Dec 6, 2011

Florida's Bowling Gutter Ball

What in the world has happened to college football in the state of Florida?  Once upon a time, there were three college football programs in the state that routinely challenged for the national title.  Then there was a boom of secondary programs that made waves and ended up in bowls at the end of the year.  But this year, well, this year is pathetic.
You have just three state schools in a bowl - UF, FSU, and FIU.  But that doesn't fairly represent the situation.  UF ended up 6-6, barely finishing bowl eligible.  They got a New Year's Day bowl bid.  But it was Jacksonville's Gator Bowl - and the possibility of filling the stadium with swarms of local fans combined with the tasty Ohio State matchup (Urban Meyer's former and future teams) was too much to pass up.  FSU is the Champs Bowl in Orlando against Notre Dame (another matchup that looks better due to history than to this year's performance).  And FIU...  Let's be honest no one cares about FIU.  They had the best record of any team in the state.  But I don't know anyone who gives a rip about them.

How did things fall so badly?  How did we get from national championships to barely .500?  This year was even more insulting because hopes started out so high.  FSU was nationally ranked.  UCF was predicted by some to run the table and challenge for a "real bowl" bid.  UF is UF, so they were expected to do well.  There were some promising players that showed flashes of brilliance last year.  You would think they would develop this year into something more special.  BJ Daniels, Jeffrey Godfrey, EJ Manuel.  All three of them seemingly regressed, rather than advanced in their development.  (Godfrey got benched by the end of the year and is now considering transferring, unhappy that he has to compete for the starting job again.)  What went wrong?

Florida is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high school and college football.  I would argue that Florida has the best high school football in the country.  At the very least it is on par with the other big states (Texas, California).  In addition, the colleges here have the reputation to also pull from other states like Georgia and Illinois and Alabama.  There is a consistent pipeline of talent to keep the big colleges full.  However, with the emergence of other schools, that pipeline is now diverted into other rosters.

It used to be that the best players would go to UF, FSU, and UM - with a few of the stars getting pilfered by Michigan State or Ohio State or Georgia.  These were the four and five star high school athletes.  After that class, you had the two and three star guys.  Now, they would also sign with UF, FSU, and UM to be backups.  There was always a chance that there would be an injury to a starter or academic problems.  Or these kids would bulk up and get better with better training and coaching.  So, by their junior and senior year, they would be in line for a starting spot - or at least good playing time.  The general mindset was that it was better to be second or third string at UF than starting at UCF.

As these secondary schools (UCF, USF, FIU, FAU) grew their programs that mindset started to change.  For a kid looking at schools, it wasn't so cut and dry any more.  You didn't have to be a Gator or a Nole to get national exposure.  UCF plays on some ESPN station four times a year.  Thanks to the Conference USA's willingness to play on Thursdays and Fridays, their colleges are on national television for half the season.  As a UCF fan, I was able to watch every one of their games on tv this year.  Four of those games were on Brighthouse Television (since they are the sponsor of the UCF stadium).  But the rest were on ESPN and CBS Sports.  The same goes for USF and FIU and FAU.  They get national exposure.  In addition, USF has crashed the national polls several times in the last few years.  They knocked off some big name teams (FSU, Notre Dame).  They got lots of airplay.  And, all four of those schools have received bowl bids.  (USF was in seven bowls straight before this year.)  The playing field wasn't so different now.

Some of those two and three star athletes started to think differently about that old belief.  It may NOT be better to be a backup at a BCS school.  You started to see guys like Godfrey and Daniels sign at other places than you might have expected.  Daniels was from Tallahassee.  His lifelong goal was to play for FSU.  But there he was as a freshman, knocking FSU off while wearing the Green and Gold of USF.  Daniels was a lock for UM.  They payed some good hookers to make sure of that.  Instead, he went to UCF and started as a freshman.  For those guys, the opportunities were better at a slightly smaller program.  They still would get national exposure, get bowl game experience, have an outside shot at the pros.  And they wouldn't have to wait until their junior year to get it.

So here's where you see the first issue - the dilution of talent.  UF, FSU, and UM don't have a stranglehold on recruiting any more.  The massive talent pool is being spread out to seven schools instead of three.  That obviously is going to affect things.  Sure, the big guys are still getting amazing recruiting classes.  They still are pulling in tons of big name kids.  The problem is that they aren't getting the high quality backups.  My friend Eddie, who is a major Gator fan and understand sports way better than me, once explained the different between UF and UCF baseball to me.  He said that in college baseball, pitching is the key.  UCF's first and second pitchers can match up with the 1/2 guys anywhere in the country.  The problem is that UF's 3-5 guys are also as good as UCF's 1/2 guys.  UCF's 3-5 guys are where the problem comes.  So UCF can win those regular season games against UM and UF because they are 1 vs 1 or 1 vs 5 with pitchers.  But in the playoffs, when the depth matters, UCF always gets drummed out.  (It has proven true every year.)

That same thing can be applied to football.  UCF and the others can always make a go at it when it is starters vs. starters.  You add in the fact that to a team like UCF, playing a BCS team is the biggest game of the season - and to that BCS team, UCF is just a speed bump to the "real" games.  So UCF will be amped up and prepared and the other team won't be.  So in the first half, UCF will stay tight and play hard and may even lead at halftime.  But as the emotional high wears down, and the depth begins to be the more important element, the big name school pulls away.  This happened so many times over the years that I could almost plot out the moments when each step would happen.  I watched UCF "play tough" against Nebraska, Georgia, FSU, Auburn, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and then ultimately lose.  Sure, they would sneak a win out against a big team when they were horrible (like Alabama in 1999).  But those big teams' depth would win out.

