COLUMN: Florida and FSU Have Never Been This Far Apart
As I write this, I’m currently sitting in the student lounge of the University of Miami Law School. Once a school that swelled with pride about their 'Canes, the campus now feels miles apart, both literally and figuratively, from their football team.
Without the presence of a football stadium to remind everybody what unites them every Saturday, the school feels like a separate entity from a team that just took what some are considering the worst loss in program history last Saturday.
Despite the bad feelings surrounding the program this year, and losses to Florida International and the Gators on the record, there is one thing that Canes fans can take from this season: They stuck it to Florida State.
The Hurricanes drubbed the Seminoles in Tallahassee and showed that no matter how bad things might be, at least they’re not in FSU's shoes. The 'Canes have won three in a row against Florida State, and are starting to show there’s a little distance between the two programs at the moment.
It can’t be easy for FSU fans to watch UM lose to FIU and celebrate the loss, while their program sits in the midst of its second coaching search in three years. It also can’t be easy knowing that the team that just lost to FIU is the same team you lost to three weeks prior, a loss that initiated the Seminoles' latest coaching search.
It may feel like I’m aimlessly ripping FSU just to do it, but this is simply the reality of the situation the Seminoles find themselves in. Willie Taggart, whose dream job was FSU, did such a poor job that he couldn’t make it through his second season as head coach. It was so bad that the program’s boosters raised $20 million to make sure he didn’t get a chance to make it back-to-back seasons without a bowl appearance.
In fact, the two wins under interim coach Odell Haggins that FSU has racked up has left them in a position where they’ve just barely avoided having a bowl-game-play-in to end the season for a second consecutive year.
Now 6-5, FSU is staring up at their schedule and guess who is coming down the pipe? The arch-rival Gators, who hired their coach in the same offseason as FSU, and are well on their way to their second straight 10-win season under Dan Mullen and along with it a second straight New Year’s Six Bowl birth.
It’s really easy to compare the two programs and where they stand today because as I mentioned, they hired their coaches at practically the same time. Whenever coaches at rival schools are hired in the same offseason they are automatically going to be compared to each other for the rest of their careers at those schools.
Sometimes it can be unfair to one or the other because the situations guys go into can often be completely different. However, when you look at it, you would probably argue the comparison, in this case, would’ve been unfair to Mullen.
When Mullen took over the program, the Gators were coming off of their second four-win season in five years, had only one top-10 recruiting class in four years, and had just one top-50 ranked offense within the decade (48th in 2010, Urban Meyer’s last season in Gainesville).
Mullen was tasked with rebuilding a program that hadn’t had an offense since he left, and he had been at Mississippi State for nine years when he returned to Florida. I mean look at these offensive rankings after Mullen left: 10 (Tebow’s last year), 48 (Meyer’s last year), 71, 78, 114, 56, 100, 107 and 109.
It wasn’t all butterflies and rainbows in Tallahassee when Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M, but it’s impossible to argue that it was worse than Florida. Sure the Noles were coming off a 6-5 season where they had to reschedule a game against Delaware State to avoid missing out on a bowl game, but the 2010s were much kinder to FSU than Florida.
The 'Noles could’ve gone winless every year besides 2013 and still had a better decade than Florida off that season alone. The Noles were undefeated National Champions that season, had the second-ranked offense in the country, and quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman and was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft about 15 months later. They also had another undefeated regular season the next season and made the College Football Playoff.
Not to mention FSU absolutely dominated on the recruiting trail under Fisher. From 2010 until the time they hired Taggart, FSU finished outside the Top 10 only one time (11th) and that was one of just two times they finished outside the Top 5 (the other time they finished 6th). In fact, Taggart’s transition class finished three spots (11th) ahead of Mullen’s.
That's a pretty good looking résumé.
Despite what some might say, Jimbo Fisher did not leave FSU in shambles and Taggart was not handed a dead program that needed reviving. Taggart was left a program with signs of collapse that could’ve been saved with the right guy at the helm, but instead went into a state of despair I don’t think anybody could’ve imagined.
Meanwhile in Gainesville, Mullen has taken a once-proud program that had fallen into a lost decade from its darkest times since it became a nationally relevant program to being in, arguably, the most promising position it has ever been in.
