There is no more fascinating state than Florida to watch every college football season, if only because its programs often seem like the summer weather report: unpredictable, sometimes wacky and frequently unable to avoid making headlines.
We are talking about a state where Lane Kiffin stands with Butch Davis and Charlie Strong as the longest-tenured coaches — with a whopping three years under their belts.
We are talking about a state that has had three different schools finish as the highest-ranked Florida rep in as many years.
We are talking about a state where upstart UCF has won more games than Florida, Florida State and Miami over the past two seasons, a state where Florida State failed to make a bowl game for the first time since the 1970s and Miami saw head coach Mark Richt resign after an embarrassing bowl performance in late December.
Headed into the season, the Gators appear to be the new front-runner for state supremacy. “Now we’re back at No. 1 in the state pecking order?” second-year Florida coach Dan Mullen says with a laugh. “It didn’t take long, but we’re the University of Florida. We should always be No. 1 in the pecking order in my mind.”
That could be a careful-what-you-wish-for proposition, at least headed into the 2019 season. One year ago, Miami was the front-runner and promptly went 7-6. The year before, the Seminoles were a preseason choice to make the College Football Playoff. They went 7-6.
It just so happens Florida and Miami open the season in Orlando on Aug. 24, giving us the perfect gauge for where one program with outsized expectations stands against another program with outsized expectations, all while jockeying for the same recruits in a state brimming with prospects.
As it stands today, Florida (No. 5), Miami (No. 6) and Florida State (No. 7) all sit next to each other in the most up-to-date recruiting rankings, adding yet another level of intrigue in the race to win another national championship before their in-state rivals (UCF 2017 notwithstanding, of course).
“You build the program and you build the team,” Mullen says. “I expect the program to get back to where it was when we won two out of three national championships. Those individual teams had to do it, but the program gives you the opportunity. Is the program there yet? We’re building toward it. Is this year’s team a championship team? I don’t know. There’s a lot of time to find out if we are.”
Not many expected Florida to return to the top 10 as quickly as it did a year ago, and watching spring practice unfold only fed into the growing hype. Feleipe Franks appears to have turned the corner, and the Gators return nearly every significant contributor on offense.
But the offseason has been far from smooth. Freshman quarterback Jalon Jones was accused of sexual battery by two women in April, although they declined to press charges. He has since left the program. Gators defensive back Brian Edwards was arrested and charged with battery in May. There was also the highly publicized transfer of Chris Steele, an ESPN 300 cornerback and early enrollee. Mullen came across as tone-deaf when he defended the way he has handled the incidents, saying at a booster tour stop in Tampa earlier this month it’s hard to say he has a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence when he has given out second chances in the past.
Florida has been through this before, most notably when Urban Meyer was head coach and Mullen served as an assistant. The climate is much different today than it was in 2008, and there is far more scrutiny on coaches when they do give out second chances — even if Mullen keeps winning.
What Mullen did in Year 1 may have come as a surprise, considering he and Florida State coach Willie Taggart entered similar situations as first-year head coaches trying to reestablish programs that had struggled the previous season. On the surface, it appeared Taggart inherited a slightly better situation, if only because Florida State was not that far removed from its last national championship (2013, compared to 2008 for Florida) and had consistently out-recruited the Gators under former coach Jimbo Fisher.
Preseason rankings bore that assumption out, as Florida State began the season in the top 25, and Florida did not. Neither team started the season well, but as the year progressed, Florida improved while the Seminoles regressed. Their opposite trajectories played out in the regular-season finale in Tallahassee, when the Gators crushed Florida State 41-14, breaking a five-year losing streak in the series.
During an unseasonably cool day in the spring, Taggart sat in his office and recounted how his first year went so wrong. Although he smiled big and talked optimistically last August, Taggart knew he had issues across his football team — with both players and a coaching staff that did not necessarily see eye to eye.
“It was almost like hide and go seek around here trying to get players to come up,” Taggart says now. “The biggest issue here hasn’t been talent; it’s the team chemistry. When you’re together as a team you find ways to fight through things, and we weren’t there. Think back to last year. You’ve got a new coach, things don’t go the way it’s supposed to and I know human nature — you’ve got older guys saying, ‘Man, this is my last year,’ and then you start questioning how things are going.”
