Darkness in the Sunshine State: Noles, Gators to Duel Amid Alarming Down Years

Travis HaneySpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 20, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 02:  Head coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles looks on during warm ups prior to their game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — With a Halloween block party and the NBA's Orlando Magic hosting the San Antonio Spurs, it's a busy Friday night on these downtown streets.

In a cavernous sports bar over by Interstate 4, Florida State is getting hammered. And so are its fans.

The evening of Oct. 27 starts off festively for the Seminoles supporters gathered inside Harry Buffalo on West Church Street. The "War Chant" is playing every other minute, and first downs are celebrated as if Bobby Bowden himself just walked into the place.

But with each Boston College score, energy progressively drains from the establishment. By the second half, there's very little life remaining. With FSU trailing 35-3 after three quarters, a weary emcee picks up a microphone.

"Well," he says over the bar sound system, "you know what we say at Florida State: It's win, lose or booze."

Glasses clink. Some fans then stumble into the Central Florida night. Those who stay behind do not watch a single down of the fourth quarter, instead talking to one another as they consume enough to forget a 2-5 start.

There had been preseason chatter of another national championship in Tallahassee. Now sitting at 4-6, the Seminoles are left clinging to the distant consolation prize of continuing the nation's longest bowl streak—and wondering why their head coach's name continues to come up for virtually every SEC job opening.

A day after Boston College's rout of FSU, Florida is entering its annual rivalry game against Georgia in precarious fashion.

Two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, the school's athletic director, Scott Stricklin, puts out a statement that would be abnormal any day, let alone a game day.

"No one representing the University of Florida or our athletic department has had any conversations with Coach McElwain or his representatives regarding a buyout of his contract. Our focus is on this great Florida-Georgia rivalry today in Jacksonville."

The fact that the statement is issued while fans are already in full tailgate mode in the parking lots outside EverBank Field says that, no, the program's focus is not squarely on the Bulldogs.

Florida's sinking offensive fortunes, and his unwillingness to provide details to Florida's athletic director about threats he said he and his family had received, hastened Jim McElwain's exit from Gainesville in October.
Florida's sinking offensive fortunes, and his unwillingness to provide details to Florida's athletic director about threats he said he and his family had received, hastened Jim McElwain's exit from Gainesville in October.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

The game follows accordingly: Georgia jumps out to a three-touchdown lead in the first quarter and blisters the Gators 42-7. It's Florida's worst loss in the series since being shut out 44-0 in 1982.

Coach Jim McElwain had the Gators in consecutive SEC title games in his first two seasons, but it felt like a mirage to many around the leagueand even many close to the Florida program.

They never sensed that McElwain, a native of Montana, was a fit leading a highly visible and intensely scrutinized program in the South. Being a former Nick Saban assistant isn't always a charm for success in the league, as history has sometimes shown. (Though that formula has worked better at FSU.)

Before the Georgia blowout sunk the Gators to 3-4, McElwain had spent a week fielding questionsinternally and externally—after volunteering during his weekly press briefing that he and his team had been the subject of death threats. Refusing to elaborate about those threats, even to his boss, cost McElwain his job the morning after the game, reported ESPN, though he was probably destined to lose it, eventually.

By that Sunday night, Stricklin was holding a news conference in which he tellingly said, "This is more than just wins and losses."

Stricklin, who arrived at Florida last November, is now tasked to find someone capable of more wins than lossesand stirring fans with some yards and points.

They play one another this weekend in Gainesville, Florida State and Florida.

Two programs with four combined national titles since 1999. Two programs having a bizarre season, unique in their own ways but similar in inducing fan misery.

It's only the second time since 1986 that both Florida and FSU enter their annual meeting unranked.

And it's the first time since 1959 that they will both enter with losing records. For historical context, that was the second time the teams played—ever.

It was also four seasons before Bobby Bowden arrived at FSU to coach the team's receivers and Steve Spurrier arrived at UF to play quarterback.

"Is that right?" Spurrier told B/R last week as he traveled to a speaking engagement in the Midwest. "It's been that long?"

It's surreal to consider we're dwelling in a season in which Florida Atlantic's game at Charlotte holds more relevance to the college football landscape than Florida vs. Florida State—a series that has been appointment Thanksgiving weekend entertainment for more than two decades.

