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Florida Football Is Paradise
Slip on your Ray-Bans for the upcoming college football season in Florida—the state of the game in the Sunshine State has never been more blinding from top-to-bottom.
Finding the primary reasons don’t require a magnifying glass: For one, our paradise peninsula is chocked full of top-notch prep football stars. Meanwhile, the state’s universities keep luring accomplished head coaches to the land of sun and surf.
Yes, college football continues to heat up in Florida, and is rocketing on an “upward trajectory,’’ in prominence and competitiveness, thanks to an abundance of player talent and coaching acumen, according to ABC/ESPN college football analyst Greg McElroy.
Last season, the University of Central Florida—once lowly football ragamuffins who went winless in 2004—snatched the klieg lights from traditional state powerhouses Florida State, Florida and Miami, bolstering its burgeoning national reputation with a flawless 13-0 season.
“(When) you have established programs like Florida, Florida State, even Miami, at any given time those teams could be the best in the state—and the best in the country,’’ said Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin. “Now you see what has happened at Central Florida and South Florida, even (at) Florida International (and) Florida Atlantic. These teams are just continuing to grow and get better, mostly because you’ve got the talent base in the state.’’
The 2018 season is anything but Dickensian in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Orlando with a trio of new, highly compensated head coaches—Florida’s Dan Mullen, Florida State’s Willie Taggart and UCF’s Josh Heupel. Further south, it is a year of great expectations in Miami as the Hurricanes figure to be ranked in the preseason Top 10 with third-year coach Mark Richt.
The five-time national champion Hurricanes were ranked as high as No. 2 last season, but slipped on a palm frond late in the season to finish No. 13 with a 10-3 record.
Richt was selected ACC Coach of the Year. In 17 seasons, the first 15 at Georgia, Richt has carved out a winning percentage of 74 percent.
“The state of Florida has experienced unprecedented hires in recent years—the coaching talent is remarkable,’’ said McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback. “You would be hard pressed to find a better collection.’’
But as Miami demonstrated, prognostications can be problematic. Last season, the Seminoles were ranked a lofty third in the USA Today Coaches Poll preseason poll. The Gators were slotted at No. 16. And UCF? The mid-major university was shut out—no Top 20 preseason votes. The Knights answered that snub by posting the best record as the only undefeated team in major college football.
After the Knights defeated Auburn 34-27 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, they vaulted to finish No. 7 in the final Away Coaches Poll. That ranking was somewhat bittersweet because the Tigers beat eventual national champion Alabama and No. 2 Georgia, leading UCF fans to consider the Knights legitimate, if uncrowned, kingpins. (Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi renamed UCF as “Undefeated Champions Forever”).
Coach Heupel returns a gaggle of starters from last season’s undefeated UCF squad, plus star quarterback McKenzie Milton. The Knights are favored to successfully defend their American Athletic Conference title.
At Florida, Mullen—the Gators’ former offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer’s two national championship teams—returns to campus after a successful tenure at Mississippi State (Florida plays September 29 at Starkville, Mississippi). But since Meyer scooted after the 2010 season, the Gators’ record is a snaggletoothed 52-36 for a so-so 59 percent winning percentage. Gator Nation is restless.
Florida flopped to 4-7 last season. Mullen understands the stakes involved at the SEC school. “I know that walking in the door, that’s the pressure I wanted,’’ he said.
At Florida State, Taggart will attempt to resuscitate the Seminoles as a national force and legitimate ACC contenders. FSU finished 7-6 last season. “My vision for this program is to win multiple (national) championships in a first-class manner,’’ Taggart said.
It won’t be easy—Florida State’s schedule is among the toughest in the nation. Taggart has re-energized the program by installing an up-tempo offense, and re-established relationships with FSU legacy names, such as bringing back legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden for spring practice.
In Tampa, the South Florida Bulls will be hard-pressed to produce an encore (10-3 last season), particularly with an inexperienced defense. But if anyone makes them competitive on any given Saturday, it is head coach Charlie Strong, starting his second season at USF.
“The only thing that concerns me is that I had 25 seniors last year. They were the force of the program for three years,’’ Strong said of the American Athletic Conference school.
In Boca Raton, Kiffin’s first year at Florida Atlantic last season produced a dramatic turnaround for the Conference USA Owls—an 11-3 record after three consecutive 3-9 campaigns.
Ditto for former Hurricanes head coach Butch Davis, in his second season at Florida International. Under the former NFL coach, the Conference USA Panthers rose from years of sub-mediocrity to post an 8-5 record.
After Davis was hired at FIU, he immediately looked at non-traditional powerhouses such as UCF and asked a question: “Why not us?’’ It was a query that the Knights resoundingly answered last season when they took a stroll in the warm sunshine with the big boys of college football.