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A trio searching, a state reminiscing

The state's three traditional powers aren't bad now, but these are not the glory years.

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published August 24, 2006

Another year, another Peach Bowl.

Another season, another chance to hope tomorrow looks like yesterday.

That's the thing about college football in the state of Florida: It's impossible to drive toward a new season without glancing in the rear view mirror. It's like making pottery two years after the Ming Dynasty ended; it is never too soon to think about the way things used to be.

Back in the day, the teams of this state used to be more than pretty good. Time was, and you could ask your father about this, or his father, the Florida teams were a force of nature. Someone was going to win a national title and someone else was going to be close and someone else, usually Florida, was going to have something to say about it. It was as much a part of football as fuzzy mascots.

So it is that we are presented with a new canvas and a familiar pair of questions:

Will the teams from Florida ever be great again?

And can it be this year?

If you are searching for clues, last week's AP preseason poll suggested ... "perhaps." Florida is ranked seventh, FSU 11th and Miami 12th. That means the teams are in striking distance, but really, no one expects them to strike.

Why would they? It seems like a million years ago when the state was the throne room of college football. Over a 20-season span, from 1983-2002, Florida colleges won eight national titles. Eight other times, they were in position to win it if they could have won their bowl game. Sixteen title berths in two decades isn't bad.

It was an amazing run, and in today's game, it was completely illogical. Fans, of course, expect the next 20 years to go pretty much the same.

Ah, but the trophies are fading. It has been six years since FSU won a national title. For Florida, it has been a decade. And though Miami has won five national titles, only one has come in the past 15 seasons. The teams haven't been awful, for the most part; they just haven't been what they were.

In college football, this isn't rare. Back in the days of flying wedges, Yale used to be quite the beast, too. And Minnesota and Army and, heck, even Nebraska. A lot of schools are chasing who they used to be. Southern Cal has done it, and Oklahoma isn't far off, and this year, Ohio State might get there. You could make a case that Texas. Notre Dame and Alabama are still chasing.

As far as the local schools, here's the gut feeling:

Florida is still two years away.

FSU is a year away.

If Miami doesn't do it it this year, it may be a head coach away.

As far as a move toward the top of the poll, this is a crucial season for all three programs. And, yes, I think all three of them will be better than they were a year ago. But national contenders? That's a stretch.

He has only been on the job a year, but it's hard not to be impressed with Urban Meyer at Florida. The first things you look for in a new coach are his ability to recruit (check) and his ability to adapt (check). Meyer came into a situation last year where his personnel didn't fit his playbook, and down the stretch, he tweaked it to make it fit.

Still, it's a lot to ask of a coach to be a national championship contender in Year 2. The line is too thin and the schedule is too daunting, and still, the quarterback isn't a good fit. Chris Leak isn't as terrible as his critics would tell you, but he's not suited for an offense that wants a quarterback to run. It's like trying to put a glove on a foot.

Give Meyer a chance to get his own quarterback under center, and then give that quarterback a year to ripen. Then we'll see.

As far as FSU, the Seminoles are going to be better because, for the first time in five years, they won't have a quarterback who plays like a freshman. (Four of those years, it was Chris Rix, who never did get beyond rookie mistakes.) If the line holds up, the offense could be pretty good.

For FSU, however, there are too many doubts about the defense. Consider: FSU had three No. 1 draft picks (Antonio Cromartie also was drafted No. 1, but he didn't play last year) on last year's defense, and it still allowed 20 or more points in nine games.

Still, if FSU gets past Miami in the opener, the schedule is soft enough to allow its fans to hope.

You could say the same for Miami. Opening night is crucial for the Hurricanes. If you check Miami's schedule - games against Florida A&M and Florida International; one supposes Florida Atlantic was busy - then the Hurricanes could make some noise if they can survive FSU.

If not, everyone else is going to make the noise, and most of it is going to be directed at Larry Coker. Put it this way, if Coker ends up with his third straight Peach Bowl bid, it's going to be a hand-him-his-hat trick.

In other words, there is a chasm between what the fans expect and what the nation expects. This is the second straight season where no Florida college was ranked in the top five in the preseason poll. It's the first time since 1983-84 that the Florida schools have had a two-year absence from the preseason top five. Heck, in 1991 and 1992, all three teams were in the top five. Three other times, all three have been in the top six.

Of course, it isn't where a team starts; it's where it finishes. By and large, though, the preseason poll has been a pretty good indicator. From '83-04, the Florida teams were predicted to finish in the top five 33 times. They finished in the top five 34 times.

Perhaps that is why the expectations remain high. Perhaps that is why, with every year the schools settle toward the bottom of the Top 20, talking about the glory days sounds more like old folks talking about the Gipper.

For Florida schools, this season is the time to take a step back toward college football's elite.

Enough with the "peachy" seasons. How about some more great ones?




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