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End of year review: College football is here, but where are the Florida schools?

September brought the realization that college football in Florida had reverted to 1970s-level mediocrity, and the Bucs began the painful defense of their Super Bowl title.
Florida State defensive tackle Dennis Briggs Jr., right, pauses on the field as Jacksonville State celebrates after upsetting the Seminoles on Sept. 11 in Tallahassee.
Florida State defensive tackle Dennis Briggs Jr., right, pauses on the field as Jacksonville State celebrates after upsetting the Seminoles on Sept. 11 in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 28, 2021

The season began with such promise and inspiration.

A prime-time game against No. 9 Notre Dame that went to overtime and featured the remarkable comeback story of quarterback McKenzie Milton. The night ended in a 41-38 defeat for Florida State, but surely there were better days on the horizon.

Except, there really weren’t.

Not for the Seminoles and, honestly, not for any college football team in the Sunshine State. The 2021 college football season will be remembered as the year Florida schools reverted back to their 1970s-era story lines of unfulfilled expectations and mediocrity.

Just six days after the showdown with Notre Dame, the Seminoles segued into one of the most stunning losses in the program’s history. Jacksonville State beat the Seminoles 20-17 in Tallahassee on a 59-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play. It was FSU’s first loss to a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in generations.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: August arrives and the Rays get hot

Florida’s season was not quite as ugly, but the disappointment in Gainesville might have been even greater. After taking Alabama down to the final play in September, the Gators slowly fell apart. Coach Dan Mullen eventually was fired and Florida ended below .500 after a Gasparilla Bowl loss to UCF.

Of the state’s major programs, only Miami and UCF managed to finish above .500 in league play. And Miami canned its coach, too.

For a state where schools combined to win the national championship, on average, one out of every three years for three decades, this season was a remarkable comedown.

Not one team finished the regular season in the polls. In fact, no Florida schools appeared in the College Football Playoff rankings that began in the first week of November and ran through the end of the regular season.

A total of 32 schools in 20 states made an appearance at some point in the rankings, but none from college football’s recruiting paradise.

Related: End of year review: Lord Stanley spends another summer in Tampa Bay

Pain and glory go hand-in-hand for the Bucs in 2021

Ryan Succop (3) smiles after making the game-winning kick against the Cowboys in the season opener.
Ryan Succop (3) smiles after making the game-winning kick against the Cowboys in the season opener. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The quest for a second straight Super Bowl began in thrilling — and somewhat chilling — fashion for the Bucs in a Thursday night game against the Cowboys. In the final minute, Tom Brady and the Bucs drove the length of the field for a Ryan Succop 36-yard field goal with two seconds remaining for a 31-29 victory.

The Bucs survived without injured safety Jordan Whitehead and with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting going down with a dislocated elbow. It was a preview of what was to come in Tampa Bay with the Bucs winning consistently and losing key players to injury just as routinely.

A fitting reward for three years of success

Erik Neander and the Rays had another successful season, even if the postseason stay was brief.
Erik Neander and the Rays had another successful season, even if the postseason stay was brief. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

There were all kinds of milestones for the Rays in September. For the first time in franchise history, they reached the playoffs for a third consecutive season. They also won the American League East and would soon finish with 100 victories for the first time. Much of this success could be attributed to general manager Erik Neander, and he was appropriately rewarded in September with a contract extension and a promotion to president of baseball operations.

Neander, undoubtedly, would have been a target for big-market franchises if the Rays had not locked him up. “All of the reasons that I initially wanted to work in baseball I have them here,” Neander said.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: A Wander-ful addition for Tampa Bay

Ain’t nobody getting near this goal

September brought a stretch of defensive brilliance like never before for the Rowdies. They went eight consecutive games — and a USL Championship-record 891 minutes — without giving up a goal. “The players continue to impress me every week,” coach Neill Collins said.

Yes, we’ve got wrestlers, too

Tampa native and resident Ettore Ewen, who performs as Big E, is the WWE champion.
Tampa native and resident Ettore Ewen, who performs as Big E, is the WWE champion. [ Courtesy of WWE ]

Stanley Cups, a Lombardi Trophy, an American League pennant, Olympic gold medals? What was next for Tampa Bay? How about the WWE Championship? Tampa native Ettore Ewen, who performs as Big E, won the belt by defeating Bobby Lashley on Sept. 13. “It was a spiritual experience,” Ewen told Sports Illustrated. “It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

Words to remember

“EMBARRASSING / where r the baseball fans in the Tampa area. Does anyone look at the standings? Ppl they r in 1st place ahead of the @Yankees & @RedSox! It is so S-A-D!” Tweet from uber Rays fan Dick Vitale.

• • •

“The kid might have the slowest heart rate I’ve ever seen. The game comes slow to him.” Rays pitcher Dietrich Enns after the Major League debut of 22-year-old Shane Baz.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: The Kuch comeback!

• • •

“I don’t find it so difficult. Plus, in Florida, it’s kind of a retiree state, so I feel like I can play and then just glide into retirement. I think I can. I think it’s a yes.” Tom Brady when asked by Rob Gronkowski on the possibility of playing until 50.

“Will Gisele let Tom play until 50? That’s the real question.” Gronkowski said.

“That’s a way better question.” Brady replied.

• • •

“Confetti poppers are fun, but there’s nothing that beats the burn of champagne. It burns so good.” Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe after the Rays were able to have a proper playoff-clinching celebration following the more subdued pandemic-wary party in 2020.

On second thought

Signs like these from Rays fans are no problem. The Montreal sign the Rays wanted to place in the outfield? That's another story.
Signs like these from Rays fans are no problem. The Montreal sign the Rays wanted to place in the outfield? That's another story. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Rays have been adamant that the sister city proposal with Montreal is the best — and they say only — way to preserve Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay. In their exuberance about the plan, the Rays announced in September that a tasteful sign would be included on a Tropicana Field wall for the 2021 playoffs. That brainstorm was not well-received in the marketplace and, a few days later, the Rays backtracked.

“I made a big mistake, a real mistake, in trying to promote our sister-city plan with a sign right now in our home ballpark,” owner Stu Sternberg said. “I absolutely should have known better. And really, I’m sorry for that.”

Related: Let’s hope the Rays have a better rapport with their Montreal fans

• • •

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