After Nick Saban and Alabama won yet another Natty in 2020, Saban declared that offense was more important than defense (https://sports.yahoo.com/nick-saban-alabamas-identity-shift-good-defense-good-offense-050646603.html). Sometime thereafter, I saw a retweet of a question regarding would Florida fans trade Mullen for Smart and vice versa.
The responses I saw were interesting. Though I’m not sure if there was a poll or anything statistically done to measure the sentiments, it appeared in the narratives that I saw that more Gator fans would agree to switch coaches than Dawg fans. So, I decided to look into it a little.
Assuming that, as Saban stated, offense is more important than defense my initial hunch was that it may be unwise to switch an offensive wiz like Mullen for a defensive wiz like Smart. Though I think most people that consider Smart to be “better”, think so because of his stellar recruiting levels versus Mullen’s, which is significantly behind teams that are considered elite (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc.). Smart out-recruits pretty much everyone except Alabama, but Georgia isn’t necessarily performing at the same elite level. Of course, this depends on elite, but ultimately, if you haven’t won a Natty since 1980, I’m not sure how you can make a claim for elite status regardless of recruiting.
Another fact that has me doubting Smart is that he appears to have already peaked. He has the same winning percentage over the last 28 games at ~78% as he did over his first 38 games where Mullen currently sits (at UF). Mullen is currently at 76%, dropping from 82% going into the end of 2020 season where UF dropped 3-straight.
Smart hasn’t improved UGA beyond the initial improvement you often see with a new coach, as his win rate (as above) and even margin of victory isn’t changed much (15 vs 13).
Graph: Smart over time. The below graph shows Smart’s margin of victories over time. The vertical red line is where Smart was at at his 38th game, where Mullen is now at UF. Smart has peaked and then leveled off with a slight decline. While I don’t think his performance is in decline, there is no evidence that it is on the upward swing either.
Smart has done a decent job of performing up to expectations relative to his talent when compared to the rest of the SEC, but he hasn’t exactly exceeded to a great level. In all fairness, his roster puts his expectation levels up there with Alabama, so there’s that. While he may have a comparable roster to Alabama, he certainly doesn’t have the results, and neither does anyone else.
Scatter plot: The below scatterplot depicts performance relative to roster talent. All three seasons under Mullen are above expectations, while Smart has been at expectations twice, above once and below once. It should be noted that it is much harder for Smart to exceed expected win % for his roster talent. This is not so much a knock against him as it is evidence that Mullen does get the most out of his talent. If only he had more, but I digress.
Mullen, however, has outperformed his expected roster talent level each of his 3 years. This says two things: 1) the roster talent level needs to get better and 2) Mullen is good at what we all suspect he is good at, game day and development.
Given that Mullen doesn’t recruit like Smart, it is safe to conclude that he has a lower floor. His loss to LSU last year is an example of that. Typically, Smart can simply out-talent his weaker opponents with a much larger margin for error (ahem, South Carolina?). But offense is key, and points scored are the most straightforward measure of offensive capability. This is why I suspect (I don’t know yet) that Mullen has the higher ceiling. Mullen is more likely to score more points across each category in 5 point increments than Smart in the range of 20 points all the way to 60 points. Every single category. Of note, Smart has the only game between the two with over 65 points, but also has 28 more games at UGA than Mullen has at UF.
Points probability bar graph. The below graph depicts the probability of scoring points for each coach. Mullen scores more points.
The Saban Problem
Regardless of all the intangibles, the most likely scenario for Smart or Mullen to win the SEC and/or a Natty, they are going to have to beat Saban. Since 2006, no SEC team has won a national championship without beating Alabama. As a matter of fact, only one team (2013 FSU) other than Alabama itself has won a national championship without playing Alabama. Furthermore, the only time Alabama was unranked during this current stretch was when the 2006 Florida Gators beat them 28-13, and that was prior to Saban. The average number of points scored by Bama during this run is 37.
In order to beat Saban, you are going to have to score a lot of points. He simply doesn’t lose very many low-scoring games.
|Points Against||Saban Win||Opp Win||Saban Win%|
The chance of beating Saban if you score more than 30 points is 54%. Anything less than that and you are at very long odds. The probability of score 30 points in a game is 68% for Mullen (at UF) and 52% for Smart. Smart has failed in 3 tries to reach the 30 point plateau vs Alabama, while Mullen has succeeded in his only shot at Saban. Alabama won all 4 of those games, so it is far from a given that scoring 30 points will beat Saban. But it is your best shot, and Mullen is more likely to reach that level of production, both in general and against Saban.
If Saban is right, and offense is indeed more important, I would take Mullen over Smart. Not because Mullen is guaranteed to necessarily do better, but he is more likely to score more points. Kirby doesn’t seem to have improved as a coach and Mullen doesn’t seem to have improved as a recruiter. However, of the two propositions, it is more likely at this point that Mullen can become a better recruiter more so than Smart can become a better coach. Therefore, I’d go with Mullen. Points and potential over the opposite.
In a nutshell, for either Florida or Georgia to win a championship (SEC or Natty) they will most likely have to beat Alabama. To realistically have a chance to beat Alabama, you have to score 30 or more points. Mullen is more likely to score 30 or more points than Smart. Therefore, Mullen is the choice.
As far as plateauing, it appears Smart already has. We don’t know about Mullen yet, so he may still be ascendant. Again, advantage Mullen.
UPDATED on09/19/21. UF lost to Alabama 31-29. Mullen failed to score 30 (on a missed PAT), which would have lead to a tied game (they would miss a 2-point try at the end of the game). That 31st point would have been crucial, as the game would likely have gone to OT which would have favored Florida, as they were grinding Alabama down.
After the game, Coach Mullen reiterated was has been stated here: “… I want a team that can complete for championships. To do that you’re going to have to beat Alabama.”