A storied Sunshine State rivalry between Florida State and Florida reaches beyond the football field on an annual basis. The Gators and Seminoles regularly give each other fits on the recruiting trail while chasing after a similar crop of prospects.
The continuation of this constant battle emerged as one of the most compelling storylines in the 2013-14 recruiting cycle, as several of America's premier players spent time weighing offers from each program. The result was a wild final stretch toward signing day that saw multiple difference-makers jump from one class to the other, effectively altering the future outlook for both freshman groups.
The first domino fell on New Year's Eve, when 5-star running back Dalvin Cook dropped a bombshell on Florida and flipped to Florida State. Rated the nation's No. 2 overall running back prospect in 247Sports composite rankings, Cook originally committed to the Gators in April after backing off his pledge to Clemson.
The Miami Central High School star rushed for more than 1,900 yards and 34 touchdowns, leading his squad to a state title. Will Muschamp viewed him as a part of the solution in an effort to fix Florida's sputtering offensive attack.
Less than a month before Cook turned his back in the Gators, he vehemently defended his commitment to the team.
“Florida is my school,” Cook told the Miami Herald on Dec. 7. “That’s what I always tell people: I’m always still committed to Florida. I ain’t never decommit because Florida is still in my heart right now. I’m still a Gator and that’s my school.”
Fast forward two months and it's now apparent the only time he'll spend in The Swamp will be as a visitor. Cook, who was named Florida's Mr. Football last month, enrolled early at Tallahassee and has set his sights high.
“I just think Heisman,” Cook told Orlando Sentinel reporter Brendan Sonnone. “I see [Jameis Winston] won it and I think I can win it too.”
Florida envisioned Cook teaming up with 5-star wide receiver Ermon Lane and coveted North Carolina quarterback Will Grier in Gainesville. Muschamp has the prolific passer on campus this spring but must deal with the fact that Lane has partnered up with Cook to improve his biggest rival.
The Homestead, Fla. standout signed with Florida State less than four weeks after ending a five-month pact with the Gators. Lane didn't reveal his collegiate destination until signing day.
He voiced concern about his family's feelings toward Florida in a text message sent to 247Sports immediately after his decommitment, reported Luke Stampini.
"I just want what's best for me, I want to be comfortable & feel [at] home," Lane wrote. "TRUST is a big part in the process also my family has to be comfortable about my decision & they were a lil shaky about it. no lie I love gator nation but it's life"
Florida State swiftly emerged as the favorite to land Lane and finally sealed the deal on signing day. The Gators can only watch as reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston welcomes a new offensive weapon who was supposed to be a building block during a pivotal campaign for Muschamp.
However, Florida didn't sit idle in the aftermath of losing Lane and Cook. The team targeted longtime Seminoles pledge Treon Harris, a star on national powerhouse Booker T. Washington (Miami).
The 4-star athlete, who committed to Florida State in July, took snaps at quarterback for the Tornadoes but is viewed as the kind of player who can excel in a variety of roles. His relationship with the national champions clearly wavered in January, when Harris spent official visits at Auburn, Miami and Florida.
He cemented that sentiment on signing day by switching his allegiances to the Gators. Harris cited his comfort with Florida's scheme as main motivation.
“When I got in the film room with [Florida offensive coordinator Kurt] Roper, I saw that they run the same offense we do [at Booker T. Washington],” Harris told Miami Herald reporter Andre Fernandez. “We have to go up there this summer and work hard and overcome everything that happened last year. You only get one of these days in a lifetime. I feel blessed.”
For the moment, Harris gives Muschamp a pair of impressive quarterback prospects that he desperately needed. Down the road, the Miami playmaker could eventually be called upon to play receiver.
Florida scored another signing day victory over Florida State when 4-star cornerback J.C. Jackson opted to stick to his commitment after rumors of a potential last-minute flip to Florida State. His addition was made necessary by the departures of Gators defensive backs Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins.
The Gators and Seminoles both locked in top ten recruiting classes after shuffling various prospects. The teams must move forward with what they have but the 'what ifs' will remain.
What if Dalvin Cook does win a Heisman Trophy at Florida State, while the Gators offense falters?
What if Treon Harris turns out to be the star quarterback Florida has been searching for and the Seminoles struggle to replace Winston?
Which team had the better 2014 recruiting class?
College football is cyclical and we've seen this rivalry endure its ebbs and flows. Both squads have spent time on the mountaintop in recent years.
Florida ruled the national spectrum during Tim Tebow's time with Urban Meyer, winning two national titles and a Heisman Trophy. Now it's time for Winston and Jimbo Fisher to enjoy the spotlight.
The Seminoles clearly have an edge in the success department these days, but a 2014 recruiting class with so many toss-ups could ultimately reshape the face of this fierce rivalry.