Lately, that hasn't happened.  USF doesn't wilt in the second half.  UCF doesn't always let the win slip away.  They beat the big teams more often.  In fact, they have problems winning the games they should win.  USF has no problem knocking off a top 25 team.  It is Rutgers and Cincinnati they can't beat.  UCF loses stupid games to Southern Miss and FIU - after they destroy Boston College.  You also see where UF, FSU, and UM doesn't have the depth they used to have any more.  They still have fabulous NFL-ready starters.  But when an injury happens, the cupboard is bare down the depth chart.  This was UF's big issue this year.  I think they started a ball boy at quarterback one game.  The talent is more distributed.

But there are two other major issues, as I see it.  The first of those kind of mimics what was going on in the NBA a few years ago.  They had so many players jumping straight to the pros from high school that the league was suffering.  These kids have the talent to play in the NBA, but they don't have the strength, the discipline, the full body of skills.  If they would have gone to college, some coach would have developed that stuff.  Or they would have flamed out like so many playground legends before them.  The college level either enhanced what was there or exposed it.  When you took a player like Kwame Brown and threw him right into the pros, he flamed out.  Why?  Well, he probably shouldn't have been there.  If he had gone to college, he would have either gotten more coaching and training and entered the league as a better player.  Or he would have never been drafted because people would have realized he sucked.  (I voted for the second.)  Instead, he got into the league too early, had too many expectations on him, and bombed.  Yes, you are going to have some freaks like LeBron and Dwight Howard and Kobe who can make the jump and immediately be an All-Star at 18.  But you also have a lot of guys like Tyson Chandler and Sebastian Telfair who could have used more development.  And a lot of those players never were the same without that.

I think the same thing is happening with some of these guys like Godfrey and Daniels.  In the old days, they would have gone to FSU and UM and sat the bench for two years.  They would have learned, bulked up, gotten coached.  And then when they got their chance, they would have been ready for it.  Or they never would have because they were actually head cases and the coach realized that.  Instead, they went to a school where they could start right away.  Their insane talent made them successes.  When they made stupid mistakes, it was written off to "they are a true freshman and still learning."  But, in their second year, they still made a lot of stupid mistakes.  Opposing defenses were more prepared for them.  And the weight of expectations made them buckle.  I think with both players they never should have been starting. They weren't ready.  They still thought like a high schooler - improvising, relying on talent and dumb luck.  They never learned it is sometimes better to take a sack or throw it away than try to force something.  So they throw killer interceptions, fumble at the worst time, and get frustrated easily.

The same thing happened at the big schools.  They didn't have as deep of a roster to pull from so they were forced to start players too early.  And their quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs weren't really ready either.  Ten years ago, they wouldn't be playing at all as freshmen.  They would have been red shirted.  They would have rode the bench for two more years.  And then they would have busted out of the gate their junior year with all the frustration that comes from sitting for three years.  Instead, they were forced to play as freshmen and sophomores and weren't quite ready.

The other big issue comes from the turmoil this states has undergone lately.  Look at the coaching situations for the Florida schools in just the past three years:

  • UF - Urban Meyer quits, comes back, quits again.  His top assistants all leave to coach other schools.  Will Muschamp is a rookie coach.  Meyer gets hired by Ohio State.  UF also gets a lot of press for player arrests.
  • FSU - Bobby Bowden is forced out.  Jimbo Fisher comes in with a completely different attitude.  Instead of laid back, FSU, it is a clone of Nick Saban's corporate, prickly, jerkwad programs.  FSU, as usual, is in the news for players being arrested.
  • UM - Randy Shannon is fired.  Al Golden is hired.  (I had to look that up.)  In addition, the schools is wracked with scandal and kept themselves out of a bowl game.
  • UCF - Coaching is somewhat stable.  But the Athletic Director and WR coach are fired for illegal recruiting.  The school is going to face NCAA sanctions as a second time offender (already in trouble for problems just two years ago).  They lose a multi-million dollar case for basically running a player to death.  And the team fluctuates between winning and sucking every year.
  • USF - Founding coach Jim Leavitt is fired for physically assaulting a player.  Plus they are in the Big East, which is as stable as a fault line.
  • FIU - no one cares.
  • FAU - The team never had much traction.  But now, founding coach Howard Schnellenberger retired after the season.
NCAA sanctions, new coaches, conference upheaval.  Sounds like a great place to go to school, right?  Kids aren't stupid.  They will overlook those problems if the future looks bright.  But, for most of these schools, do you think they are the verge of righting the ship?  I have a feeling for all of these (except FIU) that things may get worse before they get better.  UCF is going to get slammed by the NCAA.  If they have another bad season, O'Leary is gone.  UM still hasn't heard the last of hooker-gate.  The Meyer Ohio State hiring may hurt UF with transfers and recruiting leaning up north.  FSU seems like they just can't get it together.  USF is the only school that never had a suitor in the Big East exodus earlier.  In addition, the schools surrounding the state of Florida keep getting stronger.  LSU and Alabama are in the national title game this year.  Georgia seems to be back on track.  Georgia Tech made a run at the conference title this year.  Auburn won the title last year.  If I was coming out of high school and had to pick between a school that may not be allowed to play in a bowl, one with coaching turmoil, or a stable program with national title hopes a few miles north - I would seriously have to consider those other places.  I think this is going to be a tough stretch for Florida college football.  How long that lasts remains to be seen.  For now, though, Florida sports fans will have to get used to being in an unfamiliar place - looking up at the pack.

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