Regular Season Report Card: Napier has a Muschamp like first season

Nov 29, 2022 | 1 comment


(Photo courtesy Florida Sports Information)


Inside the Gators first published this Florida head coach comparison six years ago in order to grade former Florida head coach Jim McElwain 20 games into his stint leading Gators’ football. We then followed up a couple of years later in order to take a closer look at where Dan Mullen stood after completing his first 20 games as Florida’s head coach.

As you can see in the above links, a fast start doesn’t necessarily equate to continued success.

Today we are looking back at Billy Napier‘s first season to see how he compares to Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain, and Dan Mullen at the end of each of their first regular season piloting the Gators’ football program.


I have long held that to be considered a successful head football coach at Florida you don’t have to win the National Championship each and every season. If that were the case, with the Gators only doing so three times in their 114-year history, that would mean that there were over 100 years of futility.

No, you don’t have to win the big prize every year to be a success at Florida. However, in my opinion, you have to accomplish these five things:

Win in the Swamp
This is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the more you win, the more intimidating the Swamp becomes, making the home-field advantage an even bigger advantage. As much as a loss hurts – at least some are forgivable when it happens on the road. Florida travels to some incredibly hostile environments – places no team should expect to enter and leave with a win on a consistent basis. Plus, the bottom line is it just hurts more to lose at home. You feel as though your personal space has been invaded.

Quick Take: Thanks to the fanbase turning out in droves, UF’s home-field advantage this season was probably as big as it’s been over the last decade. Florida went 5-2 at home this season, with the huge season-opening win over No. 7 Utah starting Napier and Company off on the right foot. However, the first of two losses came the following week when No. 20 Kentucky came from behind to win. And then, there was the midseason loss to LSU. In the end, losing to Kentucky looked a lot worse as the year went by. However, destroying South Carolina the week before they went on to beat top 10 teams in back-to-back weekends looks much better now.

Beat the teams you are expected to beat
When things are going well recruiting-wise at Florida, realistically the Gators only play a 3-4 game schedule in even the most difficult of strength-of-schedule years. Now, notice I said when Florida is recruiting at the level it should be recruiting at. When they are, the Gators should be able to simply out-talent all but a couple of schools on the schedule. From a historical perspective, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, and then Tennessee to a degree, and of course if Alabama is the opponent in the SEC Championship, are the only teams the Gators face regularly who recruit at a high ‘Florida like’ level year in and year out. Yes, now and then you’ll have a South Carolina or Kentucky rise-up that you have to deal with, but for the most part when UF is recruiting on the level it should be, 8-9 teams on the 12-game schedule shouldn’t be able to match-up to Florida talent-wise.

Quick Take: When Florida has Florida-like talent, the Gators shouldn’t be worried about Kentucky, especially not at home. A loss to Vanderbilt, regardless of where it happens, is unacceptable. Jump through whatever hoop you want, but that loss wasn’t on a first-year coach not having his players or enough talent, that was on a first-year coach not having his team prepared.

At least split with ranked teams
In most years the Gators are going to face 4-5 teams ranked in the Top 25. If you can at worst split with those teams, that would mean 9-10 win seasons. You would like to win them all, but that’s not realistic. At least walking away with a win half the time is acceptable. Losing two out of three or worse is unacceptable.

Quick Take: As you can see in the table below, Napier is the fourth of the seven coaches in the comparison to play against five ranked teams in his first season. Meyer was the only one of the four to finish with a winning record. Muschamp went 0 for the season.  There’s a reason for some optimism with this category because, in all but the Georgia game, Florida played the ranked teams to within a score.

Win two out of three against Florida’s traditional rivals
If you do well enough against Florida State, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU – and Miami in the years they are on the schedule – Florida fans will be forgiving in some other areas. A loss, any loss, huts badly enough, but to lose to one of the Gators’ traditional rivals is 10 times worse. Depending on where you live, you might have to put up with a Bulldog, Seminole, or Volunteers fan holding bragging rights for a full 365 days. That can become unbearable.

Quick Take: This is the category where Napier came up shortest. There’s nowhere for Florida fans to turn for relief. The Gator Nation doesn’t hold bragging rights over any of Florida’s traditional rivals after Napier became the only first-year Florida coach out of the seven to go 0-for-the-season against Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and Florida State.

Run an exciting offense
When Jeremy Foley hired Ron Zook, one of my first comments was wondering how a special teams/defensive-minded head coach would fit in at what was then known as a wide-open offensive-minded school. The answer was, not very well. Foley then doubled down on that mistake by hiring Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp a decade later. Somewhat because of the athletic playmakers available to the Gators – but mostly because of what Steve Spurrier was able to accomplish – Florida fans simply do not want to see a boring – three-yards and a cloud of dust offense that leads to a low-scoring affair. Honestly, though many may not admit it publicly, there is a significant portion of the fan base who would rather go 9-3 with an exciting, high-scoring offense, than 10-2 with a grind-it-out, cure for insomnia, type of offense. No, to be fully accepted by the Gator Nation, you have to play an exciting brand of football, and airing it out is the preferred method of moving the ball.

Quick Take: It was a bit unexpected that such a run-heavy offense would produce so many explosive plays. When the offense was rolling, it was fun to watch – even mixing in some explosive plays in the passing game as the season wore on. As fun as the offense could be at times, the downside is that an inconsistent passing game, and some questionable play calling and personnel packaging, made it frustrating to watch at other times.

