State of the State: Florida College Football
It seems like we rarely go a week or two without something newsworthy occurring in the state of Florida. Recently, two women dressed up as elderly people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. A couple of years ago, this man was arrested for trying to get his alligator drunk. If you need entertainment for several hours, just Google “Florida man” and enjoy.
College football in the state of Florida is equally as wild, notable and enthralling. It’s difficult to have a conversation about the national landscape of the sport without mentioning a Florida team.
The Florida schools are seemingly trending in the right direction after a decade of mediocrity at best and complete dysfunction at worst, but there are still a number of obstacles standing in the way. Here is the current status of the programs, the recruiting, the transfer portal and the schedules in the Sunshine State.
STATE OF THE PROGRAMS:
The three Power 5 Florida teams - Florida, Florida State and Miami - dominated Florida football for the first 15 years of the 2000s. In 2017, just two years after a season with zero wins, UCF exploded into the conversation. They went 13-0, beat Auburn in a Peach Bowl, and claimed a national championship that still makes Alabama fans scream. Here is a brief status report on each of these four schools:
The Gators are the most stable and reliable program in the Sunshine State as of now. They went 10-3 and 11-12 in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and won a New Year’s Six bowl both years. Their 2020 campaign began with an 8-1 record but ended with three straight losses. In fairness, 2020 was 2020 and one of those losses was a down-to-the-wire contest with arguably the best team we have ever seen in the Alabama Crimson Tide. Kyle Trask also made Heisman noise, the first UF quarterback to do so since Tim Tebow.
Florida returns only 41% of their offensive production from 2020, which is 125th in the country according to ESPN's Bill Connelly. The defensive side of the ball looks a little better, and they may have as many as eight former blue-chip recruits on the field. They lost two starters on the defensive line to the NFL, but they brought in a couple of reliable transfers (more below).
The Gators nearly stay in-state for the entire non-conference schedule with games against Florida Atlantic, South Florida, Samford and Florida State. The SEC East still has it’s problems outside of Athens, but crossover games against Alabama and LSU will test the Gators. 9-3 is a reasonable expectation in Gainesville this year.
Oh, Florida State. The fall from grace has been anywhere from complicated to downright ugly. It’s difficult to believe this program won a national title within the last decade. If you’re interested in the details of Jimbo Fisher’s final years in Tallahassee, check out this ESPN piece.
Willie Taggart was hired in 2018, fired less than two years later, and finished with a 9-12 record. Those 12 losses were not at the hands of a powerhouse division like the SEC West and a few big non-conference games. Aside from Clemson, the ACC was bad those two years. FSU crumbled in a loss to Boise State, and they barely beat Samford and ULM.
Death, taxes and spending the spring asking if an FSU coach can turn the program around. The schedule for the Seminoles this year is not favorable. They open with Notre Dame and play Miami at home, plus they are on the road at Clemson, UNC and Florida. They do have a couple of likely cakewalk games in Jacksonville State (although JSU did give them a scare in the first half of the 2020 match up) and UMass (who went 0-4 in 2020 and was outscored by their opponents 161-12), but it will be difficult to break .500 if the 2021 team resembles the teams of the last few years. Florida State fans are not patient, so if Norvell can’t demonstrate the ‘Noles are headed in the right direction quickly, the seat is going to be hot once again in Tallahassee.
Miami is quickly trending in the right direction. They play in the ACC coastal, a division that has been won by a different team every year since 2013 (note: the ACC did not play with divisions in 2020). UNC appears to be the only real threat in their division in 2021.
According to Connelly, 95% of Miami’s offensive production is returning, which is the highest in the country; they are returning 10 starters on offense. Tight End Brevin Jordan is headed to the NFL, but Mike Harley and Charleston Rambo are dynamic receivers that should be able to pick up where he left off. The big outstanding question of course involves their quarterback, D’Eriq King, whose 2020 season ended with a torn ACL in the Cheez-It Bowl. Without King, Miami’s quarterback room, made up of redshirt-freshman Peyton Matocha, and two freshmen in Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia (if you want to see a wild high school career, look no further than Garcia), has played a combined nine snaps. If it gets to a point where King cannot start in September, it’s going to be a big issue when the Canes open with the Crimson Tide. King is likely to return, so this may not be an issue, but I’m sure Miami fans are all but comfortable with the situation.
The Gus Malzahn era has begun in Orlando. Malzahn, the former Auburn coach who originally entered the college football fold after starting his career dominating Arkansas high school football, was the best possible option for UCF in this situation. It is hard to think of a better [reasonable] hire. Following the previously referenced 13-0 season in 2017 and the departure of head coach Scott Frost, the Knights got progressively worse under Josh Heupel, going 12-1 in 2018, 10-3 in 2019 and 6-4 in 2020.
