If you ask most Florida Gators fans, they would tell you they saw progress in the offense from Jim McElwain’s first season in 2015 to his second in 2016. But this is exactly why statistically-inclined people distrust the “eye test.”
The ’16 Gators offense ranked No. 97 nationally in points per game (ppg) against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponents (h/t to teamrankings.com for the sorted statistics used in this article). The ’15 offense also ranked No. 97 in ppg against FBS opponents. Any indication that the offense improved from ’15 to ’16 was a mirage, at least when it comes to points scored.
That kind of statistic is counterintuitive for one main reason. When an offense is that bad, it is bound to improve just because it can’t be that bad for two years in a row.
Or can it?
The good news for Gators fans is that having an offense that bad two years in a row is somewhat unusual. From 2012-2015, there were 142 teams that ranked No. 91 or worse in ppg against FBS teams. Those teams’ offenses improved 76.8 percent of the time. The maximum improvement was 111 spots, with Auburn improving from No. 122 to No. 11 from 2012 to 2013.
It is important to note that Auburn’s massive jump is exceedingly rare. Of the 142 teams examined, only three showed an improvement of more than 90 spots (2.4%). The average improvement was a much more modest 22.7 spots.
Many in Gainesville might welcome that type of improvement. But a 23-spot improvement would give the Gators the 74th-ranked offense in the country (out of 128 teams). This would still be below average, and would compare with Florida’s 2012 offense (ranked No. 71) that was led by a QB that Gators fans booed out of town, Jeff Driskel.
Statistically, how much do bad offenses improve?
So what should Gators fans expect this season? The chart below indicates the chances of various outcomes occurring based on the historical data of the 142 teams that have experienced poor offensive seasons the year prior.
The above chart shows that 76.8 percent of those offenses improve, though that improvement is relatively modest (0-9 spots). Only 56.3 percent improve 10-19 spots, with only 47.2 percent improving 20-29 spots. So it’s really a coin flip that the Gators will be merely a functional offense (ranked 68-87). The chances that the Gators will have a top-10 offense is 5.6 percent, or just slightly better than one-in-twenty.
The point is that for the Gators to be special offensively, it’s going to require an outlier. Can it happen? Sure, but that’s not what should be expected. And that lesson should have been learned last season when the same arguments were made about the offense, both from outside sources and the Florida coaches themselves.
Compare offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s quotes going into the ’16 season to going into this season.
- 2016 – “We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to find more consistency, but hopefully with these young guys playing together again [there will be improvement]. We had some young players that went into some big games [in 2015] and played against some grown men.”
- 2017 – “We’ve played a lot of young players in the first two seasons. We have a lot of guys that have experience now. They’ve been in big games.”
Searching Nussmeier’s quotes, there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about schematic changes that may be coming in ’17. Instead, he has consistently cited a reliance on experience within the system. Unfortunately, this is a system that hasn’t been working the past few years..
The problem is that offenses don’t just improve that much year-to-year except for two specific circumstances. You can see those circumstances if you look at the teams that have made the largest jumps.
In 2012, Auburn’s offense was horrific. The Tigers ranked No. 122 in ppg against FBS opponents, rotating QBs Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace and Clint Mosely. The offense was so bad that not even the shine of Cam Newton’s 2010 national championship season could save Auburn coach Gene Chizik. He was fired following the season and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought back to be the new head coach.
Malzahn not only brought back the spread offense he had run so successfully with Newton, but he also brought in transfer quarterback Nick Marshall to run it. With Marshall as the catalyst, the Auburn offense lit up scoreboards in 2013 and ranked No. 11 in ppg, a leap of 111 spots from the previous year. This was the largest jump seen since 2012.
In 2012, Louisiana Tech’s offense ranked No. 1 in ppg against FBS opponents under coach Sonny Dykes. Dykes left for California following that season, but the Bulldogs didn’t just lose Dykes. They also lost starting QB Colby Cameron, the Sammy Baugh Trophy winner, an award given to the nation’s best QB.
The offense tanked under new head coach Skip Holtz, falling to a ranking of No. 111 and splitting snaps between QBs Ryan Higgins and Scotty Young. Holtz then brought in transfer QB Cody Sokol from Iowa, and the Bulldogs offense improved to No. 11 in 2014. Holtz continued the trend with an offense ranked No. 23 in 2015 using another transfer QB, the oft-abused former Gators QB, Jeff Driskel.