IF the Florida head coach is able to accomplish those five things the chances are damn good that the Gators will be in contention to win the SEC East, which means they will be in the running for at least a top 10-15 finish, and when things align perfectly, even in the running for one of the four College Football Playoff spots.

That doesn’t mean any or all of the above is going to happen every single year. Things, injuries, bad luck, etc…. happen. However, when things are going right, it should happen often enough.

GRADING BILLY NAPIER

(Turn your smartphone horizontally for the best view)

CATEGORYCOMMENTGRADE
Coaching StaffWith the way his staff is structured, there isn’t room for a special teams coordinator among the 10 assistants, but with the way the unit performed this season, does he want to rethink that? Outside of Jeremy Crawshaw and late-season heroics from Trevor Etienne as the kick returner, the group is anything but Game Changers. Patrick Toney‘s first season as Florida’s defensive coordinator was hugely disappointing. The most concerning thing is that other than a two-game upswing against Texas A&M and South Carolina, they were substandard from start to finish. You would have liked to have seen at least some improvement in order to have hope for the future. The worst overall job was turned in by the quarterback coach – who just happens to be the head coach as well. Napier is set on being the play caller and coaching the quarterbacks, but he might need to rethink that.C-
Program BuildingNapier hit the ground running improving the player’s meals, parking, and living arrangements. Honestly, things that should have been taken care of by the administration years ago, and shouldn’t have fallen on the shoulders of the head coach. The new football facility is also a hit, but that was in the works before he was hired. Things such as requiring players to be in the exact same clothing helps build team and deemphasizes individual.A+
Media InteractionBack during SEC Media Days one media member named Napier the most boring head coach. However, as I pointed out during his Florida introductory press conference,  he is very measured in everything he says. Nothing is off the cuff, he thinks before he speaks. That in turn means he isn’t going to be controversial or offer up many enticing headlines. The one black mark is not making his staff, or at least the coordinators, available during the season.B
Fan InteractionNapier goes out of his way to compliment the fan base and thanks them for showing up and being difference-makers in. Also, while he is guarded during his media opportunities, he looks very much at ease and in his element speaking at Gator Gatherings, where he wasn’t just informative, but engaging and funny as well.A
Game DayForget statistics or the record in any one category, perhaps the most concerning issue over the course of season one was some of the game management decisions made by Napier. From curiously going for two in some strange situations to going for it on fourth down to clock management, and then there’s not enough room on here to begin to discuss the third-quarter issues.C
Recruiting Going forward it is going to be interesting to see how much reeling in top classes will be dependent on a head coach who is a closer, how much is dependent on assistants and support staff, and how much NIL plays a part. Currently, Napier has Florida sitting in the top 10 on the On3 Consensus, but the Gators aren’t getting the very top-tier kids – at least not yet.A
Roster ManagementIt doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, take multiple seasons to build a team in the transfer portal era. When Brian Kelly took over LSU he hit the portal hard, signing 16 players including his starting quarterback and rebuilding his secondary. Napier said that Florida would be active, but I think what happened is that the staff pretty much sat out the first half of portal season, and by the time they wanted to go all in post-spring the quality that they expected to enter the portal – didn’t – and UF was left high and dry.C
OverallThe record isn’t anything to shout about (at least not in a positive sense), but as is evidenced by Mullen, the first-year record doesn’t always tell the complete tale of where a program is headed. There are some things that need to be cleaned up, or maybe just some time to be ironed out, but setting the won-loss record aside, while wins down the stretch would have equated to off-season momentum, it still feels like the program is on the right track.B-


COMPARING THE FIRST YEAR OF FLORIDA’S HEAD COACHES

(Turn your smartphone horizontally for the best view)

CategorySpurrierZookMeyerMuschampMcElwainMullenNapier
W/L9/28/48/36/610/29/36/6
W/L SEC6/16/25/33/57/15/33/5
W/L Rivals2/22/33/21/42/23/10/4
W/L R Teams1/22/33/20/51/22/11/4
W/L UR Teams8/06/15/16/19/07/25/2
Home6/05/26/05/26/16/15/2
Best Win48-7 #4 Aub30-13 #4 Tn14-10 #4 UGA48-10 UR UK38-10 #3 MISS27-19 #5 LSU29-26 #7 Utah
Worst Loss45-3 #5 TN36-7 #18 LSU31-3 #15 BAMA21-7 UR FSU27-2 #13 FSU38-17 UR MiZZ31-24 UR Vandy
SOSNA#9#48#22#19#32#10

Legend
Wins/Losses against ranked teams
Wins/Losses against unranked teams
SOS from Sagarin Ratings (wasn’t available for Spurrier’s first season)

CategorySpurrierZookMeyerMuschampMcElwainMullenNapier
35 + pts5244275
21 or less2646542
Blowouts7344352
AP Top 2510/1110/1212/126/128/128/123/12
AP Top 105/115/125/120/123/121/120/12
Recruiting RankingUA/UA20/215/212/323/1417/820/9

 

Legend
Games scoring 35 or more points
Games held to 21 points or less
Wins of 21 or more points
Game Weeks ranked inside AP Top 25
Game Weeks ranked inside AP Top 10
Recruiting Rankings are from Rivals. The 247 Composite and On3 Consensus don’t go back that far. The first number in the rankings is their first partial class, the second number is their first full class


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