Back-to-back division championships in the first two seasons of a new coaching era would typically be a cause for celebration. For Florida, managing to outmaneuver Tennessee and Georgia to get to Atlanta provides some satisfaction, but the Gators have nevertheless been in the strange position of succeeding in the SEC East standings while continuing to inspire angst about the product they put on the field.
Such is life as the anti-Texas Tech, the team that has been dominant on defense while often appearing to be lifeless on offense, an agonizing trend for what used to be one of the most forward-thinking and modern programs in college football.
In stark contrast to the golden ages of the Gators -- Steve Spurrier's 1990s teams and Urban Meyer's 2000s teams -- Florida cannot get out of its own way when in possession of the ball. Just as defense carried Florida to the Sugar Bowl in Will Muschamp's second year in 2012, defense has carried the Gators to the SEC title game in back-to-back seasons under Jim McElwain, despite the fact that he is a former Alabama offensive coordinator who built a prolific attack as head coach at Colorado State. McElwain inherited fantastic depth on defense from Muschamp, but the offense started from scratch. The rebuilding process continues into Year 3.
In the past five years, in fact, no FBS team has had a defense further ahead of its offense than Florida. Let's look at it a couple of ways.
Average yards per play ranking disparity, defense better than offense
First, there's yards per play, a simple measure of how well an offense or defense performs on a per-play basis. Via data on cfbstats.com, we compiled the yards per play and yards per play allowed rankings from the past five seasons (2012-16) and found the difference between each ranking for every team. We then took the average to figure out who has had the greatest difference between offensive performance and superior defense.
1. Florida, -87.4
2. Connecticut, -74.8
3. Wake Forest, -73.8
4. Virginia Tech, -67.6
5. Northwestern, -64.4
6. Iowa, -56.0
7. Minnesota, -52.6
8. Penn State, -51.6
9. Vanderbilt, -50.8
10. Tulane, -49.8
On average over the past five seasons, Florida's offense has ranked 87.4 spots lower in yards per play than its defense, a difference overwhelmingly greater than the rest of the FBS. Nobody else is even close. That speaks to both how great Florida has been defensively (top 10 four of the past five seasons) and how poor it has been offensively (no better than 92nd). The Gators had the third-greatest disparity in the 2016 season, behind UCF and Boston College, and have had a difference of at least 68 spots in the rankings in favor of the defense each year in this span.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, New Mexico's offense has, on average, been 83.8 spots better in yards per play than its defense over the past five seasons. The Lobos are followed by Texas Tech, Toledo, Oregon and California.
Average SRS disparity, defense better than offense
Another way to measure the difference is through Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), which combines average point differential with strength of schedule and can be broken down into points for and points against components. Again, we compiled offensive and defensive ratings the past five years and found the average differential.
1. Florida, -12.08
2. Wake Forest, -10.74
3. Connecticut, -10.36
4. Kansas, -9.09
5. Wisconsin, -8.79
6. Stanford, -8.54
7. Vanderbilt, -7.59
8. Boston College, -7.48
9. Alabama, -7.23
10. Kent State, -6.96
Florida's defense has typically been 13.6 points better than the average FBS team, while its offense has been 2.62 points worse. Some of the other teams on this list aren't surprising -- Wake Forest, UConn, Vanderbilt, Boston College -- but Alabama is interesting to note. It's not that the Crimson Tide offenses have been bad; their worst ranking in SRS was 35th. It's that the defense has been so absurdly dominant, while the offense has been just plain good.
Florida, meanwhile, hasn't been in the top 50 in offensive SRS, so, again, it's a combination of excellent defense and poor offense.
The top five in the other direction, with offenses far ahead of defenses, aren't surprising: Texas Tech, Indiana, Oregon, California and Baylor.
Largest single-year SRS disparity since 2000, defense better than offense
Last season, the Gators had the largest SRS disparity in favor of the defense and the 12th largest since 2000:
1. 2015 Boston College
2. 2015 Missouri
3. 2009 Nebraska
4. 2014 Stanford
5. 2015 Northwestern
6. 2007 Iowa
7. 2015 Vanderbilt and 2012 Rutgers
9. 2002 North Texas
10. 2004 Penn State
11. 2010 North Texas
12. 2016 Florida
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Can Florida's offense close the gap?
Georgia should be the favorite in the SEC East this season, but the word "should" hasn't meant anything in the division in recent years. Last year, it was supposed to be Tennessee's turn to rise to the top, and even a long-awaited Vols win over the Gators couldn't get the job done. Florida's defense has managed to drag the team to the SEC title game only to get throttled by Alabama in consecutive seasons, and the possibility of the same happening in 2017 can't be dismissed.
The difference this year is that the offense finding its footing will become essential. The defense won't suddenly become a liability, but it will be difficult to avoid taking a step back. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins took the Temple head coaching job, and a long list of key players are gone for the second straight year. Twelve Florida defenders have been drafted the past two years, eight of whom went in the first three rounds. There will undoubtedly be some breakout stars, but a step back defensively feels inevitable for new coordinator -- and former Miami head coach -- Randy Shannon, putting pressure on the offense to pick up some of the slack.
The offense has to become, at minimum, serviceable. Gators fans will surely take some semblance of watchability and a sense that true progress is being made so they can feel better abut the future.
There are reasons for hope, including a solid collection of skill talent led by tailback Jordan Scarlett, tight end DeAndre Goolsby and receivers Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland and Brandon Powell. Callaway in particular has superstar potential, but subpar quarterback play and off-the-field troubles have limited his growth. Up front, the offensive line has been a mess, but four starters do return, anchored by junior tackle Martez Ivey, a five-star recruit in 2015.
Of course, nothing will change if quarterback play doesn't improve. Spurrier and Meyer won big with superstar college quarterbacks like Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman and Tim Tebow. Since Tebow's senior season in 2009, Florida has not ranked better than 69th in passer rating as a team. It's been a dreadful run for a program that formerly prided itself on offensive innovation and excitement, made worse by the fact that top recruits have fizzled, whether it was Jeff Driskel, who didn't produce at a high level until he transferred to Louisiana Tech, or Will Grier, whose emergence was cut short by a PED suspension that resulted in his transfer to West Virginia.
Even with last year's primary starter Luke Del Rio back, the favorite this spring -- with Del Rio sidelined by an injury -- was redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, a four-star recruit who faced a learning curve that necessitated him sitting for at least a year. Now, that stay on the sideline may last longer: Florida landed one of the most high-profile quarterback transfers of the year, signing Malik Zaire from Notre Dame for his final season of eligibility.
Zaire is in a strange spot, a touted recruit who was expected to become a breakout star a couple years ago when he ousted Everett Golson for the starting job at the end of 2014. But he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 of 2015 and could never regain his starting job from DeShone Kizer, prompting his decision to leave South Bend and try to capitalize on his arm strength and running ability elsewhere. With only 98 career pass attempts under his belt, it's hard to know if the production will match the hype, but adding Zaire is a positive move for Florida to create more competition and give Franks another year to develop if needed.
Zaire's running ability would be a boost, especially if the offensive line still has problems, and his arm strength could allow the Gators to better push the ball down the field, a necessity for a team lacking in explosive plays. At the very least, Florida has intriguing options, which is a start for an offense trying to dig itself out of an ongoing hole that has often felt hopeless.
The past few years have shown that Florida is a long, long way off from the days of the Fun 'n' Gun, and McElwain still deserves patience to fix the problems, given what he inherited. But as great as the defense has been, it can't keep carrying such a burden for much longer, making the Gators' offense/defense divide one of the biggest questions in college football this season as they seek to win a third straight SEC East title and stop making their games a chore to watch.