Could Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss signal the end of the “Golden Age” of Florida football? And not just the University of Florida but at Florida State as well? This season it appears there’s Miami and then there’s everybody else. Florida and FSU, perennial contenders for the state championship and therefore the national championship, appear a step or two behind the Hurricanes.
Mississippi was a gimmie for the Gators every time they played them. Louisville would have been a blip on the radar screen for the Seminoles. But times have changed. Eli Manning can choose Ole Miss and think he’s going to have enough players around him to be successful. Louisville is emerging, like Central Florida, South Florida, Marshall and others, siphoning off talent that would have been headed to the big schools looking for a chance, just a chance to play.
FSU has been able to reload for the last 10 years, adding the missing pieces to an already strong core. Every year they contend for the National Championship, and have gotten the benefit of the doubt in the polls, allowing them to play for the title it seems almost every year. But the ‘Noles have come to earth with the rest of the teams in Division I. Bobby Bowden’s heyday seems to be behind him. You might have your pick of the best players across the country, but the second best isn’t coming to your school anymore to sit on the bench or have a chance to play in the future. If the top quarterback is going to Tallahassee, the next guy, maybe Dave Ragone, is going somewhere, like Louisville, where he can play. Florida’s dominance in the SEC has ended. Every team the Gators have played this year in the conference thinks they can beat Florida. Tennessee gave it away, Kentucky gave Florida a run at home, and Ole Miss finished the job. The mystique is gone.
The 85-scholarship rule is in effect and is causing the top teams to have the same depth problems they have everywhere else. School presidents and athletic directors were looking for a way to limit the expenses in major college football, and along with it they’ve brought parity to the game, much like the NFL.
Florida benefited from the Spurrier aura in recruiting, and in game-day play, but even Steve couldn’t fight the coming restrictions on what players he’d be able to get and keep. Early departures have kept teams from being dominant, and have allowed freshman to have an immediate impact. The Gators don’t have the same swagger they’ve had in the past, but they don’t have the same talent either.
Miami is the current exception. They promoted from within for a head coach to keep some continuity and they’ve been able to create their own culture on their football team. Big time High School players from the Miami area, and there are plenty of them, want to stay home and play for the ‘Canes. Any kid in the state of Florida who is attracted to the bright lights and big city atmosphere is thinking about Miami. The Hurricanes are plucking the top quarterbacks from around the country to direct the offense, and don’t look to slow down anytime soon.
Recruiting against the three teams in the state used to be very difficult. You couldn’t say much about the other schools that would deter a player from going there. But now, the whispers about Bobby Bowden’s effectiveness and impending retirement seem to carry more weight. Without Spurrier running the offense, there’s more validity to negative recruiting against the Gators. There’s no reason the Gators and Seminoles won’t be top-flight competitors, but the Golden Age is over.