Florida’s 3 traditional football powers ailing

For those troubled by what’s happening in college football

across the state of Florida right now, Jimbo Fisher offers two

reasons to have hope.

One, Auburn.

Two, Alabama.

Not long ago, the Tigers and Crimson Tide were – by their lofty

standards – bad teams. Alabama finished 2007 absent from The

Associated Press Top 25 poll. Auburn spent much of the 2009 season

outside of the national rankings. Both recovered nicely, of course,

proven by the fact those programs are the last two teams to end the

season hoisting the crystal football that’s presented annually to

the national champion.

”Things happen for a reason,” said Fisher, the Florida State

coach.

Florida, Florida State and Miami would love to know what that

reason is – and how to fix the problem. The so-called ”Big 3” of

Sunshine State football share countless bonds, such as championship

traditions, Heisman Trophy winners, legendary coaches and enough

NFL players to fill a slew of pro rosters.

And now, add mediocrity to that list.

For the first time since Dec. 6, 1982, all are simultaneously

unranked in the AP poll. The Seminoles and Hurricanes have losing

records after five games. The season isn’t half over and all three

are already out of the national championship picture. Florida State

and Miami will need miracles to happen if they’re to have even a

tiny chance of getting back into the Atlantic Coast Conference

race.

After 472 weeks in the rankings, 10 national titles and six

Heisman Trophies in the last three decades, the `Noles, Gators and

`Canes are starting anew.

”This is a surprising turn of events,” said Florida Atlantic

coach Howard Schnellenberger, who started the Sunshine State surge

by coaching Miami to the 1983 national championship and is now in

his final season before retirement. ”The law of gravity, even the

law of statistics, has disallowed this kind of a thing from

happening for a long time. But you can’t go on forever with

something this important.”

The erosion of the state’s hold on college football has been

going on for some time.

Miami’s fifth and last national title was in 2001, and the

Hurricanes haven’t even won an ACC championship yet since joining

that league nearly a decade ago. Florida State last appeared in a

BCS bowl game at the end of the 2005 season – and last won one of

those to conclude the 1999 national-title campaign. Florida has

captured two of the last five national championships, but even

after a 4-0 start this year, the Gators have lost seven times in

their last 15 games overall.

”Everybody loses one day,” Florida running back Chris Rainey

said.

Yes, but those days used to be far less frequent.

For comparison’s sake, the Gators had lost only seven times in

61 games before this current 8-7 run.

”Do I see improvement? Yes,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said

this week, when asked about the state of his team following

consecutive losses to LSU and Alabama, who just happen to be ranked

No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll. ”Is it what we want it to be at

this point? No. Again, I look at the season for an entire season. I

don’t look at one game or two games or whatever. I’ve got to look

at the total body of work and where we are and where we’ve come

from.

”Is it enough? Is it good enough at this point? No,” Muschamp

added. ”But it’s never going to be.”

There is one other obvious common thread at all three schools.

Fisher is in his second season, making him the longest-tenured

coach on the Seminole, Gator or Hurricane sidelines. Muschamp and

Miami’s Al Golden are in Year 1 of their respective jobs.

Even in a state where hundreds of high school players sign

college scholarships annually, winning at the college level isn’t

automatic anymore – especially when programs are in transition

phases. In fairness, all three of the Sunshine State traditional

powers have dealt with wild adversity already this season. Miami

was rocked before the year even began by an NCAA investigation that

still lingers, and the Hurricanes have been decimated by injuries

on defense as well. Florida and Florida State have dealt with

injuries to starting quarterbacks, huge blows to both teams.

”Health, depth, quarterback play, schedule,” Golden said.

”There’s a lot of variables that come into play.”

There’s also more places for players to play now.

Three decades ago, there was no Florida International football

program, no South Florida, no Central Florida, no Florida

Atlantic.

Now they’re gobbling up plenty of talent from all around the

state. And while the balance of power isn’t totally shifting yet,

one could easily argue that the best team in the state is South

Florida, and the best player is FIU’s T.Y. Hilton.

”I would attribute it as much to stability as I would

anything,” South Florida coach Skip Holtz said Tuesday. ”I think

every one of the programs in state has an opportunity to continue

to build to get to that point (back in the Top 25) when the season

is over. I think there are still strong teams, but I just don’t

think we have the same stability we had for all those years.”

The Bulls have three bowl wins since 2007, matching Florida and

Florida State. Florida Atlantic won consecutive bowl games in 2007

and 2008 – the only team in the state to do so over that span. FIU

won its first bowl last year, capping a huge turnaround season for

the Panthers. UCF won its first bowl game in four tries last year.

Miami’s last bowl win came in 2006.

”I don’t know if it has all that much to do with all of us who

are new on the scene here,” said Schnellenberger, who founded

FAU’s program about a decade ago. ”I think the major contest lies

between the three oldest schools here in the state and the best

schools in the country. … The recruiting phase is just a small

part of it. You’ve got coaching changes, you’ve got more

competition.”

So at Florida, Florida State and Miami, there are more

challenges ahead.

”It’s pretty bizarre,” Fisher said when asked about the end of

the 29-year AP poll run for Florida schools. ”I mean, it is. Just

got to play better. We need to play better football.”

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla. contributed to this

story.

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