Malzahn inherits a now-veteran quarterback in Dylan Gabriel, who has 21 career starts. Malzahn has recently gotten flack for his inability to develop quarterbacks (there are memes about how bad Bo Nix was outside of Jordan-Hare), so it will be interesting to see if his quarterback troubles continue in Orlando. A few hours ago, former Auburn Tiger and All-SEC defensive end Big Kat Bryant announced he would be joining Malzahn at UCF to use his extra year of NCAA eligibility. Bryant is the third former Auburn player to transfer to UCF this week, following WR Nate Craig-Myers and RB Mark Antony-Richards. Malzahn is off to a good start putting the pieces in place to return the Knights to their 2017 level.
The AAC is on the rise, with Cincinnati consistently in the national conversation and with Tulsa, Memphis, SMU and Houston fielding decent teams in recent years. The Knights bye week is poorly timed, coming after they face triple-option-running Navy instead of before, which is a common preference for opponents of the Midshipmen. Malzahn has a couple of difficult non-conference games on the 2021 schedule as well. If he can get the team to eight regular season wins in his first year, UCF fans should be excited for the future.
STATE OF RECRUITING:
What if I told you that over the last five years, there is one program getting one-third of the top 5 recruits in the state of Florida? You’d probably jump to UF, or maybe you’d think with Diaz at the helm and Miami’s recent recruiting surge that maybe it could be Miami. You’d be very wrong on both.
Alabama is dominating the state of Florida. Here are a couple of terrifying statistics:
Over the last five recruiting classes, there have obviously been 25 top-five recruits from Florida. Eight of those 25 went to Alabama. That is 32%. Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: one-third of the top-five recruits in the state of Florida have gone to Alabama since 2017. That is insane. Jerry Jeudy. Dylan Moses. Patrick Surtain II. Alex Leatherwood. Ever heard of them?
In that same time span, just four top-five Florida recruits have gone to Florida schools, or 16%. If you add Demarkus Bowman, who went to Clemson and left early in the 2020 season and will now enroll in Gainesville, and Tyrique Stevenson, who went to Georgia for two years before transferring to Miami in January, into the mix it becomes six, but that is still only 24% of the top-five talents in the state of Florida enrolling at Florida schools.
Alabama is having more success than Miami, Florida and Florida State combined in their own backyard.
All this being said, Florida teams are starting to show signs of life in recruiting. Manny Diaz was particularly successful this past recruiting cycle, securing two of the top-five recruits in the state in the class of 2021. Florida State has commitments from a five-star and a four-star from Florida in the 2022 class. UF has a couple of low four-star commitments. It’s early, so rest assured Alabama will likely pick up a few from the state, but at least the home-state schools are on the radars of these recruits.
STATE OF THE TRANSFER PORTAL:
Few teams have been more active in the transfer portal than the three Power 5 Florida schools. A few notable players left the state, but several big names are joining rosters in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Miami.
Prior to Arik Gilbert’s decommitment from UF this weekend, the Gators were undeniably the winners of the transfer portal over the last several months.
I have decided to decommit from the university of Florida and re-enter the portal. I will not be announcing my final decision until i am enrolled into school and on campus.— AG2 (@arik_gilbert) February 28, 2021
Despite this setback, UF still has a few big additions. Running back and Florida native Demarkus Bowman left Clemson just a few weeks into his time there and is coming to Gainesville. Penn State transfer Antonio Shelton is expected to start at defensive tackle for the Gators, and Auburn transfer Daquan Newkirk will provide additional depth on the defensive line. They had eight players transfer out of the program, but no one is a particularly huge loss.
Florida State lost 13 players to the transfer portal, including a couple of safeties and a few wide receivers. The Seminoles hope Destyn Hill, a four-star wide receiver that signed with them on National Signing Day in February, will fill in the gap created by the departure of D.J. Matthews, Warren Thompson and Isaiah Bolden. The Seminoles added nine new members to their team as well. Most notable is McKenzie Milton, the former UCF quarterback famous for a gruesome leg injury in 2018. Other additions include DJ Williams from Auburn at running back and linebacker Jermaine Johnson from Georgia. They were both four-star recruits coming out of high school and have had relatively productive college careers.
My morning routine is to wake up, brush my teeth, make coffee, and check to see if N’Kosi Perry and Tate Martell are in or out of the transfer portal. With King in Miami and underclassmen in the mix, Perry and Martell are currently in the portal but have not picked their next destinations. Perry entered the portal in early January, decided to stay in Miami in late January, and re-entered the portal a few weeks ago. Martell is famous for moving around as well. He originally committed to both Washington and Texas A&M, ultimately went to Ohio State, and then transferred to Miami in 2019. The Canes biggest loss to the transfer portal is cornerback Christian Williams who is headed to UCF.
