GAINESVILLE, Fla. — I was not optimistic earlier in the week when examining whether Gators quarterback Austin Appleby had a chance to excel now that he is the starter.
However, that analysis only looked at Appleby and did not take into account the other facets of the game. He doesn’t necessarily need to excel for Florida to win.
Florida has won 11 consecutive games against Tennessee. I thought it would be interesting to examine whether there is a common theme for those games, and whether that can inform our opinion about what might happen on Saturday.
In the previous 11 games, Florida has outscored Tennessee 319-179. This point differential typically equates to a winning percentage of 76 percent. Thus, while we wouldn’t expect Florida to have won all 11 games, the Gators have been dominant enough in the series that it is understandable that they have been able to put together such a streak.
There has been some luck involved. Three of the games have been decided by one point. However, other than the nine-point win in 2005, the other seven games have all been decided by double figures.
Fumbles have gone the Gators way, but just slightly. Florida has lost 6 of 15 fumbles while Tennessee has lost 8 of 15.
The key difference when looking at the two teams has been quarterback play. Tennessee has an average QB rating of 106.7 while Florida has an average rating of 143.5.
Interestingly, Florida’s average QB rating from 2005-15 has been exactly in line with its average against Tennessee (142.2 overall vs. 143.5 against Tennessee). However, Tennessee’s quarterbacks have greatly underperformed against Florida when compared to their season totals (130.2 overall vs. 106.7 against Florida, or an 18 percent drop).
Over a sample of 11 games, we would expect some deviation. But a 23-point drop is significant. To put that drop into perspective, last season there was a 23-point difference in QB rating between the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (Cal QB Jared Goff) and West Virginia QB Skyler Howard.
So, what is the source of that kind of drop in QB rating? I think it is tied to Florida’s defense.
Defensive efficiency is a way of accounting for the contribution of the defense to the final scoring margin on a play-by-play basis. It does take strength of schedule into account, so it’s a better way of looking at defenses than just points or yards allowed.
By defensive efficiency ranking, Florida has averaged a top-15 defense from 2005-15. Tennessee’s ranking over that time (out of 126 FBS schools) has averaged 36.4.
Only twice has the Tennessee defense outperformed the Florida defense over the course of an entire season. However, in those two seasons (2005 and 2007), Florida had markedly superior quarterback play (Chris Leak and Tim Tebow vs. Erik Ainge).
It’s unlikely that Florida will have superior QB play in this year’s game. However, if Gators fans are looking for hope, it should be that Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs has been average in his career and does not appear to have improved much based on his play this season.
The Gators boast a defensive efficiency ranking of 16 in 2016, which is good but doesn’t reflect their dominance. The ranking would be better except for their strength of schedule. Tennessee’s schedule hasn’t been much better, but its defense is ranked where it has been the last 11 seasons: 39.
So, if past trends are to be believed, Appleby should put up a QB rating somewhere near his career rating (108.3). The Gators defense should hold Dobbs QB rating about 18 percent below his season average, which would be a rating of 108.8. Essentially — when factoring in defense — the quarterbacks cancel each other out.
This means the game is going to come down to coaching. In his time at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee, Butch Jones has an overall record of 74-44 (.627). He has a 21-18 record in games decided by seven points or less (.538).
In his time at Colorado State and Florida, Jim McElwain has an overall record of 35-20 (.636). He has a 13-4 record in games decided by seven points or less (.765).
Close games are typically won about half the time. For various reasons — possibly because of his aggressiveness on fourth down — McElwain has outperformed his peers in close games.
Butch Jones has not. He cost his team a chance at overtime against the Gators last year by taking the PAT rather than attempting a two-point conversion after going up 26-14 in the fourth quarter. I have yet to see McElwain make those kinds of strategic mistakes.
This game is going to be close. Something that statistics can’t account for — like fumble luck — has an opportunity to play a role in this game because there is such a small margin for error. But because of the defenses, Dobbs vs. Appleby is a wash.
And if you’re asking me to choose between Jones and McElwain in a close game, it’s an easy decision.