“Hey River City Rogue, there are other teams in Florida besides Florida and Florida State!” Hey, you’re absolutely right, stranger! Don’t know anything about the other FBS schools in the Sunshine State? Here’s some background information so you can impress your friends.
University of Central Florida Knights:
UCF had a rough year last year, going 6-7 and finishing 3rd in the weak AAC East Division. Led by first year head coach Scott Frost, the Knights struggled to find an offensive identity and lost a couple of close ones they probably should have won (Maryland in 2OT, Temple). Regardless, they went winless the year before so this is a step up for sure.
This season should be a success. They should win four out of their first five games – FIU, Memphis, Georgia Tech, at Maryland, and Maine – so I don’t see why they couldn’t win a couple more to become bowl eligible. The biggest game of the season for them will be the season finale against South Florida. Bowl eligibility should be already secured at this point, but they should at least compete with their rivals on I-4.
Key Player: WR Tre’Quan Smith. A literal ball magnet, look for Smith to put up big numbers this season as a true #1 target.
Florida International University Panthers:
The Panthers went 4-8 last season and finished 4th in the Conference USA East Division. A team that struggled to really command a ball game (except for maybe against Marshall) looks to change their ways as veteran coach Butch Davis comes to town to try and shake things up. On paper, FIU looks to have a solid season ahead of them. A new but experienced coach, a veteran roster (15 returning starters), and a very good recruiting class makes everything seem like it is moving in an upward direction. However, if their offensive line does not improve, it will be tough to see them flourish. Look for them to try and sneak into a lower-tier bowl if they can get a big win against Florida Atlantic on the road or WKU at home.
Key Player: RB Alex Gardner. A dual-threat out of the backfield that rushed for almost 1,000 yards last year and caught 30 passes out of the backfield.
Florida Atlantic University Owls:
Finishing last in the Conference USA standings, the Owls were looking to make some changes. Boy, did they ever! Lane Kiffin and friends come rolling into town bringing a new atmosphere to the senior-citizen filled Boca Raton.
FAU is determined to not go 3-9 four seasons in a row. Kiffin should be able to do this easily with 14 starters returning and a talented QB that is ready to make news on the field instead of off the field. That’s right, Last Chance U and former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson is ready to show the nation that he is being overlooked. As long as the new coaches, transfers, and returning players are able to mesh together, this team could find themselves not only better than 3-9 but marching their way to a bowl game.
Key Player: QB De’Andre Johnson. Watch Last Chance U Season 2 for my reasoning for this.
University of Miami Hurricanes:
A disappointing 3rd place in the ACC Coastal division left a sour taste in UM’s mouth last season. Four consecutive losses in October last year forced Miami into the Russel Athletic Bowl where they showed their disapproval with their commanding 31-14 win over West Virginia.
That raises the new question – is this the year that Miami wins the Coastal? If Brad Kaaya had stayed, it would be an easy yes for me. Along with RB Mark Walton and one of the best defenses in the conference, it would be no question. But that is not the case. Malik Rosier is a good dual-threat QB and N’Kosi Perry is considered an elite talent, but neither of these guys have the experience that Kaaya would have brought back. Regardless, Miami should be a force to be reckoned with. Their toughest game will be traveling to Tallahassee to face the Noles the third week of the season. If they happen to lose that game, they will have plenty of time to make up ground to establish a good ranking and get to a solid bowl game.
Key Player: WR Ahmmon Richards. Only a sophomore, Richards will be the star of the offense with the loss of David Njoku and Stacey Coley.
University of South Florida Bulls:
The Bulls had their best season ever last year, finishing 11-2, second in the AAC East behind 10-4 Temple, a team they lost to on the road. Their only other loss was against Florida State. With that kind of season, you had to believe Willie Taggart might be nabbed by a bigger program. Sure enough, Oregon hired him right before USF’s bowl game against South Carolina, where they neat the Gamecocks 46-39 in overtime. In comes Charlie Strong. Strong was fired from Texas after three seasons but is looking to keep the winning tradition in Tampa intact.
Led by senior QB Quinton Flowers, USF should be favored to win every game this season (They’re 1-0, they’re on their way!). The biggest area of improvement needed is the defense, which gave up an average of 31.6 points per game last year. Insane question of the day: if USF finished unbeaten, could they challenge for a playoff berth?
Key Player: P Jonathan Hernandez. Call me crazy for picking a punter. However, Hernandez established himself as a threat last season with 13 punts over 50 yards and leading the league with just an 11.8 yard average on returns. If the defense struggles, the strong leg of Hernandez will be crucial to pin opponents deep in their own territory.
I wanted to end on a fun fact: Each of these teams have a coach that has not been with their respective programs over 2 seasons; UCF’s Scott Frost (2nd year), FIU’s Butch Davis (1st year), FAU’s Lane Kiffin (1st year), UM’s Mark Richt (2nd year), and USF’s Charlie Strong (1st year).