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More mediocrity ahead for state's big 3?

It was the dancing cows that gave it away. That was how you knew you had reached the next ring of college football hell.

For Florida and Miami, the realization should have come quickly. An intuitive awareness they were no longer among the NCAA's elite. This is what usually happens when you fall from favor. This is what always happens when you fall in the polls.

On a festive night, the Gators and Hurricanes found themselves playing in a joyless bowl. The national championship was still four days away, and Florida's best hope for the future was preparing for another game thousands of miles from this locale. If you are preaching for a return to glory, this would be the night you point to as incentive.

The Peach Bowl's sponsor brought dancing cows, and that was only the beginning of the night's humiliation. There was the mini-ambulance that blew a tire on its way to midfield. The backup ambulance had a broken stretcher. By the time Miami's Alton Wright was carted away, his leg had healed.

This was the coda for the worst college football season the state has seen in more than 20 years. For the first time since 1983, no state team will finish in the Top 5 of the final Associated Press poll. Judging from this game, they may not make the Top 10.

If it really matters, Miami was crowned state champ after the Peach Bowl. Which means the 'Canes will be known as the best of the pretty-good. The lords of the almost-impressive. The Clay Aikens of college football.

What the Hurricanes did was win their age group, while finishing hours behind the real leaders.

News flash: Hoping to capitalize on a proven strategy, UF athletic director Jeremy Foley announced at halftime that interim coach Charlie Strong had been fired, but had agreed to remain through the end of the game.

For a state that has won eight national championships in the past 21 years, and came within a victory of winning seven others, it was a sobering moment to realize the 2004 regular season was no fluke.

The Gators and Hurricanes are not even close to being dominant teams. And don't even think about FSU, which couldn't beat either of these outfits. We have clearly reached the end of a season, but you have to wonder whether it is the end of an era.

Is it possible for Florida, Florida State and Miami to recover? Not just for the occasional season. Not just for one of the three. Is it possible for the triumvirate to dominate the landscape the way they did from 1983-2002?

Have conference ties forever shifted the balance? Has the national flavor of recruiting changed the state's homefield advantage?

Oh, there are legitimate reasons for the lapse. Excuses that could explain this digression as temporary. Florida had the wrong coach, Miami lost underclassmen to the NFL, Florida State had a bad case of the Rix.

There have been snags before. The Gators stumbled in the late "80s. UM had troubles in the mid '90s. But never have all three sputtered simultaneously since the state's heyday began in 1983.

"Time will tell if this is a newsworthy topic or whether it's just a blip," Foley said. "I think you'll see the state back up at the top. There are too many talented players, too many great coaches in the state."

You couldn't tell from the Peach Bowl. Artistic it was not. Ten minutes into the game, there was a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but no first downs.

Miami led 17-3 at the half, and its secret weapon was a yellow hanky. The 'Canes had 24 yards passing, 26 yards rushing and 54 yards in UF penalties.

News flash: While watching the Peach Bowl from his hotel room in Arizona, Urban Meyer was treated for acute hyperventilation.

You can spin this any way you like. Say the state schools failed to win a league title, failed to land a major bowl and failed to frighten opponents. Say their time, obviously, has passed. Or you can say all three are still in the polls. That of their 11 combined losses, only Friday night's was by more than a touchdown. That Florida could have as many as 16 starters return, and Miami could have even more.

The reality is probably somewhere in between. College football may never again see three schools so closely identified with each other playing, year-in and year-out, with the national championship in the balance.

But UF, UM and FSU have advantages that most other programs can only imagine and, in one form or another, each is bound for a return to prominence.

Although, on this night, it seemed far away. The last time UF and UM met in a bowl, there were insults traded and a brawl on the streets of New Orleans. This time, there was only a shared indifference. The game ended, the players exchanged well wishes and a trophy presentation was made before an empty stadium.

Not even the cows were dancing.

HOW THE MIGHTY FALL

After more than two decades of dominance in the Associated Press Top 25 polls, the state of Florida is headed for a fall. For the first time since 1983, the state will not have a team in the Top 5 of the final poll. Between them, Florida, Florida State and Miami have combined for 34 Top 5 finishes and eight national championships. Here are schools with the most Top 5 seasons since 1983:

SCHOOL TOP 5 POLLS

Florida State 14

Miami 12

Florida 8

Nebraska 8

Oklahoma 6

Tennessee 5

Michigan 5

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