The Nick Saban “coaching tree” wields plenty of influence in the SEC these days, with numerous assistants and proteges occupying prominent roles throughout the conference.
This is especially true at South Carolina, UGA and Florida, where Will Muschamp, Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain — three big branches from the so-called Saban Tree — serve as the respective head coaches.
SEC Country provides a unique look at the prospective tasks ahead for Muschamp, Smart and McElwain, with a different staff writer — Knox Bardeen (South Carolina), Brandon Adams (UGA) and Jay Clemons (Florida) — offering statistical and anecdotal assessments of each program, while projecting which coach might enjoy the most success in the SEC.
2015 Record: 10-4
Bowl Result: Lost to Michigan in Citrus Bowl, 41-7
Per-Game Point Differential: +4.9
Wins By 10 Points Or More: 4
Losses Of 10 Points Or More: 3
By all accounts, quarterback Treon Harris (1,676 yards passing, 10 total TDs; 51-percent completion rate) isn’t the long-term answer for the Gators.
To wit, Florida has some viable options waiting in the wings. The short-term fix includes transfers Austin Appleby (Purdue) and Luke Del Rio (Oregon State); the long play likely involves Feleipe Franks — one of the supposed jewels of the 2016 recruiting class (No. 3-ranked pro-style quarterback).
The pessimistic Gators fan might read the above paragraph and forecast another unnerving season of porous quarterbacking. But for a school that had to adjust to losing Will Grier on the fly (suspension/subsequent transfer) … the arrival of Appleby, Del Rio and Franks may prove to be a timely godsend.
Florida arguably had the SEC’s least potent offensive in 2015, in terms of minimal depth and lack of experience; and yet, the Gators still wrapped up the divisional title (East) after their close-shave win over Vanderbilt in early November.
That doesn’t bode well for opponents, heading into next fall. On the left side, tackle David Sharpe (junior-to-be) and guard Martez Ivey (sophomore-to-be) should be vastly improved; and center Cameron Dillard will undoubtedly stabilize a group which ranked 121st nationally in sacks allowed — at 3.29 per game.
Bottom line: The Gators will likely experiment with numerous combinations — involving freshmen and sophomores — along the right side; but talent and size aren’t the lingering issues with the various candidates. Rather, it’s all about experience and chemistry.
As such, Florida could rank among the SEC’s best offensive lines in the latter half of next season, if not sooner.
THE ALABAMA MODEL
McElwain had a strong hand in designing the Alabama offense from 2008-11, serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach; and for all four seasons, the Crimson Tide produced at least two tailbacks of 675-plus yards rushing.
Transitioning to the Gators’ cause: Tailback Kelvin Taylor (1,385 total yards, 13 TDs) logged the vast majority of carries in 2015; but it stands to reason that McElwain will eventually secure a two-back setup at Florida — just like the versatile one constructed at Alabama.
And when this developmental system becomes fully operational, it should take a lot of pressure off the Florida quarterbacks — especially in down years (like 2015).
ALABAMA’S ELITE 1-2 RUNNING PUNCH (2008-11)
2008 — Glen Coffee/Mark Ingram
2009 — Ingram/Trent Richardson
2010 — Ingram/Richardson
2011 — Richardson/Eddie Lacy
In 2015, Florida maintained top-25 national rankings in the vital categories of scoring defense (11th), passing yards allowed (13th), team sacks (15th), tackles for loss (23rd) and rushing yards allowed (25th).
This brand of elite-level success has become the norm with the Gators, regardless of how many draft-eligible sophomore and juniors — like All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III — bolt campus early for the NFL.
It’s yet another perk of accepting one of the best jobs in college football. The wellspring of premium athletic talent never runs dry.
Thanks to the SEC’s big-money TV contracts, Florida football shall always enjoy a plum viewing spot on Saturdays — whether it’s the conference’s Game Of The Week (3:30 p.m. EST on CBS) or the various prime-time slots with ESPN, ABC and SEC Network.
