How Will Grier and the Florida Gators Became Challengers in the SEC East

After two mediocre seasons, Florida football is back in the national conversation, thanks to an improved offense and continued excellence on defense.

We don’t know how the season will end, but we can be sure of the fact that Florida football is nationally relevant again.

The last time we could say this in earnest was 2012, when the Gators went 11-2 and earned a Sugar Bowl berth.

Things cratered the following year, when Florida went 4-8, including a loss to then-FCS Georgia Southern. Last season, Florida was 7-5, but it was not enough to save Will Muschamp’s job, as he was replaced by Jim McElwain.

The Gators are now 5-0 and coming off a 38-10 win over Ole Miss, who came into The Swamp as seven-point favorites and third in the AP Poll. With the win, Florida moved into the top 10 in our nERD power rankings and the 11th spot in the AP Poll.

Florida’s defense remains its calling card, as it ranks 20th in the nation in both yards allowed per play (4.5) and points allowed per game (16.6). In terms of overall, opponent-adjusted defense, the Gators rank 12th in the nation in S&P+a useful metric developed by Bill Connelly that measures team (or unit) quality using factors including efficiency and explosiveness. They are seventh in adjusted rushing yards per attempt allowed, per our metrics.

Unlike the final years of the Muschamp era, however, Florida is complementing its elite defense with solid play on offense.

The Florida offense ranks 51st nationally in yards per play (5.9), 41st in points per game (34.4), and 15th in S&P+. The Gators ranked 72nd and 100th in offensive S&P+ in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and had not finished in the top-15 since Tim Tebow's senior year.

The Pass Is Back in Gainesville

With preseason uncertainty at quarterback, and the dynamic Kelvin Taylor returning in the backfield, it looked as if Florida would have to lean on its running game to be efficient on offense.

Surprisingly, though, redshirt freshman Will Grier has played the bigger part in the Gators’ offensive success.

Grier has completed 86 of 128 passes for 966 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He ranks second in the SEC in completion percentage and fifth in both yards per pass and passer rating.

Nationally, Florida is 33rd in yards per pass attempt (7.8) and 31st in our passing efficiency ratings (yards per attempt, adjusted for opponent).

The passing attack has been more efficient than explosive, as it is 26th in passing success rate and 51st in isolated points per play, per Football Study Hall.

Florida’s leading receiver has been junior Demarcus Robinson, who has caught 28 passes for 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Brandon Powell and Antonio Callaway have been the big-play receivers, averaging 18.4 and 16.8 yards per catch, respectively.

Tight end Jake McGee (16 catches for 134 yards) has been a solid option as well.

On the ground, Florida has been underwhelming, tied for 91st nationally (and 11th in the SEC) in raw yards per carry (3.95) and 112th in the country in our adjusted yards per carry metric.

The rankings here are weighed down by a lack of explosiveness, as the Gators are 88th in isolated points per play.

Their strength on the ground has been picking up the yardage necessary, even if they are not gaining much more than that. In terms of rushing efficiency, Florida has been above average, ranking 49th with a success rate of 44.6% (against the national average of 41.8%).

Taylor has flashed the skill that made him so successful last year at times this season, including a 102-yard and 2-touchdown performance on 19 carries against Tennessee.

Overall, though, the junior has not yet gotten it all together, as he has rushed for 339 yards on 86 carries this year (a 3.94 average).

In 2014, he rushed for 565 yards on 116 carries (4.87 yards per attempt) as part of a tandem with Matt Jones (now with Washington in the NFL).

An inexperienced offensive line has certainly not helped matters, as the most experienced Gators lineman coming into the season was senior Mason Halter, who had played in 33 career games...with FCS Fordham!

Measuring offensive line play with statistics can be tricky, but in terms of adjusted line yards -- which credit the line for 100% of the yardage between 0 and 4 yards, and 50% of the credit for yardage between 5 and 10 yards, while also counting yardage lost at 120% -- Florida is 112th in adjusted line yards, according to Football Study Hall.

To its credit, the line was above-average in terms of line yards per carry against a strong Ole Miss defensive front last Saturday.

If the line can improve as it gains experience, it is not hard to see Taylor reverting to the form he had shown in his freshman and sophomore years, helping Florida improve on the ground to match its efficient passing attack.

Sustained Gators success on offense should be a scary thought for opponents, given that...

Florida Is Still Great on Defense

The fact that Florida is moving the ball so well on offense might have been unexpected.

The Gators stopping opponents from doing the same?

Much less surprising.

Last season, Florida was fifth in the nation in yards allowed per play (4.55), 19th in points allowed per game (21.1), and eighth in defensive S&P+.

The Gators defense has not been quite as dominant as the 2014 unit but still ranks 20th in both yards per play (4.49) and points per game (16.6) and is 12th in S&P+.

Corner Vernon Hargreaves and company again boast one of the country’s better pass defenses, as the Gators are tied for 31st in raw yards allowed per pass and 17th in our adjusted yards per pass metric.

Hargreaves, who already has three interceptions, is the biggest name on the Florida defense (and perhaps the whole team), and numerous early mock drafts project him to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The junior is joined in the defensive backfield by corners Brian Poole (six pass breakups), Quincy Wilson (one interception, two pass breakups) and Jalen Tabor (one interception, four pass breakups).

Florida is tied for sixth in the country in sacks with 18, led by potential mid-round pick Jonathan Bullard (4.5 sacks, 3 hurries) at defensive tackle, defensive ends Alex McCalister (4 sacks, 4 hurries) and Bryan Cox (4 hurries), and nosetackle Joey Ivie (3 sacks, 1 hurry).

Bullard has also been dynamic in run defense, as only four players in the country have more tackles for a loss than the senior’s 9.5.

McCallister, and linebackers Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis are all tied for eighth in the SEC in tackles for a loss, with 6.5.

As a team, only Missouri and Oklahoma State have more tackles for loss than Florida’s 46, and the Gators are 15th in the nation in yards allowed per carry (2.89).

After opponent adjustments, the Gators run defense is seventh in yards per attempt according to our metrics.

What’s Next?

After consecutive games at the friendly confines of The Swamp, Florida goes on the road this Saturday to face the Missouri Tigers, who are 59th in our power ratings.

Florida is currently a 4.5-point favorite, and the over/under has been set at 39.5, suggesting a 22.0-17.5 Gators win.

If the guys and girls in Vegas are correct, it would go a long way in helping Florida end Missouri’s two-year reign as SEC East champ and establish itself as Georgia’s top competitor in the division.

Florida is currently in first place in the east with a 3-0 conference record, ahead of 2-1 Georgia and Kentucky, while Missouri is 1-1.

Kentucky is 51st in our power rankings and has already lost to the Gators, while Georgia is 13th, with its only loss coming at the hands of Alabama (currently third in our rankings).

Florida avoids the Crimson Tide this year, but will not be spared from the allegedly-human Leonard Fournette, as the Gators visit LSU on October 17.

After an open date, all eyes will be turned to Jacksonville, where Florida and Georgia meet for the game formerly known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” where the SEC East could hang in the balance.

We can’t know how things will turn out, but at the very least, Gators fans will be able to watch games in October that have major implications for the conference, something that could not be said the last two years.