For almost 40 years, the pulse of college football could be taken in Florida. The state won 11 national titles from 1983 to 2013. The history of college football cannot be written without the Florida Gators, Florida State Seminoles and Miami Hurricanes, without coaches like Steve Spurrier, Bobby Bowden and Dennis Erickson or players like Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders and Sean Taylor. But as college football’s sesquicentennial gets under way this weekend with a prime-time matchup between No. 8 Florida and Miami, Florida’s trio of powerhouses is mired in its worst stretch of football since the schools broke onto the scene in the 1980s.
“Things can change quickly in football, in both directions, as we’ve seen,” new Miami head coach Manny Diaz said during his introductory press conference.
Much has changed in the Sunshine State since injured New York Mets minor leaguer Tim Tebow led Florida to one national title and played as a backup for another in just three seasons, since Florida State became the first program to go 14 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins and since Miami fielded rosters featuring future Pro Bowlers playing second- and third-string. With Alabama and Clemson perennially squaring off for national titles, and the gulf constantly widening between the sport’s elites and everyone else, the state of Florida has been on the outside looking in over the past few years.
For one thing, Florida’s non-Power Five programs have elevated their status. Scott Frost turned winless Central Florida into an undefeated juggernaut self-recognized as a national champion after the 2017 season, then Josh Heupel guided the Knights to a 12-1 record in his first year at the helm. With Lane Kiffin running the show, Florida Atlantic has gone 16-10 over the past two seasons. South Florida was relevant before Charlie Strong arrived, but the Bulls have finished each of his seasons with a winning record.
But the breadwinners have also fallen by the wayside. Miami was never a stay-for-long locale for coaches and was frequently used as a launching pad — Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Butch Davis — to vault into the professional ranks. But the Hurricanes have hired four head coaches since 2006 after having just three run the show from 1979 to 1994. Florida, meanwhile, has hired three head coaches since Urban Meyer left in 2010. Coaching turnover, then, mirrors what the win-loss totals suggest: lackluster performance. Florida’s holy triumvirate went a combined 22-16 in 2018, with the Seminoles missing bowl season for the first time in 36 years. According to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, Florida State was 1.67 points worse than average a season ago — the first instance of one of the three teams being worse than average since 2007 and just the second since 1997.
To quantify the state’s downturn, we sought out the help of FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, which measure the strength of each program over time. In an effort to avoid outliers skewing the data, we took the harmonic mean of the season-ending Elo of Florida’s Big 3 by year. Since the 1980 season, the eight worst marks have come in the past 12 years. Last season’s harmonic mean of 1689 was the fourth-worst mark, although it was an improvement over 2017, which was the third-worst.
Traditionally, success hasn’t been much of a problem for these programs that can recruit locally from the football-rich state. Football factories like IMG Academy in Bradenton and St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale are churning out blue-chip talent each year. But as competition for recruits has thickened, the preeminent powers have fallen from the highest tier.
Perhaps that changes this season. But as Bowden put it, “I know one thing: It’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.”