Adding to the angst for the state's two flagship programs is the wave of success generated by former coaches and rival schools in their backyard. Still-undefeated Miami has found its footing under "U" alum Mark Richt, a man who made his name in coaching the offense at FSU before leading Georgia for 15 years, a tenure that came to an end, some have speculated, largely because of his inability to beat Florida.

Once Florida State's offensive coordinator for seven seasons, Mark Richt has quickly revived the rival Hurricanes.
Once Florida State's offensive coordinator for seven seasons, Mark Richt has quickly revived the rival Hurricanes.STEVEN CANNON/Associated Press/Associated Press

And then there's the rise of the state's next-gen programs: Central Florida football was born in 1979; the University of South Florida in the 1990s; and Florida Atlantic in 2001. Those schools this fall are a combined 27-4 this season, and their coaches are being bandied about for bigger jobs—including UCF's Scott Frost for the Florida vacancy.

All this, of course, only amplifies the suffering in North Florida.

Florida's issues have now lingered for a few years, while FSU is hopeful this injury-marred season is an aberration, but the overarching question lingers in the Sunshine State humidity: What happened, and how does this game return to its rightful place in the sport?

In Gainesville, the answer, theoretically, is easy: It's all about offense. Knowing that, however, does not automatically provide resolution. McElwain, Saban's former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was thought to be the fix when he was hired in December 2014.

Instead, the Gators' post-Tim Tebow funk only became funkier. Florida's offense with Tim Tebow quarterbacking in 2009 was third in the country in yards per play and 10th nationally in scoring.

Since then, the Gators have finished an average of 94th in yards per play and 85th in scoring. That includes Urban Meyer's final season, four years of Will Muschamp and McElwain's two-plus seasons, during which UF dwelled in the 100s in both yards and scoring.

That's a substantial offensive drought, especially in a talent-rich state, but when you consistently have shaky quarterback play, the drought can last for a while. The QBs haven't worked out for myriad reasons, predictably including injuries and not-as-predictably including a PEDs-spurred transfer (Will Grier). Whiffs in talent identification and development have also riddled multiple UF staffs.

The three candidates to take over for McElwain (and technically, Randy Shannon, who is leading the team through the end of the season) who are mentioned most often among coaches and agentsformer Oregon coach Chip Kelly, UCF's Frost and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen—all have similar makeups: They all have an edge, and they all have an extensive track record of developing quarterbacks.

Florida ranks 109th in the nation in both scoring and yards per game this season.
Florida ranks 109th in the nation in both scoring and yards per game this season.Sean Rayford/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's worth noting, too, that Frost learned a great deal as an assistant under Kelly at Oregon. And Mullen, for the record, ran the offense at Florida from 2005-08, just before it went off the post-Tebow cliff.

If one of those three options gets the job, many in the sport believe Stricklin will have nailed down part of the solution. As for in-state recruiting, Frost, since he's already located in Orlando, may be best suited.

Spurrier spoke only generally about what he wanted to see in a new UF coach.

"Well, we need one that can recruit as well as Georgia and Auburn and LSU and Tennessee and South Carolina," Spurrier told B/R. "We need to get in the top five [in recruiting]where FSU and Miami are now, too. We need to get in the top 10 regularly and coach the heck out of them and be a little bit more competitive. That's what we need."

He laughed.

"But I guess everybody knows that," Spurrier said.

Florida State will play a game on Dec. 2. Entering the season, the expectation was that the date would be reserved for FSU's return to the ACC title game—the school's first since 2014.

Instead of meeting the ACC's Coastal Division champ, though, the Seminoles will be facing Louisiana-Monroe in a hurricane makeup game. Meanwhile, Clemson and Miami will be playing for a conference title and potentially a spot in the College Football Playoff.

FSU will be laboring to continue a bowl streak that started in 1982, more than a decade longer than any player on the roster has been alive.

These are abnormal times in Tallahassee, considering Jimbo Fisher's previous teams had averaged a little more than 11 wins per year in his first seven seasons at the school.

It would seem only natural to consider this season a downer. Fisher, though, just kind of shrugged at that notion.

"It really isn't unlike any other year," Fisher told B/R last week. "As far as the amount of time we're spending doing this and that, or the stress, it's really been about the same."

