There was a time in the not-so-distant past when college football’s Big Three in the state of Florida took turns either ruling the national landscape or consistently holding top-10 status.
Florida, Florida State and Miami bullied just about everybody. Anyone playing the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes often felt at a competitive disadvantage because the team speed and future NFL talent on their rosters could be overwhelming. They preyed on the opponents’ fear, which is largely why the Big Three combined to win 11 national championships over a 31-year span (1983-2014) and captured 28 conference titles from 1992-2014.
But that kind of dominance remains in cold storage, leaving programs in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Coral Gables wondering how quickly those glory days can be resurrected. Things had gotten so stale at Florida and FSU in 2017 that coaching changes were welcomed. And with Miami only starting to ascend under Mark Richt, it was left to unbeaten UCF to rise up last year and carry the state mantle.
Which leaves this big question entering the 2018 season: can anyone among the Big Three return to elite status, or is UCF and dual threat quarterback McKenzie Milton, a Heisman Trophy candidate, the only realistic hope to bring home a championship?
Not since the 1980s — back when FSU and Miami were independents and UCF was then a floundering Division II program — have the state’s trio of Power 5 conference members all gone four consecutive years without somebody winning a league title or finishing with the best record. But unless the Gators, ‘Noles or ‘Canes hoist a trophy come December, and none of them are favored to pull it off, the dry spell since FSU won the ACC in 2014 will continue.
Since Dan Mullen (Florida) and Willie Taggart (FSU) took over those programs, the usual preseason optimism has permeated from fans at both places. The Gators are expressing confidence Mullen — who tutored Heisman Trophy recipient Tim Tebow when he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as the Mississippi State head coach — can fix a broken offense.
Taggart, too, has won a lot of public relations points during his honeymoon period. One, for showing unbridled passion about the privilege of being the FSU coach, and given the snarky departure of his predecessor, he earned extra points with fans for simply not acting like the entitled Jimbo Fisher.
But winning over a dinner crowd of boosters, or even players welcoming the breath of fresh air Mullen and Taggart are bringing, doesn’t mean much unless accompanied by on-field results. And if UF or FSU think championships or seriously contending for them is going to happen right away, they might need a reality check.
In the last 50 years, do you know how many first-year head coaches have won an SEC or ACC football title? Only one in each league: Gus Malzahn in 2013 at Auburn and Ralph Friedgen in 2001 at Maryland.
Granted, Florida’s Steve Spurrier had the best record in 1990, but the Gators were ineligible for the SEC championship because of a previous NCAA violation. Still, you get the point. It’s hard to become an overnight sensation in any Power 5 league.
For Mullen, that task is made even more difficult because of the remarkable job Kirby Smart has done reviving Georgia. Nobody saw the Bulldogs coming within one play of winning a national title in his second season, and that momentum makes Smart’s team an overwhelming favorite this year in the SEC East. And as long as Nick Saban is coaching Alabama, the road to an SEC conference championship will always have an imposing obstacle.
The ACC roadblock for Taggart’s Seminoles is less of a gauntlet. However, being in the same division with Clemson — not to mention a schedule that includes two back-to-back road dates with Louisville-Miami and North Carolina State-Notre Dame — means a 10-win season might be a stretch in 2018.
Despite three consecutive losses to end last year, Miami looks like the best top-10 bet among the Big Three. But let’s see what happens with the season opener against LSU at Cowboys Stadium, then a potentially cold Nov. 17 date with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, before anointing the “U” as being back.
Truth is, the Big Three remain works in progress, with Miami and promising quarterback Malik Rosier likely being a little further along. For now, the Gators and Seminoles are just enigmas that have enough talent to be dangerous, contingent upon Mullen and Taggart pulling the right strings.
Schools with the recruiting advantages and resources of UF, FSU and Miami shouldn’t all be struggling to regain elite status. College football loses when, by their past standards, this trio is just above-average.
It needs the Big Three to be a big deal again.
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