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August 28, 2007
Balance of power in Florida is always shifting
Most of the players on the Florida State and Miami rosters this season grew up during an era in which the teams they would eventually play for dominated the national landscape.
Florida State put together a record string of 14 consecutive top-five finishes in the Associated Press poll from 1987-2000. The Seminoles produced two Heisman Trophy winners, won a pair of national titles and played for the national championship on three other occasions.
Miami won five national championships and produced two Heisman Trophy recipients from 1983-2002. The Hurricanes played for the national title five more times during that remarkable run.
But the worm has turned in the Sunshine State. More appropriately, it has been eaten by a Gator.
"My sister went to Florida. She's got a lot of friends from Florida still, and you know how Florida fans are in general," Miami offensive lineman Derrick Morse said. "They just talk. Starting this season, they can stop talking about their national championship, and we can start working toward ours."
If only it were that simple.
Florida fans have never entered a season with more reason to brag about their Sunshine State superiority.
The Gators won their second national title in school history last year while Miami and Florida State struggled through 7-6 seasons and overhauled their coaching staffs. Florida followed up its 2006 success by signing the nation's top recruiting class.
How did this turnabout occur? How did the Gators rise from the Swamp while the Seminoles and Hurricanes wound up mired in the muck?
"Have you ever seen anybody reach the top and stay there forever?" Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "No. It doesn't happen."
Bowden coached Florida State during its glory years of the 1990s when it seemed as though the Seminoles would remain in national title contention for all eternity. But the Seminoles eventually lost their status as the elite program in the state and nation. Now they've seen their rivals inherit the throne.
Bowden figures it eventually will come full circle.
"I think for the next 20 to 25 years, you're going to see Florida, Florida State and Miami rotate as the top dog," Bowden said. "The reason is all our programs are pretty doggone good, and it's hard to maintain. It's easier to get there than it is to stay there."
The Gators learned that hard lesson before Florida State and Miami faced their reality checks.
Florida won the 1996 national title and appeared in the top 10 of the final AP poll every year from 1991-98, but the Gators finished higher than 10th just once over the next seven seasons and struggled with the coaching transition from Steve Spurrier to Ron Zook.
The Gators lost five games in each of Zook's three seasons and posted a combined 1-5 record against the Seminoles and Hurricanes during those years. Florida clearly was lagging behind Miami and Florida State in the battle for state supremacy when Urban Meyer came aboard after the 2005 season.
While the recent reversal of fortune for all three Florida schools seemed to come out of the blue, Florida State and Miami began showing cracks in their foundations a few years before Meyer's arrival.
Florida State has lost at least three times and has failed to finish a season in the top 10 of the AP poll each of the last six years. Miami has dropped at least three games each of the last three years.
Some would argue neither Miami nor Florida State could lay claim to being the second-best team in Florida last season. That honor may have belonged to South Florida, a Big East program that went 9-4 in only its 10th year of existence.
It's hard to blame the downfall of either program on a lack of overall talent. Miami has produced 11 first-round NFL Draft picks and four second-round selections over the last four years. Florida State has sent seven first-round picks, one second-rounder and four third-round selections to the NFL the last three years.
The fall of both programs instead should be attributed to a lack of offense that grew more and more evident in 2004, when Florida State and Miami began making their annual matchup a nationally televised Labor Day showcase. Neither team scored more than 16 points in any of their three season-opening showdowns.
Each year, both teams insisted afterward that their star-studded defenses would make any offense look bad. Each year, neither offense would get much better the rest of the season. The two schools have moved this year's game to Oct. 20.
The Seminoles haven't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn reached that mark three consecutive times from 1994-96 and haven't found consistency at quarterback since Chris Weinke's Heisman Trophy-winning season of 2000. Miami has scored 13 points or less in nine of its last 10 losses.
Coaching was blamed for much of those failures.
Florida State's fall from annual national-title contention coincided with the promotion of Jeff Bowden, who replaced current Georgia coach Mark Richt as the Seminoles' offensive coordinator in 2001. Jeff Bowden resigned under pressure late last season.
