There is no more fascinating state than Florida to watch every college football season, if only because its programs often seem like the summer weather report: unpredictable, sometimes wacky and frequently unable to avoid making headlines.
We are talking about a state where Lane Kiffin stands with Butch Davis and Charlie Strong as the longest-tenured coaches — with a whopping three years under their belts.
We are talking about a state that has had three different schools finish as the highest-ranked Florida rep in as many years.
We are talking about a state where upstart UCF has won more games than Florida, Florida State and Miami over the past two seasons, a state where Florida State failed to make a bowl game for the first time since the 1970s and Miami saw head coach Mark Richt resign after an embarrassing bowl performance in late December.
Headed into the season, the Gators appear to be the new front-runner for state supremacy. “Now we’re back at No. 1 in the state pecking order?” second-year Florida coach Dan Mullen says with a laugh. “It didn’t take long, but we’re the University of Florida. We should always be No. 1 in the pecking order in my mind.”
That could be a careful-what-you-wish-for proposition, at least headed into the 2019 season. One year ago, Miami was the front-runner and promptly went 7-6. The year before, the Seminoles were a preseason choice to make the College Football Playoff. They went 7-6.
It just so happens Florida and Miami open the season in Orlando on Aug. 24, giving us the perfect gauge for where one program with outsized expectations stands against another program with outsized expectations, all while jockeying for the same recruits in a state brimming with prospects.
As it stands today, Florida (No. 5), Miami (No. 6) and Florida State (No. 7) all sit next to each other in the most up-to-date recruiting rankings, adding yet another level of intrigue in the race to win another national championship before their in-state rivals (UCF 2017 notwithstanding, of course).
“You build the program and you build the team,” Mullen says. “I expect the program to get back to where it was when we won two out of three national championships. Those individual teams had to do it, but the program gives you the opportunity. Is the program there yet? We’re building toward it. Is this year’s team a championship team? I don’t know. There’s a lot of time to find out if we are.”
Not many expected Florida to return to the top 10 as quickly as it did a year ago, and watching spring practice unfold only fed into the growing hype. Feleipe Franks appears to have turned the corner, and the Gators return nearly every significant contributor on offense.
But the offseason has been far from smooth. Freshman quarterback Jalon Jones was accused of sexual battery by two women in April, although they declined to press charges. He has since left the program. Gators defensive back Brian Edwards was arrested and charged with battery in May. There was also the highly publicized transfer of Chris Steele, an ESPN 300…