Florida closed out the 2016-17 athletic year with a bang. The baseball team won the College World Series, its first title in 11 appearances.
Florida is a football school first, though, and it hasn’t won a national title on the gridiron since the 2008 season. Though six sports have won a combined 17 team national championships in the interim, Gator fans are hungry for another chance at winning a crystal football.
The Gators are a longshot to win the title in 2017. Accepting that they won’t shock the world this fall, when might UF be next ready to contend for a national championship?
The optimist’s case:
If you want to be aggressive, the answer is just one year away: 2018.
The biggest key is redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks showing that he can fulfill his 4-star rating. If he wins the starting quarterback job and gains experience, he would be ready to take a big step forward in his third year.
Beyond that, Florida’s offense won’t lose much after 2017. There are only four seniors among the scholarship players: Mark Thompson, Brandon Powell, DeAndre Goolsby and Antonio Riles. Goolsby is the biggest loss among them, though the coaches were high on early enrollee tight end Kemore Gamble this spring.
That said, Florida would need at least one of Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway to forgo the NFL Draft and stay for a senior year. Scarlett is the more important one given the wealth of young talent at receiver.
Left tackle Martez Ivey is the last potential early draft declarer on offense, and he’s already earning early-round projections. However, the incoming transfer of former Clemson starting tackle Jake Fruhmorgen eases that pain. Florida’s offensive line should be tremendous in 2018. All starters but Ivey should be back, Fruhmorgen is an excellent pickup, and the Gators signed three blue chips in 2017 to add depth.
[Note: Bob Redman, a longtime UF beatwriter, is reporting that Fruhmorgen has decided to leave the program and quit football. Fruhmorgen, for now, still appears on the Gators’ official roster.]
If Franks turns out to be great and Scarlett returns — or someone younger shows he can replace Scarlett — the offense should be very good in 2018.
The defense won’t lose much from the first two levels either. Defensive end takes a hit with Jordan Sherit graduating and Cece Jefferson an NFL Draft flight risk. Even so, there are younger guys like Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton and a pair of 4-star 2017 signees waiting in the wings. Tackle will need Khari Clark to return to give the team its best chance at winning.
Linebacker is a big question mark. For Florida to have a chance at a national title next year, Randy Shannon will have to work his magic. The position will be experienced at least, as there are no seniors this year and no one figures to leave early.
The secondary will have Chauncey Gardner back, but loses four seniors from 2017. The Gators signed three blue-chip defensive backs last cycle, and they’ll need to get some seasoning this year to be ready for 2018. Florida will struggle to win the SEC East if those young guys don’t pan out. This position requires the biggest leap of faith for the optimist’s case.
Finally, every champion has to win close games. To that end, reliable kicker Eddy Piñeiro should still be around as a senior.
If you assume that everything works out well, Florida could grind out a series of close wins before blossoming at the end to take the 2018 title. In other words, it’d be a replay of the 2006 national championship run.
The realist’s case:
Recruiting analyst Bud Elliott developed the Blue-Chip Ratio theory of winning national titles. In the era of reliably good recruiting rankings, every champion has signed at least 50 percent 4-star and 5-star recruits over their preceding four classes.
Florida’s Blue-Chip Ratio is 35.5 percent using the 247 Sports Composite. Jim McElwain nearly hit 50 percent with 11 blue chips and 12 non-blue chips in 2017. However his transitional class had only 19 percent blue chips, and the 2014 and 2016 classes were in the mid-to-upper 30s.
For the sake of projections, let’s assume Florida will sign 24 recruits per year.
If Florida signs exactly 50 percent blue chips each cycle going forward, it will take four years to hit the required ratio. In that scenario, 2021 is when UF will have a championship-caliber roster.
The Gators can expedite that time table if they improve their blue-chip recruiting by just one player per year. In this scenario, they’d sign 12 blue chips in 2018 — one more than 2017 — then 13 the next year and 14 the next. Given a class of 24 signees per year, Florida would top 50 percent in 2020.
The fastest pace while staying realistic would have UF exceeding 60 percent with 15 blue chips and nine non-blue chips going forward. In that case, the Gators would have the required ratio in 2019.
Can Florida get its year-to-year Blue-Chip Ratio up? It seems likely for reasons beyond the fact that it has improved in each year under McElwain so far.
When Coach Mac shuffled his staff this offseason, he put a premium on ace recruiters for the South Florida area. Defensive backs coach Corey Bell and running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider were the key pickups. Those moves are already paying off.
Florida has three 247 Sports Composite blue-chip commits for 2018: Amari Burney, C.J. Smith and Iverson Clement. According to 247, Smith and Clement are being recruited by Seider. The service has Burney as a Doug Nussmeier target, but Rivals reports that Bell is in on him too.
The early returns on the 2019 class are stellar. Seven of the nine commits have ratings in the Composite already, and six of the seven are blue chips. Only two of the blue chips have listed recruiters — again, it’s early for this cycle — but Bell is listed for both.
It’s realistic to think that the Gators can get a roster composed of at least half blue chips by the end of this decade. Florida fans are nothing if not impatient, and it’ll chafe them if they can’t expect a title before 2020. McElwain does seem to be building momentum, though. If he can keep sniping SEC East titles, he should be around long enough to get that championship-caliber Blue-Chip Ratio.
McElwain and his staff still have to develop the players and put them to good use in sound schemes. If they can do that, though, Florida will contend for the College Football Playoff a couple of seasons down the road.