With Gilbert out in Gainesville, Miami likely squeaks by UF in the Sunshine State’s transfer portal standings, having picked up former Oklahoma wide receiver Charleston Rambo, former Georgia cornerback and Homestead native Tyrique Stevenson and former Tennessee linebacker and Miami native Deandre Johnson. Diaz bringing talent back home (albeit a few years later) is huge for the Hurricanes.
STATE OF THE SCHEDULES:
As non-conference schedules continue to grow in importance (at least that’s what ESPN keeps telling me), early season matchups continue to get more interesting. The annual or semi-annual contests provide the rivalry drama as well. Here is a ranking of the 10 most interesting matchups involving at least one Florida school in 2021.
1. Alabama at Florida - Sept. 18
This is going to be fun for incredibly obvious reasons. Based on a look at the Week 3 docket, this will definitely be a contender for a visit from ESPN’s College Gameday. If Florida can find a way to knock off the Tide, it alters the CFP conversation entirely.
2. Florida versus Georgia - Oct. 30 in Jacksonville, FL
If the world’s largest cocktail party is once again the world’s largest cocktail party, all will be right in this world. Per usual, the winner of this game is on a fast track to the SEC Championship game. Georgia returns nine on the offensive side of the ball and may have finally found a quarterback. Will the Florida rebuild be complete enough to put up points on the Georgia defense?
3. Miami at North Carolina - Oct. 16
A battle of conference hype trains. This game may be for first place in the always-exciting ACC Coastal. Sources keep saying that Miami or UNC is coming for Clemson, and the winner of this game will be the beneficiary of that praise for approximately seven weeks before losing by 28 in Charlotte in December.
4. Boise State at UCF - Sept. 2/3/4
With two of the most recognizable teams in the Group of 5, this Labor Day Weekend matchup will likely push the winner into the NY6 conversation early. It will be Gus Malzahn’s debut, and I’m sure he would love to knock off the program that his Auburn successor arrived from.
5. Miami versus Alabama - Sept. 4 in Atlanta, GA
If nothing else, this will be a good barometer for where Miami is. It is intriguing in the sense that you have a veteran offense (assuming D’Eriq King is back) with a new weapon in Charleston Rambo against an Alabama team that will have some new faces on the field. Notice I shied away from saying “a rebuilding Alabama” or “a vulnerable Alabama” because it is Alabama. That being said, if you are going to catch Alabama at any point in the season, this is probably the best time.
6. Miami at Florida State - Nov. 13
I will always hate FSU more than any other team. That hatred is deep, man. I sure as hell don’t like Florida, but it doesn’t come close to distaste for the Noles— Marsh🤟🏽 (@hurricanesmarsh) June 13, 2019
If you’re looking for pure, unadulterated hatred and one of the most thrilling rivalry games in the history of the sport, mark your calendar for the second Saturday in November. The 'Noles get the 'Canes at home, which if Dr. Fauci’s MLB prediction is correct, the game could get a little hostile. If I had to make a prediction, Miami will have something big on the line in this game. I’m sure Florida State would love to play spoiler.
7. Michigan State at Miami - Sept. 18
A couple of Power 5 programs who have seen a little success this millennium. Miami of course began it with one of the best teams in history but has struggled since. From 2010 to 2015 Michigan State won at least 11 games in all but one season and won two outright Big Ten titles. The game may not have the star power of some of the others on this list, but a win for either team would be a nice out-of-conference boost.
8. Notre Dame at Florida State - Sept. 5
The Irish return only 49% of their total production in 2021, tied for 122nd in the country. They are rebuilding their offensive line and their secondary and will have a new quarterback under center with a set of young wide receivers. Similar to Miami opening with Alabama, Florida State definitely wants their shot at Notre Dame before the Irish fully click.
9. Florida at LSU - Oct. 16
I’m watching this game purely to see the commentary on the shoe one year later. Kidding. Sort of. Florida’s questions on offense and LSU’s questions on, well, everything, should be somewhat answered by mid-October. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether or not Arik Gilbert will be participating in this game on either side of the ball, but regardless, new LSU defensive coordinator Daronte Jones will still likely have his hands full.
10. UCF at Louisville - Sept. 17
If UCF can knock off Boise State and a mid-level Power 5 team over the course of two weeks, Malzahn’s squad will be making some noise. This is a Friday night game with no FBS competition, so it will be a chance for the Knights to show off on national television. It’s a shame it’s in Louisville. The Bounce House would’ve been rockin’.