Ask any college football follower to name Florida’s blueblood programs and three schools come to mind immediately: Florida, Florida State and Miami.
And while that history does not change, the landscape of college football in the state surely has.
Central Florida is the only state program to place in the Top 25 in the final AP poll the last two years. The Knights were No. 6 in 2017 — the highest final ranking for a state school since Florida State was No. 5 in 2014 — and No. 11 following last season.
Miami and Florida? You have to go back 16 years to find the last time the Hurricanes were a Top 6 school and a decade for the Gators.
Yet UCF — typically forced to take Florida’s, FSU’s and Miami’s recruiting scraps — is the only program to average double-digit wins and play in a New Year’s Six Bowl each of the last two years.
While the Knights have been, unquestionably, the most consistent team in the state the last two years, Florida rebounded in a big way in 2018, passing them in the final poll with a No. 7 ranking.
Now, in less than two weeks, Florida and Miami open college football’s 150th season with a made-for-TV matchup in Orlando. The Gators and Hurricanes were chosen because it is a heated rivalry between two historic programs made even more intense because they meet so infrequently. The game also highlights the state’s rich tradition that includes 10 national titles (sorry, UCF, 2017 not included) and eight Heisman Trophy winners.
But that tradition has taken a hit in recent years when it comes to the three most visible programs. Florida State and Florida each have had a losing season in the last two years and Miami has dropped off a cliff since winning its first 10 games in 2017.
Meanwhile all three believe they have reason for optimism in 2019 while Central Florida chugs along.
Here is a look where each of the seven FBS programs in the state stand in my order of best to worst for 2019
Dan Mullen’s first year certainly exceeded expectations. Coming off a 4-7 season, Florida was 10-3 and took momentum into the offseason with resounding wins over Florida State and Michigan.
Now, expectations are heightened once again. But could they be too high considering the Gators were not world beaters for much of last year and as late as the final month of the regular season were embarrassed in back-to-back games by Georgia and Missouri?
The Gators will start the season as the highest ranked team in the state – they are No. 8 in the coaches poll – and have a ton of pressure on them to soundly beat Miami. The season will be defined by a four-game stretch starting early October that includes Auburn, at LSU, at South Carolina and Georgia.
Regular season prediction: 9-3.
Josh Heupel stepped into a difficult spot following Scott Frost, who won his final 13 games (all in 2017) in Orlando, including a statement victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. So, what did Heupel do? He followed that with another undefeated regular season, giving UCF fans more reason to play the disrespect card when it came to the rankings and playoff committee before all that talk was silenced with the program’s first loss in more than two years, to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
Having handled the devastating loss of QB McKenzie Milton, UCF received another blow at the position when Darriel Mack broke his ankle last month. The Knights now turn to Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush to lead a talented group of playmakers.
UCF is 17th in the coaches poll and will finish somewhere in the top 20 and play in a New Year’s Six Bowl for a third straight year.
Regular season prediction: 10-2
The Hurricanes won the offseason, thanks to Manny Diaz’s social media skills and his ability to navigate the transfer portal. The fan base, beaten down for more than a decade by an underachieving, uninspiring program, has been energized.
And now Miami has a new quarterback to go along with its new coach. But is Jarren Williams truly the answer or is he a stopgap until Diaz brings in his guy?
No matter who’s the quarterback, Miami still has major issues on offense starting with the line. But the Hurricanes can rely on a championship-caliber defense and a schedule that is as soft as any Power 5 team.
Regular season prediction: 8-4
The Seminoles had to dust off the record books in Willie Taggart’s first year in Tallahassee, for all the wrong reasons. First losing record in 42 years. First time missing a bowl in 37 years. It goes on and on.
Taggart and his players insist 2018 is behind them. But it will linger if improvement does not come quickly, meaning in Game 1 against Boise State.
FSU had issues on both sides of the ball. The offense was a train wreck and the defense was way below the standards set the previous eight years. Yes, the Seminoles need former Glades Central standout James Blackman to bring stability to the quarterback position, but more importantly, the defense must stop somebody.
Regular season prediction: 7-5.
Butch Davis has done the best job coaching in the state the last two years. He took over a program coming off a 4-8 season and five straight years with a losing record and has won 17 games, including nine a year ago, the most in program history.
The Panthers are in position to win their first Conference USA title. The offense set school records for points and yards a year ago and should surpass those with QB James Morgan and a slew of playmakers returning.
Regular season prediction: 8-4
The Bulls took a step back in coach Charlie Strong’s second year, but it took half the season to implode. USF appeared to be building off a stellar 2017 season (10-2, 21st in the final AP poll) by winning its first seven games in 2018. But a stunning six-game losing streak to end the season ended all the optimism.
Strong hired former Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell to fix the offense. Bell has nine returning starters on offense to work with, including quarterback Blake Barnett.
Regular season prediction: 7-5
Lane Kiffin must prove that going 11-3 in his first season in Boca Raton wasn’t a fluke because it sure appeared that way in Year 2 as the Owls win total dipped by six games (5-7).
Kiffin points to turnovers — both ways — and situational offense and defense. But the root of the issues may have been a group of players who were basking in the greatest season in program history and lost their edge.
Now, Kiffin must refocus his program and do it without two running backs who were taken in the NFL draft, including record-breaking Devin Singletary.
Regular season prediction: 7-5