He’ll reliably knock off some teetering talent squanderers for you, but victories against healthy programs with healthy talent advantages are hard to find.
To his credit, Mullen has noticeably upgraded the talent in Gainesville while also squeezing everything he could get from the generally lower-rated McElwain holdovers. The Gators leapt from the high 700s in the McElwain years to the 830s in Mullen’s first two seasons, and then into the 870s last year. I think they’ll be around that level this year too.
The good news is that if he can sustain that level, only four teams will be beyond the level of tossup. The bad news is that two of them are in the SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and Clemson. If he can get up to around 885-890, then Clemson can be within the tossup range too. The other three have been in the 960s and higher since 2018, Alabama for longer than that, and there’s no sign they’re slowing down.
Argue if you want about Mullen’s game planning skills, but the real underlying message is that he’s generally not a good enough schemer to overcome talent deficiencies. That’s not really meant as a smackdown of his coaching — how many coaches are good enough to overcome talent deficiencies on a regular basis, anyway? — but more as a reflection of how UF is never going to be a consistent top tier SEC program if Mullen can’t permanently upgrade the talent level there to match the recruiting powerhouses David lists.
But there’s also something to be said about how this analysis applies to Georgia, which David also does.
The point there isn’t that Mullen is better at coaching than Smart (that talent gap differential meant something different at Mississippi State than it’s meant at Georgia). It’s that Smart is much better at assembling talent than Mullen has been. Smart was laser focused from the day he took the job in Athens on recruiting and those stats certainly reflect that.
What those stats also indicate, though, is that there’s a limit to how far sheer talent accumulation takes you. At some point, the air gets rarified enough that you’d better bring something besides overall team talent — a transcendent quarterback, a modern, attacking offensive scheme, Gus Malzahn’s rabbit’s foot, whatever — if you want to win more of those type games than you lose.