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CFB Discussion - A Tale of Three Kingdoms
Florida State, Florida, and Miami are locked in a battle to eternity for CFB supremacy; is a new superpower emerging?
The Three Kingdoms period was a time of great change, turmoil, and upheaval in Chinese history, but it was also a time of tremendous creativity, innovation, and human drama. It was a period that saw the rise and fall of empires, the birth of legends and heroes…
- Rana Mitter, Historian
The 14th century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms covers nearly 100 years of Chinese history (184 AD to 280 AD). Over 800,000 words, and with a cast of characters numbering nearly 1,000, it covers the intrigues and battles between the warring Wei, Shu, and Wu dynasties in impressively grand style. It is recommended to any reader interested in premodern China.
But the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fucking pamphlet compared to the epic struggle between Florida State (FSU), Florida (UF) and Miami (UM) for college football (CFB) alpha status in the Sunshine State.
We’ll begin the telling of this tale with a look back at the last decade…
The 2010s Florida recruiting scene will be remembered as the decade of foreign superpowers (UGA, Alabama, Clemson and OSU) raiding the state to fuel national dominance on the field. While Clemson and OSU’s pipelines have dried up some, two programs — UGA and Alabama — still make a killing in the Sunshine State every cycle. In fact, one could make the argument that they’ve never been more successful in slurping out of the proverbial Florida milkshake. In April 2024, Alabama’s Dallas Turner (St-Thomas Aquinas) out of Miami will likely be a top-ten pick. UGA’s DT Jalen Carter (Apopka) was just selected in the top-ten of the 2023 NFL draft, and is likely the most dominant interior defensive line prospect since Ndamokung Suh. The Bulldogs also managed to sign at least one premium five-star EDGE out of Florida in each of the last two recruiting cycles (FSU legacy Marvin Jones Jr. in 2022, and Damon Wilson in 2023).
To add insult to injury, players like Jerry Jeudy (Pompano Beach), Kenny McCintosh (Fort Lauderdale), and Alex Leatherwood (Pensacola) played critical roles in national championship teams for Alabama and UGA.
And yet, there are signs that the 2020s could be an era of one Florida program’s resurgent dominance.
As we enter into the NIL era of CFB, programs like Miami and Florida are tripping over landmines and making fools of themselves. Whether it be an eccentric booster publicly running out of cash, or a high profile recruit not getting the deal promised to him, each of these programs have become ‘poster boys’ for everything that is wrong with CFB right now.
But one Florida program is different. The Florida State Seminoles — after nearly a decade of embarrassment — are beginning to re-emerge from the ashes. This is a proud program, with a rich history and tradition of elite recruiting, development and production on the field. They are not a program (from what I can tell) that leads with NIL to fuel its recruiting efforts, unlike its neighbours to the east and to the south.
In the Three Kingdoms analogy, FSU would be akin to the Shu Dynasty, who were located in the western parts of China, and was known for its rugged terrain and skilled warriors. UF is the Wei Dynasty, located in the northeastern part of the region, it was the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms (can’t beat that SEC money). Miami is the Wu Dynasty, located in the south of the region, and was known for its naval power and commerce (AKA John Ruiz). The Three Kingdoms were in a state of constant warfare and political intrigue, with each kingdom vying for dominance over the others — just like the three major Florida programs.
FSU’s Time is Now
It’s a good time to be a Seminole. The 2022 season was a breath of fresh air for a program in desperate need of some mojo, and the FSU staff has been capitalizing on that momentum on the trail. Last month, the Seminoles flipped long-time UGA commit TE Landen Thomas, who was originally committed to the Seminoles, before eventually de-committing in 2021. The Seminoles also currently have a verbal pledge from another south GA standout — RB Kameron Davis, in the same class.
One of the reasons that FSU is always a national title contender is that there are only a handful of programs that have a better recruiting base in the immediate vicinity. Between south GA and the north FL panhandle, the Seminoles enjoy proximity to many of the nation’s best recruits every cycle. Florida provides the speed, Georgia provides the muscle.