But how? This, after all, was thought to be a national title contender—at least until starting quarterback Deondre Francois went down against Alabama in the opener.

"You start with a set of goals, and one of those ultimate goals is a bowl game," Fisher said. "So we understand we've got to play well and win these games to do that."

Considered a national title contender at the start of the season, quarterback Deondre Francois' knee injury against Alabama sent the Seminoles into a tailspin.
Considered a national title contender at the start of the season, quarterback Deondre Francois' knee injury against Alabama sent the Seminoles into a tailspin.Mike Stewart/Associated Press/Associated Press

It feels like years ago that ESPN pumped the No. 3 FSU and No. 1 Bama game as the biggest opener in college football history. A Taylor Swift single release was even fused into the hype of the game week.

That was September.

Francois' limping from the field against Alabama seemed to signal an entrance into a parallel universe, a weird journey then accelerated by natural disaster.

Hurricane Irma's trek through the middle of the state impacted a number of programs, including both UF—which canceled a game against Northern Coloradoand FSU.

The Seminoles' original Sept. 9 date with Louisiana-Monroe and a Sept. 16 meeting with Miami were suddenly up in the air. Day to day, the team didn't know exactly when it would play again. In the meantime, while awaiting word, a "second training camp" took place.

Teams often labor through the rigors of camp, with the reward of games dangling on the end of the line. The Seminoles reached the camp finish line only to be thrown back into the grind. Already adjusting to Francois' absence, it created another set of variables.

"We'd have these long practices, and we'd be a week or two out from another game. We didn't know when we were going to play," Fisher said. "We just went through camp, and then we were back and went through it again. We had hard, physical practices, just to make sure we kept that edge. In that regard, it was challenging."

Fisher wanted that initial UL-Monroe date for true freshman James Blackman, Francois' replacement, to get comfortable. Instead, NC State was his first start. The rescheduled Miami game came two weeks later.

Blackman's learning curve was evident in each, and more FSU players dealt with injury beyond the QB position. A trying year became even more difficult, leading up to the egg the Noles laid at Boston College.

"You wish you had a different scenario," Fisher said, "but, at the same time, it was all still very doable."

Hampered by Hurricane Irma, Jimbo Fisher and Florida State found it difficult to mesh under backup quarterback James Blackman.
Hampered by Hurricane Irma, Jimbo Fisher and Florida State found it difficult to mesh under backup quarterback James Blackman.Butch Dill/Getty Images

One person close to the program wondered if maturity and leadership within the locker room had been strong enough to weather the literal and figurative storms FSU faced. Others close to the program believe staff changes are inevitable on both sides of the ball.

"They're used to winning 10, 11 games a year," an industry source said. "You don't just have a season like this without change."

The biggest potential change at FSUa Fisher departureis certainly out there. His name has surfaced in connection with Texas A&M and for the opening at Tennessee. Auburn could be another possibility should Gus Malzahn be lured away by Arkansas.

Several industry sources told B/R that they expect Fisher to return to FSU, and the school's president, John Thrasher, told Tia Mitchell of the Florida Times-Union that he believes Fisher will be at the school "forever."

Florida needs a coach, and FSU needs a bowl game. That's what is immediately in front of both programs.

Pressed about the feeling in the building, Fisher insisted that "spirits are up."

"There's been disappointment, but you deal with the next game," Fisher said "That's what you do. As crazy as it sounds, it's the same as if you're winning. Then you're dealing with overlooking [teams] and getting complacent, so you'd have a different set of issues and things you'd be talking about, but there would be the same challenges. It's a different issue, but it's the same amount of time and things you deal with."

Florida is searching for its fourth permanent coach since 2010. Spurrier, for context, was at UF for 12 seasons.

Asked again about the unique awkwardness of this particular Florida-FSU meeting, Spurrier's squirminess is evident over the phone.

"OK, well, I gotta go," he says. "I think my ride's here. Yeah, he's one of my former Duke players, living up here in Iowa."

And if Spurrierthe author of "Free Shoes University" and countless other barbs at the Seminoles' expense—isn't interested in talking Florida and FSU, it's unlikely anyone is, at least in this calendar year.

That makes for an easy decision when calculating where 2017 falls on the win, lose or booze spectrum for the teams and their fans.


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