In 2013, Southern Mississippi struggled on offense, ranking No. 113 in ppg against FBS opponents. The Golden Eagles were no strangers to struggling offensively, as they ranked No. 108 and No. 117 under former coach Ellis Johnson the previous two seasons. Johnson was fired after the 2012 season and Todd Monken took over, but the offense continued to struggle. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo could never settle on a QB, splitting time between true freshman Nick Mullens (108.7 QB rating) and graduate transfer Allan Bridgford.
Arroyo left to coach QBs for Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Bucanneers and Monken hired Chip Lindsey as his new offensive coordinator. Lindsey immediately made an impact, handing the reigns over to Mullens and helping the Southern Miss offense improve to No. 11 in ’14. Lindsey has since been rising up the coaching ranks, becoming the offensive coordinator first at Arizona State and now at Auburn.
So what can we learn from this? First, changing offensive coordinators can have a significant impact if you hire the right guy. Arroyo’s career has been pretty stagnant since he left, but Lindsey is one of the country’s hottest coordinators now. And the man that Linsdey is replacing – Rhett Lashlee – was the coordinator brought in by Malzahn to drive the Auburn offense.
Second, there is value in settling on one QB. In all of these situations, two QBs split snaps the previous year. Whether it involves developing a young QB or bringing in a transfer who fits the offense better, it appears that having “the guy” is critical to massive offensive improvement.
What does this mean for Florida?
The reason this is important for Florida is twofold. First, they have not changed offensive coordinators, so there will not be any major uptick due to new philosophies or a change in how personnel are being used.
Instead, McElwain is betting on improved personnel making current offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier look better. To that end, McElwain has brought in a graduate transfer QB – Malik Zaire – who likely will get a bulk of the snaps. This does follow the Louisiana Tech model for massive offensive improvement, though the Bulldogs had not been bad for two years in a row.
And the Gators offense needs to be much better. The mandate for McElwain and Nussmeier is no longer just winning the SEC East. Fans expect them to have the Gators ready to take on Alabama, or whomever comes out of the SEC West. This means the Gators are going to have to be good enough to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Looking at the four playoff teams last season, they share some pretty important characteristics. First, all four are ranked in the top-17 in both offensive and defensive points per game against FBS opponents. And if you look at their expected wins using the Pythagorean Expectation – a calculation developed by famed sabermatrician Bill James that more accurately reflects a team’s true talent level than wins and losses – all four teams had expected wins calculations higher than 11.1 for a 14-game season.
This is important for Florida because to get that level, the offense has to improve significantly even if there is no drop-off at all from the defense.
The above chart shows how much the offensive rank must change to improve the expected wins (for a 14-game season) to the same as Clemson (11.1), who had the lowest point differential of the four playoff teams. The chart uses the ppg rankings from the 2016 season for the calculations. The implications are pretty striking.
Even if the defense remains as dominant as it has been (No. 6 in ppg against FBS opponents), the Gators offense must improve 60 spots (up to No. 37) to be considered playoff contenders. There’s only a 12.0 percent chance that happens.
If the defense slips just 10 spots to No. 16, the Gators offense must improve 90 spots (up to No. 7) to be considered playoff contenders. There’s only a 2.1 percent chance of that happening.
And if the defense slips 20 spots to No. 26, the offense has to become the No. 1-ranked offense in the country. While there is a 1.4 percent chance of this happening based on the teams I’ve examined, I don’t think any Gators fan expects the offense to light up scoreboards to that degree. As I said earlier, most likely would say they would be happy with an improvement to a middle-of-the-pack or functional offense.
The problem is that being such an offense doesn’t match the expectations being thrust upon McElwain in his third year. An offense that ranks No. 47 in the country (an improvement of 50 slots) just barely gets the Gators within shouting distance of Alabama with absolutely zero defensive drop-off.
And while I think the Gators defense will be good this year, I do expect them to drop off in the 20-30 range in ppg allowed. There was just too large of a talent exodus to the NFL for there not to be some effect. Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson were two of the best corners in the nation. Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner are talented, but are they going to be the best in the country?
So that means that meeting expectations falls squarely on the shoulders of graduate transfer QB Malik Zaire. I have consistently criticized the Zaire transfer, both because I don’t think he’s very good and also because of what that means for redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks’ development.
And this analysis only reinforces that opinion. Unless the coaches can get Zaire to lead the Gators offense to a top-10 ranking — a 50-to-1 longshot — this team may win the SEC East, but isn’t going to compete much better with the big boys.