When Miami faces Washington State in the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl, the worst season of the state’s modern era will finally, mercifully, be over.
Florida’s seven Division I-A teams enter a lackluster bowl season with a collective 34-50 record (.405 winning percentage). It’s the state’s third-worst record since World War II. Florida went 12-22 (.353) in 1973 — a decade before the Hurricanes won the state’s first national title and 24 years before USF played its first game. And Florida State’s winless season helped the state finish 6-17-2 in 1947. That’s forgivable; FSU wasn’t even paying Ed Williamson to coach a 45-man roster.
Only four state players were first-team all-conference performers, and one of them was a punter (Florida International’s Tommy Heatherly).
So what happened? How did a state with 11 national championships in the last 40 years fall so low that its highlight will be Florida-UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl?
The answer is complex, but here are four reasons:
If you want to remain upbeat about the state’s long-term future, focus on unfortunate injury luck.
UCF had nine notable players miss significant time, including star quarterback Dillon Gabriel and one of the AAC’s top defensive tackles, Kalia Davis. USF had a half-dozen notable contributors suffer season-ending injuries, and banged-up offensive linemen forced FSU to use eight starting configurations through the first 11 games.
Only Florida Atlantic and Florida International started the same quarterback every game. Timmy McClain wasn’t available in USF’s loss at East Carolina. Jordan Travis couldn’t play in defeats to Louisville and North Carolina State. Anthony Richardson was sidelined in three of the Gators’ six losses and limited in a fourth (Kentucky).
Miami starter D’Eriq King missed the final nine games with a hurt shoulder. Though Tyler Van Dyke had a breakout finish, King could have been the difference in losses to North Carolina and Virginia, before Van Dyke found his rhythm, just as the lost developmental time might have helped Richardson supplant Emory Jones as UF’s starter.
This has two meanings. The obvious one: The state combined for 27 more giveaways than takeaways. Only UCF (plus-five) had a positive turnover margin. Florida International was tied for second-to-last nationally (minus-13), and the Gators’ 18 interceptions were their most since 2002. Compare those numbers to 2017, where UCF, Miami, Florida Atlantic and USF all had at least 10 more takeaways than giveaways. Turnover luck is, at least to some degree, cyclical.
The less obvious meaning: Recent coaching turnover has weakened rosters.
Because new coaches have such little time to vet players before signing them, transition classes have high rates of attrition and busts. FSU and UCF have had two transition classes in the last four cycles. The Seminoles’ receiving corps is one example of the problem. Their top two signees from the 2018 transition class are gone, and FSU didn’t sign any in ‘19. That helps explain why FSU ranked No. 83 nationally in yards per pass.
Every state school but Florida International has had at least one recent transition class, decreasing the margin for error at UF, USF, Miami and Florida Atlantic.
3. Offensive line issues
If there’s an ailing position group that transcends schools, it’s the offensive line. Miami, FSU, Florida Atlantic and Florida International all ranked 88th or worse in sacks allowed per game. USF and UCF ranked 77th and 81st in tackles for loss allowed. The Gators were in the top half nationally in both categories but performed poorly enough that Mullen fired position coach John Hevesy after the South Carolina debacle.
Because this position does not lend itself to quick fixes, this problem has the potential to linger.
4. Failures in close games
The state finished a combined 13-18 in games decided by one score thanks to a combination of bad luck, breakdowns and poor coaching decisions. Some of the heartbreakers shaped seasons.
FSU would be in a bowl game if it hadn’t blown the last play against Jacksonville State. Manny Diaz might still be Miami’s head coach if his Hurricanes didn’t flop on fourth and 14 at FSU or squandered last-minute scoring chances against Virginia and North Carolina. How different would Dan Mullen’s future have been if his Gators didn’t miss an extra point against Alabama or have a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown at Kentucky?
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