He had a locker room in disarray by the time the Florida game came around, and that felt obvious after the Seminoles piled up 10 penalties. Discontent in Tallahassee rose so quickly, some started to wonder whether Taggart was already on the hot seat after a 5-7 season — the first losing year at Florida State since 1976.
That season prompted plenty of soul-searching, but also a need to revamp his offensive coaching staff. Taggart relinquished playcalling duties last season, and decided he needed an offensive coordinator better equipped to call plays. His offense was largely based off what he learned from a visit to Baylor while he was head coach at USF, so he decided to go after Kendal Briles to join his staff.
Taggart knew it was a risk from a public relations standpoint. Briles’ father, Art, was fired by Baylor in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that included multiple accusations against members of the football team. He remains a lightning rod, and both the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League and Southern Miss expressed interest in hiring him as an assistant coach before reversing course. He was announced as the new head coach at Mount Vernon High School in Texas on Friday night, a decision met with national backlash. Kendal Briles served on that Baylor staff, then went on to coach at Florida Atlantic and Houston before joining Taggart at Florida State.
Kendal Briles has not been made available for comment, but Taggart says, “I couldn’t think of a better fit to be here from a football standpoint and where we wanted to go with our offense than Kendal. Understanding that there will be backlash, I knew if we did our homework and did our part, that’s the world we live in and people are going to have something to say. It’s all the backlash from his dad. It wasn’t Kendal, but we did our due diligence and felt comfortable about it and made a decision.”
Taggart noted the difference in the way his offense performed this spring, including progress on the offensive line.
Florida, on the other hand, made major progress with its offense — most especially Franks, the quarterback. In this area, the Gators appear to have a major advantage over Florida State and Miami — a statement that would have sounded outlandish at this time a year ago.
If new coach Manny Diaz can get improvement at quarterback, the Hurricanes will be in vastly different shape. But there is something else Diaz noticed about the way Florida played in Year 1 under Mullen, and it is exactly what he wants to see out of the Hurricanes this year.
“From afar, what it looks like to me is Dan Mullen went in there and gave the team a backbone,” Diaz says. “I don’t know what their record is but they’re at Vanderbilt, and they’re down 21-3 in the first half against Vanderbilt, and the season could have gone either way, and they found a way to win. We were 5-1 that day and we were at Virginia. So we’re watching that game during the day and we go play Virginia at night, but we didn’t have enough to go claw our way out of that. You’re not always going to play your best, but if you have a backbone, you’ll be competitive and have a chance to get in the game. You could make the argument our seasons went in different directions from that day.
“We remind our players all the time they had a 12-month head start on us.”
In explaining the way Miami went from preseason top 10 to a humiliating 35-3 loss to Wisconsin in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Diaz says, “Somewhere along the line, the team lost its spirit. The first thing you have to do is build a team that competes, build a team that’s got resiliency. If you do those things, your schematic stuff has a chance. That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on, getting a backbone, callusing ourselves up so we don’t ever look like that again.”
Diaz has spent the entire offseason trying to rejuvenate the excitement around the program, using social media to garner publicity and even a bit of South Florida itself to sell the program — showing up at one booster event on an 88-foot yacht. He and his staff even crashed a Nike coaches clinic in Orlando to try to generate some buzz among the high school coaches in state.
Whatever the coaches are saying is working on the recruiting trail, considering where each stands in the rankings. But finishing with top classes is not exactly out of the ordinary. Translating those recruiting successes to College Football Playoff appearances and then national championships is what is expected, and the further those schools get from their glory days, the more questions will persist. Just ask Diaz and the Hurricanes, the furthest removed from their championship heyday.
“There’s a standard at this school and an expectation of how we should perform,” Diaz says. “Seventeen months ago, we were No. 2 in the country and we were building something here. Last year we got off track. I don’t know how good we could have been a year ago, but I know we were better than what we played like. That’s the goal, to get it looking the way it’s supposed to look again.”
All across Florida, that’s the goal.