Sunday, September 23, 2007

Florida College Football No Longer About The Big 3

Southridge grad and UCF running back Kevin Smith leads the nation in rushing

Look out Canes, Noles and Gators. Remember the days when Miami, Florida and Florida State dominated college football in the state? They were known as "The Big 3" and were among the best programs in the nation. Well, at least the Gators are keeping their end of the bargain. There's a new challenger to the Sunshine State collegiate football hierarchy and it resides in Tampa--the University of South Florida.

The Bulls are currently ranked #23 in the latest Associated Press poll. USF and UF are the only Florida programs currently ranked in the top 25. Head coach Jim Leavitt is no longer the best kept secret in college football. Ten years ago, Leavitt arrived in Tampa to start USF's football program from scratch. The Bulls went 5-6 that year while playing a Division IAA schedule that included losses to the likes of Drake, Elon and Southern Illinois. Fast forward ten years to the present and the Bulls are now a big-time program competing in a BCS conference (Big East)

Just six years ago, the University of Miami won its fifth national championship. But just last year, head coach Larry Coker was fired after going 7-6 in his final season while the program continually declined under his watch. Florida State's program has also reached a stretch of mediocrity never seen before during the tenure of legendary coach Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles also went 7-6 in 2006.

So what's happening to Florida's elite college football programs? Back when the University of Miami dominated the 1980s, schools like USF, Florida Atlantic and Florida International didn't have football programs. More and more out of state schools are recruiting Florida's high school talent like never before. Take a look at the rosters of programs like West Virginia, Rutgers and NC State and you will see plenty of Florida high school talent stocking their rosters. Indeed it's about the Big 3 anymore. There are now much more options for Florida's great high school talent at the next level.

Another program steadily on the rise is Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton. Former UM coach Howard Schnellenberger has built a solid football program in a relatively short amount of time. The Owls began play in 2001 as a Division IAA program and just three years later reached the IAA semifinals. In 2004 FAU moved up to Division IA and in its first game beat Hawaii, a respected program. Although the Owls have struggled in their last 3 seasons, Schnellenberger's program is starting to reach a new level. Just last week, FAU beat Minnesota of the Big Ten. FAU is currently 3-1 and 1-0 in the Sun Belt Conference.

Over in Orlando, UCF coach George O'Leary is slowly building a solid program. The Golden Knights are led by running back Kevin Smith, who currently is the leading rusher in college football. Smith, a Miami Southridge graduate, is average 183 yards a game. UCF is 2-1 and 1-0 in Conference USA.

But not every new major program in Florida is flourishing. Florida International continues to struggle terribly. FIU has now lost 16 consecutive games, dating back to 2005. While Florida Atlantic's program has shown signs of quick growth after quickly jumping up to Division IA, FIU has taken several steps backwards on the field. FIU is currently undergoing an ambitious renovation of its on-campus football facility that it hopes will help the program compete with the big boys in the state. Unlike USF and FAU, FIU has its own on campus stadium. But because FIU is still largely a commuter school, I'm not sure an on compus stadium necessarily will bring more fans to the games or create a great college atmosphere. Only winning will bring fans. Right now, FIU is not close to being a competitive program.

Here are my rankings of Florida Division IA football programs:

#1 University of Florida: Without a doubt the Gators boast the best program in the state and one of the elite in the nation. Urban Meyer led the program to its second national championship last year. No other school in the state has the combination of alumni support, money and facilities like UF.

#2 University of South Florida: Who would have thought just a couple of years ago this would happen? USF #2? Absolutely. The Bulls are the only other Florida program ranked in the top 25. In just 10 years, head coach Jim Leavitt has transformed a new program into a legit contender in the Big East. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe could challenge Florida's Tim Tebow as the best signal caller in the state.

#3 University of Miami: Miami's program had slipped significantly from one of the nation's elite to mediocrity. But I do see a bright future with new coach Randy Shannon. He's quickly established a solid recruiting class with several strong verbal committments from local high school stars. Miami's best teams have usually been the result of recruiting the best local talent. Shannon is starting to get those players.

#4 Florida State University: During the 1990s, FSU was unquestionable the best program in the nation. But since 2001, FSU has seen a steady decline in its football program. Bobby Bowden is now in his late 70s and one has to wonder about the future of FSU. Like UF, FSU has tremendous alumni support, money and facilities. But they are not getting the blue chip talent like they once did in the 80s and 90s. FSU's offense has been stagnant recently. Bowden fired his offensive coordinator and son Jeff Bowden and replaced him with former LSU coordinator Jimbo Fisher. But so far the results have been the same--mediocre.

#5 University of Central Florida: Don't look now but George O'Leary is building a program that went to a bowl game last year and could win Conference USA. Running back Kevin Smith leads the nation in rushing. O'Leary has been a respected coach for some time, going back to his days at Georgia Tech. He was nearly hired by Notre Dame until it was discovered he lied on his resume. UCF has a new stadium and good enough facilities to match the big programs in the state.

#6 Florida Atlantic University: Howard Schnellenberger's ability to build programs is remarkable. He took UM from a struggling program in 1979 to a national champion in 1983. He took Louisville from the dregs of college football into a respected and outstanding program. He's now doing the same at FAU. You could legimately compare FAU's accent to USF. Both programs have risen at similar paces. The only difference is USF is currently in a BCS conference while FAU plays in the Sun Belt Conference.

#7 Florida International University: Unfortunatley my alma mater is lagging in last place among Florida's so-called big-time programs. While FIU has tried to move its program to big-time status quickly like USF and FAU, the results have not been the same. FIU has lacked the proper leadership and discipline in its program compared to its contemporaries. Don Strock simply wasn't the right man to start the program. The jury is out on new head coach Mario Cristobal. However, I'm skeptical of Cristobal's qualifications. Forget about head coaching experience. Cristobal has never been a coordinator--let alone a head coach. He's young, energetic and supposedly a good recruiter. But is that enough? We'll see.

There are other football programs in the state like Florida A&M, Bethune Cookman, Jacksonville University and Edward Waters. But none of those schools play at the Division IA level just yet.

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