The New Landscape of College Football in the Sunshine State

In the last twelve months and change there has been a mass exodus of head coaches in the state of Florida. As a result there is a new beginning for the landscape of college football in the state. Of the seven major college football programs in Florida, five of them have fired and hired a new head coach in that time.

Following Mark Richt’s firing at Georgia last year, the Miami Hurricanes jumped at the chance to bring Richt back to Coral Gables after a head coaching run with the Bulldogs that spanned 15 seasons and nearly 200 wins. Richt, who played football at Miami from 1978 to 1982 under legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger, returned to the University of Miami 33 years later. His new role as a hands-on head coach and offensive play caller at Miami has seemingly rejuvenated the 56-year-old head coach. Miami won eight of its first 12 games under Richt and is headed to the Russell Athletic Bowl on December 28th to take on a talented West Virginia team. In just Richt’s first year at Miami, he has brought life to a program that has failed to win 10 games in a season since 2003.

Less than a year after bringing Richt back to Miami, the Hurricane’s little brothers across town, Florida International, made an even bolder move. On November 14th Butch Davis confirmed that he would be the new coach of the Panthers. Yes, the same Butch Davis that coached the Miami Hurricanes in the mid to late 1990s. The same guy that won 51 games in six seasons as the head coach at University of Miami and coached and recruited some of the most talented football players to ever step on a field, including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. The same guy who has left under uncertain terms at both major universities where he’s been the head coach. A gutsy move by a school that clearly is looking to take its football program to the next level. And they might just have found the perfect guy to do it. Davis is intimately familiar with recruiting the south, especially south Florida, one of the biggest recruiting hot beds in the entire country.

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Can Butch find success again in the fertile Miami area?

Just 200 miles northwest, the University of South Florida Bulls pulled off a blockbuster move of their own. They hired another coach who is highly skilled at recruiting in the south, bringing in Charlie Strong, who less than three years ago was the hottest young head coach in all of college football following two seasons in which he won 11 and 12 games at Louisville. Strong made his name in college football when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida from 2003 – 2009 where he helped guide the Gators to two national titles and recruited some of the top players in the southeast. Strong was hired by the University of Texas in 2014, and almost from the start it was clear that Strong was not a fit in Texas. He struggled adjusting to a new environment that was way, way outside of his comfort zone. But now, back in the state of Florida, Strong is right where he belongs — in the southeast, the place where he cut his teeth and became the coach he is today. USF has had some success in the last two years under Willie Taggart, who is now the head coach at Oregon. If Strong can build on the momentum established by Taggart, USF will have a real shot to make noise in the state.

If you head northeast from USF, in less than 90 miles you will run into the University of Central Florida, who has an Oregon connection of their own. First year head coach Scott Frost was the offensive coordinator at Oregon from 2013-2015 and called plays for Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks team that made it all the way to the National Championship in 2014. Less than four years ago UCF was riding high on the arm of Blake Bortles, who in his last two years as a Knight won 22 games including a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor in his last game. After Bortles left for the NFL draft, things went down hill quickly for UCF’s football program, and in just the second year following his departure from Central Florida the Knights failed to win a game, going 0-12 in 2015. That is when they decided a big move needed to be made. So they hired one of the men behind the high octane Oregon offense and in his first year at UCF Scott Frost went 6-6 in the regular season and has his club back in a bowl game just a year after the worst season in school history. Frost did a quiet, yet incredibly impressive job turning around this program in just a year as head coach. Good things appear to be ahead for UCF.

Finally, and perhaps the most surprising of all the additions to the head coaching club in the state, is Lane Kiffin. Kiffin, who accepted the job at Florida Atlantic University less than a week ago, is certainly one of the most polarizing figures in all of college football. In his most recent job, Kiffin had unprecedented success as the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama, changing the way Alabama played offense and helping them to to a National Championship in 2015. Kiffin has had a rocky road to say the least. He has been hired to several marquee jobs, including serving as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers, and USC Trojans. Kiffin did not last more than four years at any of his head coaching stints and is believed to have worn out his welcome at each stop. While he had incredible success at Alabama, it is rumored that he and legendary head coach Nick Saban clashed. Kiffin is known to be one of the top offensive minds in all of college football and if he truly has matured as a coach, he could take the FAU Owls to heights they have never reached before.

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Years ago, these two were a match made in…something.

While Miami, Florida International, USF, UCF, and Florida Atlantic all have hired new coaches in the last year, it is more of the same for the two powers atop the state.

The University of Florida Gators are at the end of their second season with Jim McElwain steering the ship. All McElwain has done since becoming the head coach for the Gators is win 18 games and two SEC East titles, but while McElwain has won a lot in his first two seasons, the narrative on him is about what he has not done. The Gators have not beaten Florida State since Mac got there, they have not been competitive in the SEC Championship Game, they have not established any sort of offensive rhythm, and they have not recruited as well as Gator fans have come to expect. They have also limped to the finish the last two seasons. The Gators lost their final four games in 2015, and lost two straight to end the 2016 regular season. Florida needs to beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl to reestablish the confidence of the fan base and regain some momentum heading into an important stretch in the recruiting game.

Jimbo Fisher has Florida State University in prime position at the moment, as they just finished their first regular season with freshman QB DeAndre Francois at the helm, who is widely believed to be one of the best and toughest young quarterbacks in college football. Since Jimbo became the head coach at FSU seven years ago, all the Noles have done is won a National Title, beaten the Gators and Hurricanes in 13 out of 14 tries, and won 77 games with a .819 win percentage. Florida State is still THE program in the state of Florida.

It appears that the Seminoles and Gators are still the class of football in the Sunshine State, but with the mass influx of coaching talent to Florida programs in the last year, their reign of supremacy may be coming to an end. Miami will not get its first shot to show the Gators who the second best team in the state is until the beginning of the 2019 season when the two teams face off in Orlando.

For Florida State, it is about continuing its dominance and holding onto Jimbo Fisher, who is seemingly linked to a new job on a semi annual basis. For Florida, it is about finding a way to play some decent offense and continuing the strong defensive play. For Miami, it is all about getting back to respectability.

But for FAU, USF, UCF, and FIU, the big name coaching hires represent a new hope that maybe, just maybe, one day they can compete with the big boys.

Good leadership and coaching is vital for any sports club to have success, but in college football, perhaps more than any other sport, the head coach is what defines success. The head coach is the face, the top recruiter, and the most important football mind in any college football program. Each of these seven football programs in the state have seemingly found a head coach that can lead their team in the right direction.

This new landscape of college football in the state of Florida is sure to provide headlines and lots of memorable moments, but will it bring success to those who have been beaten down in years past?

Only time will tell.