Now, there may not be any scientific evidence to back this, but I’ve always felt that south GA and north FL boys become the best football players. South Florida is known as the best recruiting base nationally, but these kids come with major baggage, and it’s only getting worse with NIL (just ask Miami).
The difference between where FSU was as a program to where they’ve been lately can be demonstrated clearly via the NFL draft picks per year. In 2013 and 2014, 11 and 7 Seminoles were drafted, respectively. In 2015, they had 11 drafted. However, in the years 2020 to 2022, the Seminoles never had more than 6 drafted, and in two separate years had only 1 player drafted; and only one of those picks was a first rounder (UGA transfer Jermaine Johnson in 2022).
In terms of on field success, this is a program that is considered to be CFB royalty as a blue-blood program. While there have been several lean years recently, it was not that long ago that the Seminole kingdom reigned supreme in CFB. FSU, led by one Jameis Winston, won it all in 2013, defeating a pesky Auburn team in the last national championship before the CFB playoff (CFP) began.
Could history repeat itself in 2023? It is not that unlikely. As I wrote about last week, FSU’s QB Jordan Travis could be in for a Heisman-type season, and if that happens the Seminoles will likely be involved in the CFP in December. I like the array of skill players FSU head coach Mike Norvell has assembled down there in Tallahassee, and if they can get past Clemson and LSU, it should be smooth sailing to the CFP.
Like the Shu dynasty, FSU’s brand of football is rough and rugged, a stark contrast to their neighbours down in south beach. It’s this style of play that made FSU comparable to an SEC program in the early 2010s with Jimbo Fisher. Likely, they were bending all kinds of rules for their football players, too.
However, under the latest regime, I have to say this program feels awfully clean. We’ll never know what goes on behind the scenes, but in this new world with potential seven-figure NIL deals being handed out to high schoolers, FSU’s recruiting operation has gone quietly under the radar. There have been no scandals, like UM and UF. They are also not curiously signing record-breaking classes the way A&M was, but they are signing better classes than we saw recently. Their biggest get in the 2023 cycle was south Florida five-star WR Hykeem Williams, who figures to be a fixture of this program sooner rather than later.
UF and UM’s blunders
The Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes are two of the most storied college football programs in the state of Florida, with passionate fan bases and a long history of success on the gridiron.
One of the most notable differences between the two programs is their level of success in recent years. While both teams have had periods of dominance in the past, the Gators have been more consistently successful over the past decade, with multiple conference championships and appearances in major bowl games. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, have struggled to consistently compete at the highest level, with a number of coaching changes and rebuilding periods.
In terms of recruiting, both programs have a long history of attracting top talent from across the country, particularly in the talent-rich state of Florida. However, the Gators have generally been seen as the more consistent recruiter, with a strong track record in the 2010s of developing NFL talent and attracting high-profile recruits. The Hurricanes have also had success in recruiting, particularly in the South Florida area, but have struggled at times to keep top talent in-state.
Both programs brought in new head coaches last offseason — UF hired Billy Napier, UM hired alumnus Mario Cristobal. The Hurricanes had immediate recruiting success under the new regime, leveraging NIL to the fullest extent in the 2023 recruiting cycle. They signed multiple five-star offensive lineman, and brought in impressive prospects at other key positions. UF also strung together a strong class, but struck out on a number of key targets — including UGA’s AJ Harris & Jordan Hall, and Colorado’s Cormani McClain, which are just a few names that come to mind.
Unfortunately for the Gators, those misses are only the tip of the iceberg of their troubles from the 2023 cycle. In a bizarre and public sequence of events, QB Jaden Rashada — who was apparently promised millions of dollars in NIL money to sign with the Gators — was let out of his NLI. Nobody knows with 100% certainty what happened, but there is enough information out there to piece together that the Gators were not holding up their end of the deal. It goes without saying that this is a PR disaster for any program in the NIL era of recruiting.