This serves as a wonderful recruiting tool for blue-chip recruits, many of whom become household names long before the NFL draft combine.
This system works on a consumption level, as well:
For example, a die-hard Gators fan could theoretically move to a wired-for-cable igloo in Alaska today … and still see every Florida football and men’s basketball game on TV for the next 20 years.
There is no such thing as a ‘cake’ schedule in SEC circles, but Florida has a very-good shot at another 10-win campaign.
For 2016, the five swing games on the docket include: at Tennessee (Sept. 24), versus LSU (Oct. 8), versus UGA (Oct. 29), at Arkansas (Nov. 5) and at Florida State (Nov. 26).
For the other seven outings, the Gators should be prohibitive favorites. That’s a pretty good deal for a transitioning power.
FLORIDA — PERMANENT CROSSOVERS THROUGH 2025
2016: vs. LSU, @ Arkansas
2017: @ LSU, vs. Texas A&M
2018: vs. LSU, @ Mississippi State
2019: @ LSU, vs. Auburn
2020: vs. LSU, @ Ole Miss
2021: @ LSU, vs. Alabama
2022: vs. LSU, @ Texas A&M
2023: @ LSU, vs. Arkansas
2024: vs. LSU, @ Auburn
2025: @ LSU, vs. Mississippi State
Which brings us to this: As a Michigan native and Atlanta resident for 10-plus years, I’ve never understood how the annual clash between UGA and Florida gets packaged as a neutral-site game.
Yes, neither the Bullodgs nor Gators call EverBank Stadium home during the season. But Gainesville and Jacksonville, Fla. are separated by less than 75 miles … whereas the Athens-to-Jacksonville interstate trek covers something like 360 miles.
To me, this represents a major logistical advantage for Florida. And yet, the UGA powers-that-be seem to accept the overall fairness of this storied meeting — as long as ticket sales between the fan bases are split down the middle.
(Note: Jacksonville has been the UGA-Florida game host since 1933, with a two-year exception during the mid-90s. The current venue contract reportedly expires after the 2016 college season.)
Citing the last 10 recruiting classes (below) — including the fluid situation feeding into the upcoming National Signing Day — Florida has averaged a No. 7 national ranking … and fourth in the hyper-competitive SEC.
And those numbers are a tad deflated, when factoring in McElwain’s late arrival to Gainesville a year ago. As such, if you remove the Gators’ 2015 class — which ranked 21st nationally (and ninth among SEC powers — source: 247 Sports) — Florida consistently merits a spot in the top five, which brings us back to the school’s primary selling point with recruits:
Florida, Florida State and Miami (Fla.) reap two supreme benefits with recruiting every season: Pleasant weather … and a steady pipeline of Florida-based stud athletes who have been living and breathing football since their wee-lad days of Pop Warner.
And because of that, there’s enough talent for the above schools — along with elite-level programs in the South, Midwest and Northeast — to acquire deep and/or versatile recruiting classes on a regular basis.
Take the 2014 recruiting season, for example:
According to 247 Sports, Florida finished with the No. 9 class nationally — but only took seventh-place honors within the conference.
Does that mean the SEC has the proverbial market cornered on coaching acumen, top-notch facilities and business schools at the undergraduate level? Not necessarily.
Or is it a stronger byproduct of Florida-based kids wanting to play within a day’s drive of their respective hometowns, allowing for friends and family to attend games on a regular basis? Absolutely!
It also doesn’t hurt Florida’s case to have a high number of attractive co-eds roaming campus; and trust us … this matters!
FLORIDA’s 10-YEAR RECRUITING CYCLE (source: 247 Sports)
YEAR NATIONAL RANKING SEC RANKING
2016 7th 4th
2015 21st 9th
2014 9th 7th
2013 3rd 2nd
2012 4th 2nd
2011 11th 5th
2010 1st 1st
2009 7th 4th
2008 6th 2nd
2007 1st 1st
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.