CORAL GABLES, Fla. — For those troubled by what's happening in college football across the state of Florida right now, Jimbo Fisher offers two reasons to have hope.
Not long ago, the Tigers and Crimson Tide were — by their lofty standards — bad teams. Alabama finished 2007 absent from The Associated Press Top 25 poll. Auburn spent much of the 2009 season outside of the national rankings. Both recovered nicely, of course, proven by the fact those programs are the last two teams to end the season hoisting the crystal football that's presented annually to the national champion.
"Things happen for a reason," said Fisher, the Florida State coach.
Florida, Florida State and Miami would love to know what that reason is — and how to fix the problem. The so-called "Big 3" of Sunshine State football share countless bonds, such as championship traditions, Heisman Trophy winners, legendary coaches and enough NFL players to fill a slew of pro rosters.
And now, add mediocrity to that list.
For the first time since Dec. 6, 1982, all are simultaneously unranked in the AP poll. The Seminoles and Hurricanes have losing records after five games. The season isn't half over and all three are already out of the national championship picture. Florida State and Miami will need miracles to happen if they're to have even a tiny chance of getting back into the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
After 472 weeks in the rankings, 10 national titles and six Heisman Trophies in the last three decades, the 'Noles, Gators and 'Canes are starting anew.
"This is a surprising turn of events," said Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger, who started the Sunshine State surge by coaching Miami to the 1983 national championship and is now in his final season before retirement. "The law of gravity, even the law of statistics, has disallowed this kind of a thing from happening for a long time. But you can't go on forever with something this important."
The erosion of the state's hold on college football has been going on for some time.
Miami's fifth and last national title was in 2001, and the Hurricanes haven't even won an ACC championship yet since joining that league nearly a decade ago. Florida State last appeared in a BCS bowl game at the end of the 2005 season — and last won one of those to conclude the 1999 national-title campaign. Florida has captured two of the last five national championships, but even after a 4-0 start this year, the Gators have lost seven times in their last 15 games overall.
"Everybody loses one day," Florida running back Chris Rainey said.
Yes, but those days used to be far less frequent.
For comparison's sake, the Gators had lost only seven times in 61 games before this current 8-7 run.
"Do I see improvement? Yes," Florida coach Will Muschamp said this week, when asked about the state of his team following consecutive losses to LSU and Alabama, who just happen to be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll. "Is it what we want it to be at this point? No. Again, I look at the season for an entire season. I don't look at one game or two games or whatever. I've got to look at the total body of work and where we are and where we've come from.
"Is it enough? Is it good enough at this point? No," Muschamp added. "But it's never going to be."
There is one other obvious common thread at all three schools. Fisher is in his second season, making him the longest-tenured coach on the Seminole, Gator or Hurricane sidelines. Muschamp and Miami's Al Golden are in Year 1 of their respective jobs.
Even in a state where hundreds of high school players sign college scholarships annually, winning at the college level isn't automatic anymore — especially when programs are in transition phases. In fairness, all three of the Sunshine State traditional powers have dealt with wild adversity already this season. Miami was rocked before the year even began by an NCAA investigation that still lingers, and the Hurricanes have been decimated by injuries on defense as well. Florida and Florida State have dealt with injuries to starting quarterbacks, huge blows to both teams.
"Health, depth, quarterback play, schedule," Golden said. "There's a lot of variables that come into play."
There's also more places for players to play now.
Three decades ago, there was no Florida International football program, no South Florida, no Central Florida, no Florida Atlantic.
Now they're gobbling up plenty of talent from all around the state. And while the balance of power isn't totally shifting yet, one could easily argue that the best team in the state is South Florida, and the best player is FIU's T.Y. Hilton.
The Bulls have three bowl wins since 2007, matching Florida and Florida State. Florida Atlantic won consecutive bowl games in 2007 and 2008 — the only team in the state to do so over that span. FIU won its first bowl last year, capping a huge turnaround season for the Panthers. UCF won its first bowl game in four tries last year. Miami's last bowl win came in 2006.
"I don't know if it has all that much to do with all of us who are new on the scene here," said Schnellenberger, who founded FAU's program about a decade ago. "I think the major contest lies between the three oldest schools here in the state and the best schools in the country. ... The recruiting phase is just a small part of it. You've got coaching changes, you've got more competition."
Which means even at Florida, Florida State and Miami there are more challenges.
"It's pretty bizarre," Fisher said when asked about the end of the 29-year AP poll run for Florida schools. "I mean, it is. Just got to play better. We need to play better football."
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