GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Now that Arkansas isn’t ranked in the top 25, many Gators fans have started to assume a win over the Razorbacks. But Arkansas has been a ranked team for much of the year, so what happened?
Well, upon initial inspection their schedule has been pretty brutal. The Gators will be the sixth AP-ranked team that Arkansas has played. Based on the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI), Arkansas’ three losses have come against the No. 1 (Alabama), No. 6 (Auburn) and No. 9 (Texas A&M) teams. Of course, Arkansas has been blown out by each of them, losing by an average of 31 points in those three contests.
Also based on FPI, the Razorbacks wins over TCU and Ole Miss look better than those teams’ combined 5-7 record. TCU is ranked 38 by FPI, and that win came on the road. Ole Miss is ranked 14 despite its 3-5 record owing to its strength of schedule. The issue with Arkansas is that two other wins are against the worst team in FBS based on FPI (Texas State) and a non-FBS team (Alcorn State).
Contrast that to Florida and Gators fans should start to get nervous. According to FPI, the best team Florida has played is Tennessee (19) and the Gators got blown away in the second half of that game. The best wins for Florida are Georgia (42) and Missouri (59).
Add to that one other major variable for the Gators: Luke Del Rio has never started a game on the road.
Last week I indicated that Georgia QB Jacob Eason has major home/road splits in his QB ranking (150.4 home/95.9 road) and postulated that he might struggle against Florida in Jacksonville. Eason struggled and had a QB rating of 91.9.
Del Rio wasn’t much better, posting a QB rating of 109.2. For reference, that rating is worse than 114 of the 128 qualified FBS QBs have put up this season. It is also 16 points below his average, but there’s no way to know whether Del Rio is going to struggle similarly on the road against Arkansas because this is the first road start of his career.
There are some good signs for the Gators. For the season, Arkansas has been outscored 251-247. Florida has outscored its opponents 206-82. Arkansas squeaked by Louisiana Tech, TCU, and Ole Miss (by a combined 8 points). The Razorbacks are fortunate to be 5-3 while the Gators have earned their 6-1 mark.
The real differentiation between the two teams – surprisingly – is that the Gators offensive line is way better than Arkansas. Bret Bielema is known for running the ball and for strong O-line play, but this year that has not been the case.
In the last three years, Football Outsiders has begun publishing offensive line statistics similar to those that they publish for the NFL. I encourage you to check out their site if you’re interested in more detail. In short, they rank O-lines with 9 different statistics that cover both run and pass blocking and attempt to remove QB and RB abilities from the equation.
What is immediately apparent is that Arkansas had a really good O-line in 2015, with an average rank of 21.9 (out of 128 FBS teams) across all the statistical categories. This year, the Razorbacks O-line has an average of 98.1 and has regressed in every single category.
The Gators O-line, while still inconsistent, has improved considerably in year 2 under Jim McElwain. This is particularly true in pass protection.
My feeling is that the O-line issue is going to be the difference in the game. Florida’s defense can send extra pass rushers and bring a safety into the box to stop the run because of cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor. The Arkansas O-line is going to have trouble blocking that extra support because their O-line is struggling this year.
Combine Arkansas’ O-line struggles with a point differential indicating that it is more like a .500 team, and I’m picking the Gators. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that this game is going to be closer than the 5.5 points that Vegas is predicting.
Florida wins on a late Eddy Pineiro field goal, 27-24.