The Florida Gators are in an unusual position for a college football program in 2016. They're a team that runs a fairly conventional scheme by today's standards, and every year they play three other teams with fairly conventional schemes that happen to be elite recruiters: Florida State, Georgia, and LSU. And if UF should win its division, it's more likely than not these days to face another elite recruiter with a fairly conventional scheme in Alabama.
When teams that try to do roughly the same thing meet up in a game, the team with better players wins more often than not. Coaching ability can overcome that to a degree, but having better players will generally win out.
It is for that reason that Florida fans should be a bit worried by the 2016 class that Jim McElwain just signed. According to the 247Sports Composite, it contained only nine blue chip recruits (those getting a 4-star or 5-star rating). FSU and LSU each signed 18 of them, while Georgia netted 13. To go into further detail on the matter, let's look at the four-year trend.
Will Muschamp was able to continue Urban Meyer's high rate of signing blue chip recruits for his first three classes, but after the 4-8 disaster in 2013, it really fell off in 2014. Recruits largely held off from committing to Florida during the 2015 cycle given the uncertainty about Muschamp's job, and several of those who did commit to Muschamp bailed after he was fired. A low number of blue chips in 2015 was to be expected given the lame duck aspect of Muschamp's final year and how much McElwain's new staff had to scramble to fill out the class.
What it meant, though, is that UF signed fewer blue chip recruits across 2014-15 than it did in 2013 alone. Combined with the new class, it also means that the Gators have signed 17 fewer blue chips than Georgia, 20 fewer than FSU, and 29 (!) fewer than LSU over the past four years.
But because teams sign different numbers of players each year, let's look at what percentage of the classes in question were composed of blue chip recruits.
|School||2013 BC Pct.||2014 BC Pct.||2015 BC Pct.||2016 BC Pct.||Overall BC Pct.|
It's likely that Florida's 2016 class was hurt by the fact that, after beating Georgia, the 2015 team removed its rubber mask Scooby Doo villain-style and revealed itself to be mostly another Muschamp team in November and on. There's only so much fixing that can be done in one year, after all. Once attrition began to set in, the all-around thinness showed and the team's quality sank.
Even so, the second recruiting class is supposed to be where a great recruiter begins to shine. It's not done on short notice like a transitional class. Real relationships form, and better evaluations happen. Further, it's still early enough in a coach's tenure to spin on-field struggles with a, "that's why we need you" pitch.
McElwain simply was not able to get highly rated recruits to sign with Florida like Urban Meyer, and, for a while, Muschamp were able to do. His blue chip rate is not up to par with those of Florida State, Georgia, and LSU either. It's one thing to have an iffy transitional class; every coach gets a pass for that. It's another to follow it up with a second class with fewer than 40% of the players getting a premium grade.
You should take this with a Muschamp-sized asterisk, but in the time since the Gators switched to a conventional scheme like the others have in 2011, they've gone 0-3, 2-1, 0-3, 1-2, and 1-2 against FSU, UGA, and LSU. It's going to be difficult to do much better than that when UF is at a deficit of top end talent.
I haven't even mentioned division rival Tennessee, which has been recruiting at a high level under Butch Jones. Despite only getting four blue chips in his transitional 2013 class, Jones has signed 46 blue chip recruits over the past four years. That's more than Florida's 38. And despite needing to sign every warm body he could in 2014 and 2015 to restock a depleted roster, his blue chip percentage was greater than 50% in both of those years. His four-year percentage is 42.6%, which is higher than UF's 38.8% despite UT only have a 16.0% rate in '13.
I also haven't mentioned Miami (FL), which was not recruiting at an elite level under Al Golden. The Hurricanes replaced him with Mark Richt, who signed three of those Georgia classes listed above and set the table for the fourth. Despite 2016's class being a transitional one for him at UM, Richt nabbed ten blue chips (one more than Florida did) and had a blue chip percentage of 55.6%. Florida and Miami may not play each other annually, but having a great recruiter in Coral Gables makes the job of recruiting tougher for the Gators. UF signed just four top-50 Composite recruits from the state of Florida in 2016; all ten of Miami's were in-state, while FSU got eight.
Maybe McElwain and his staff will prove to be great at player development. Maybe they've got a better eye for talent than the recruiting services do. After all, Antonio Callaway was a 3-star recruit last year, and he just had one of the best seasons a true freshman wide receiver has ever had in Gainesville, if not the best.
We know it's possible to win the SEC East by outperforming your recruiting rankings; just ask Missouri. It hasn't proven possible lately to win the overall SEC or the national championship without being an elite recruiter, though, and contending for and winning those things are what Florida's expectations are.
So far, McElwain has been good at recruiting but not elite. It's still early in his tenure in Gainesville, but it's hard not to say that he needs to step it up.