UM also had their struggles. Current UGA safety Joenel Aguero, turned down UM’s superior NIL offer and ultimately signed with the Bulldogs, betting on the developmental upside and his long term earning potential over immediate gains. But there will always be a substantial amount of blue chip prospects every cycle who choose the money in the short term — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I — and apparently Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and Mike Norvell — believe that a program is better built for long-term success and sustainability with a development-first approach to talent acquisition. I think this approach has served FSU well so far; they are a refreshing case study in a state that is akin to a wild-wild west shootout right now on the recruiting trail. Things get crazy in Florida, it’s why we love it — and hate it.
Now, I am not naive enough to think that there is no NIL funny business happening at these programs. I do know with a pretty high certainty that UGA does not offer NIL bags for signatures, but current players on the roster are likely making millions. I am going to assume Alabama is similar. You might be snickering as you read that, and that’s fine.
My logic is this: if Alabama and UGA can’t sign players based off their track-record of development and success on the field, then who can? UGA has done everything and more that a football program can do in the last two seasons, why would they have to outbid Miami, or Tennessee, or even an Ohio State to sign a player, in particular a defensive player? The same logic applies to Alabama. FSU can fit into this category now, as the most successful Florida program last season, the burden is not on them to outbid for players when battling with UM or UF. And ultimately, it’s the players who are self-aware and forward thinking that you want in your program. These players are more likely to be prepared for the grind ahead of them as a student athlete, and I believe they are less likely to run at the first sign of adversity — or bigger bags offered elsewhere (Exhibit A: Texas A&M).
It’s for these reasons that I believe the 2020s could be FSU’s time of dominance in-state. They will always have to deal with the two out-of-state SEC superpowers — well, at least until Saban retires — but they’ve proven that they can sign elite players already in the NIL era, and amidst UGA/Alabama’s dominance. Most importantly, unlike UF and UM, FSU appears to have their shit together, and their track record for development looks better to me than the other two. In particular, the Seminoles have made a killing lately in bringing in veterans from the portal (e.g., Jermaine Johnson, Jared Verse…), and putting them in positions to succeed.
Everybody knows Miami is always two minutes away from being a powerhouse, but I just don’t see UM establishing a stranglehold on that region like they had in the 80s again. That recruiting base is just different. South Florida prospects have a propensity for de-committing multiple times, and have shown an extreme willingness to leave home, not just for college but also at the high school level; whether that be transferring among schools like American Heritage, Miami Central, Chaminade-Madonna Prep around the Miami area, or moving to a prep school like IMG Academy near Tampa Bay. More importantly, Miami is not a CFB town anymore. The stadium is always half-empty (sometimes worse) and the spirit and passion that used to surround the program just isn’t there — and, in my opinion, is not going to return.
UF is different. Like FSU, they have immediate access to south GA, and they can still pitch south Florida standouts on getting out of the city, while being close enough for their parents to watch them play conveniently. They are currently in a tough spot, though, with UGA entering dynasty mode, and FSU’s resurgence. Year two is critical for Billy Napier and the Gators. If you want my opinion? It’s not going to go well for UF.
In the era of the Three Kingdoms period in China, the Wei dynasty eventually overtakes the Wu Dynasty to the south, ending the long period of conflict. In my analogy above, I likened UF to the Wei Kingdom due to the geography. However, I think in this decade it will be the rough and rugged warriors of FSU who rekindle their dominance over the state. On a long enough time horizon, if FSU and UM stay in the ACC, UF is best-positioned for dominance. However, as we’ve seen already, CFB is shifting toward a smaller model, with super conferences forming. FSU, in particular, seems like a prime candidate for an SEC addition down the line.
No matter what happens, we know that there will be lots of human drama, empires will rise and fall, and legends and heroes will emerge along the way in the eternal battle for Florida football supremacy.
While you’re here….
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