Miami coach Larry Coker fired four assistants – three on the offensive side of the ball – after closing the 2005 season with an embarrassing 40-3 Peach Bowl loss to Louisiana State. When Miami's offense scored 101 fewer points last year, Coker also was fired.
Patrick Nix enters the 2007 season as Miami's third offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Part of the offensive woes at each school also may have stemmed from recruiting.
Florida State signed three five-star prospects and 10 four-star prospects since 2004 who are no longer with the program. Star linebacker Lawrence Timmons entered the NFL Draft after his junior season and went to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, but the other 12 players transferred, suffered career-ending injuries, flunked out, failed to qualify academically or were kicked off the team.
Sam Shields and George Robinson were the lone wide receivers to sign with Miami during the 2005 and 2006 recruiting seasons. The only quarterback Miami landed during that time – two-star prospect Daniel Stegall – signed a pro baseball contract before he ever took a snap for the Hurricanes.
Meyer therefore may have arrived at the perfect time.
He came to Gainesville just as Zook's highly touted 2003 recruiting class was reaching its prime. He wasted no time getting the Gators to believe in him.
"It's just his confidence as a coach and the things he instills into the team," Florida safety Tony Joiner said. "He has a well thought-out plan, and everything he says and does has a purpose. We have confidence in him and his schemes. It's easy to play for a coach like that."
Meyer's players weren't the only ones buying into his system. The top high school stars in the nation also liked what they heard.
Percy Harvin grew up a Florida State fan, but the No. 1 player in the 2006 recruiting class signed with Florida instead. Harvin went on to rush for 86 yards and a touchdown on just four carries last year in the Gators' 21-14 victory over the Seminoles.
Harvin is one of eight five-star prospects to sign with the Gators as part of Meyer's first two full recruiting classes at Florida. Miami and Florida State have combined to sign only three five-star prospects during that time.
"The bottom line is recruiting," Meyer said. "Through the '90s, the state of Florida kind of owned the national championship picture. Every one of the schools – Miami, Florida State and Florida – was involved in it because of the great talent level. Obviously we're having a little bit of success, but the key is that you just have to continue working extremely hard because you have two fine programs, and it won't take long for both of them to get right back where they were."
It might not take long at all for Florida State and Miami to return to form.
The arrival of noted quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher as Florida State's offensive coordinator already has paid off on the recruiting trail. E.J. Manuel, rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in the Class of 2008, headlines a list of 16 commitments that includes two five-star prospects and eight four-star recruits.
New Miami coach Randy Shannon has wasted no time catching the attention of the best recruits in South Florida since replacing Coker. Miami's list of 2008 commitments includes two five-star prospects – defensive tackle Marcus Forston of Miami Northwestern High and defensive back Patrick Johnson of Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely – and seven four-star players.
The Seminoles and Hurricanes believe those coaching changes also will pay dividends on the field. Florida's national title has given its in-state rivals extra motivation.
"Everybody knows the Gator Nation is huge," Florida State running back Antone Smith said. "It's worldwide. We hear it a lot. But at the same time, everybody knows we have the talent. We just weren't using it the right ways. Now we have coaches who can really get us back that swagger."
Florida State and Miami could regain that swagger without necessarily knocking down Florida. After all, history indicates there's enough talent in this state that one program's rise doesn't depend on another team's fall from grace.
Miami, Florida State and Florida all placed in the top 10 of the final AP poll in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 2000. The likelihood of that happening again is diminished now that Miami and Florida State play in the same conference, but there's no reason to think all three schools can't play meaningful games in late November each year.
"All three of those schools could contend for a national championship," Meyer said.
But even if all three teams return to national prominence, they always will be fighting for state supremacy.
Florida State continues to play Miami and Florida each year. Miami and Florida plan to renew their rivalry in 2008.
At least one player can't wait to see what the future holds.
"They had a great year last year," Morse said of the Gators. "Urban Meyer did a great job. But next year they're going to be playing Miami. They play Florida State every year. Plus the SEC is a tough conference. I'm not knocking the Gators at all, but they've got a tough road. They'll get humbled."
» MORE ON THE STATE OF FOOTBALL IN FLORIDA:
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.