Mullen has done all of that in the same amount of time it took Taggart to get fired.
Not only has he brought the program back to the national stage, Mullen has reenergized a fanbase that is very hard to please and left his in-state rivals in the dust.
A win over Florida State on Saturday would give Mullen more wins this season than Taggart had in a season and change at FSU and basically solidify a second straight New Year’s Six bowl, while Taggart never even got to a bowl game in Tallahassee.
The facts will back up Florida leaving Florida State in the dust. In his first full class at Florida, Mullen put together the 9th ranked class in 2019, 10 spots ahead of Taggart’s 19th ranked class, which is the worst-ranked class either school had in the 2010s aside from Jim McElwain’s 20th ranked transition class.
Both coaches came to their schools with promises of turning around their respective offenses (anybody remember “lethal simplicity?) In 2018, Mullen took the Gators from the 109th ranked offense to No. 23 in his first season. FSU went from 72nd to 113th under Taggart.
Now with Saturday’s matchup in The Swamp lurking, the Gators have another chance to show how far apart these programs really are.
It’s hard to believe considering the current state of each program, but the Gators will be looking for their first win in The Swamp and just 3rd win total over the Noles this decade on Saturday.
Despite that, another dominating win will make fans forget about that very quickly and send these two programs into the new decade in two completely different directions.
Let's plot out a hypothetical to really understand how drastically different positions Florida and Florida State can be in, come Sunday morning.
The Gators, if all goes according to plan, will be off to play in one of the most prominent games of the postseason for the second straight year. They’ll have back to back double-digit win seasons and a chance at their first 11 win season since 2012. They’ll also have wins over Miami, Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida State this season.
There’s no doubt they will try and carry that momentum onto the recruiting trail where they will try and lock up their second straight Top 10 recruiting class. With the Gators currently sitting at No. 13, a vast visitors list this weekend, and a big finish expected, finishing in the Top 10 does not seem that tall of a task. The Gators had a similarly strong finish to last season which led a strong finish on the trail.
The future won’t look quite as bright in Tallahassee with a loss on Saturday.
They will be returning to a bowl game this year, but the Seminoles' record over the last two seasons would sit at 11-13, including an 0-6 record against rivals Miami, Clemson, and Florida. FSU will also have to turn their attention quickly to putting a class together, one that is currently ranked 18th without any momentum to speak of going into the offseason.
Then, of course, there’s the coaching search. There’s a good chance that FSU won’t have a coach come Sunday morning and their self imposed deadline to hire a new one is looming large right now. FSU themselves said they would like to hire a coach by the end of the month and Saturday is the 30th.
Their search for a new coach is another aspect of the program that lacks a ton of momentum right now.
It has been rumored that big names such as James Franklin (Penn State), both Mark (Kentucky) and Bob Stoops, and Matt Rhule (Baylor) have already turned down or ruled themselves of the running for the job. PJ Fleck signed a seven-year extension at Minnesota shortly after his name surfaced as a candidate, which suggests he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Now names such as FAU’s Lane Kiffin and Indiana’s Tom Allen are rumored to be next in line as candidates FSU is keeping an eye on.
If FSU is really committed to having a coach by their deadline, it seems likely that Haggins will be the guy just based on the time crunch.
Early Signing Day is 19 days after the Florida-Florida State game and we’re not sure how long after that game FSU will have a head coach by. With ESD quickly becoming the prominent signing day in the recruiting cycle, it’s almost like your class has to be put together by then in order to finish where you want to.
Based on that, FSU will have 19 days to find a coach, get him into the program, put some semblance of a class together, and prepare for a bowl game just a couple weeks after. That's almost unfair.
The Gators are 18-point favorites over Florida State, and it might come with good reason. The Gators trounced the Seminoles by 27 in Doak last year and there’s serious reason to believe these teams are even farther apart now than they were this weekend last year.
Many thought it would be hard for these programs to ever have more distance between them than in 2013 when FSU won the National Championship and Florida went 4-8, but it’s possible that somehow they already are, just six years later.
A big win on Saturday will launch the Gators forward another step on their road back to being among College Football’s elite, and send FSU into another offseason of turmoil and uncertainty.
There is no doubt that this game could show us that these rivals are farther apart than they have ever been.