For the most part, the national narrative around Tennessee is that they’re a low-talent team coming off a 4-8 season with a first-time head coach. Because of that, most national analysts aren’t predicting much success for the Vols in 2018. Florida, on the other hand, is viewed as a team returning a decently talented roster with a proven head coach (albeit a new head coach for them) who should challenge for at least the second spot behind Georgia in the SEC East despite coming off a 4-7 season last year.
But how accurate are those narratives? Does Florida actually have a lot more returning talent than the Vols?
Back in late July, I took a look at how much talent remained on Tennessee’s roster heading into fall camp and Jeremy Pruitt’s first year as head coach. Using that data as comparison, I scoured through Florida’s entire online roster to figure out how their talent compares to what Tennessee returns this year.
The results might surprise you.
Using the 247Sports Composite rankings, I discovered that of Florida’s 81 qualifying players, they have two five-stars, 31 four-stars, 44 three-stars, and four two-stars on their 2018 roster. Those numbers don’t include three-star safety Quincy Lenton who suffered a season-ending injury last week, three-star safety Randy Russell who had his career cut short in January after discovering a heart condition, and four-star defensive back Justin Watkins who left the team following two offseason arrests.
Florida’s 81-man roster averages a 3.38 star rating per player. And when you compare that number to Tennessee’s number, the Vols actually have a slightly more talented overall roster than the Gators heading into this season.
Even not including four-star linebacker J.J. Peterson into the equation for Tennessee, the Vols’ average star rating per player on their roster among their 83 qualifying players is 3.41 stars. Tennessee has two five-stars, 32 four-stars, 47 three-stars, and two two-stars currently on their roster. Of course, if Peterson makes it in and officially joins the Vols, Tennessee’s average will be bumped slightly and climb to 3.42 stars per player.
But the data doesn’t lie: According to the 247Sports Composite rankings, the Vols have slightly more talent than Florida heading into this season. So why are the narratives around the two teams so different despite both coming off four-win seasons and making coaching changes in the offseason?
Part of that has to do with who both programs hired as their head coaches. Jeremy Pruitt has had a great deal of success as a coordinator and assistant, but he’s a first-time head coach. Dan Mullen, Florida’s new head man, has already proven himself as a head coach in the SEC while he led Mississippi State for nine years.
Not only that, but Florida’s returning talent is overall more experienced than Tennessee’s.
According to acclaimed statistician Phil Steele, Florida returns the most experience of any team in the SEC in 2018. According to his system, the Gators return the fourth-most experience of any team in the FBS and are slightly ahead of Mississippi State in returning experience in the SEC. The Gators return 73.6 percent of their lettermen from last year, 75 percent of their offensive yards, 78.5 percent of their tackles, and have a combined 112 starts among their offensive linemen.
Conversely, Tennessee is in the bottom half of the FBS and 12th in the SEC in returning experience.
The Vols are 87th in the FBS in terms of returning experience according to Steele. Tennessee returns 66.2 percent of their lettermen from last season, 53.2 percent of their offensive yards from last year, 69.8 percent of their tackles, and just 51 combined starts among their offensive linemen.
Of course, not included in those numbers are players like grad transfers Keller Chryst and Madre London who made contributions elsewhere before coming to Tennessee. But regardless, Florida has a more veteran team than the Vols. And their schedule looks to be a lot easier.
Tennessee opens the season against a ranked opponent in West Virginia then opens up their SEC play by hosting Florida, going on the road to Georgia, playing Auburn on the road, hosting Alabama, then going back on the road to play South Carolina. Florida’s toughest stretch starts with the Tennessee game too, but they then travel to Mississippi State, host LSU, travel to Vanderbilt, then host Georgia. That’s a tough stretch, but it’s not on the same level as Tennessee’s. Not only that, but the Gators only have four true road games and one of those is still in the state of Florida when they take on Florida State.
Florida’s schedule overall might be easier, but the data shows that when both the Gators and Vols face off in Knoxville this year, their talent will be nearly equal. The question will be which new head coach can get the most out of their squads come September 22nd.