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What’s the best Florida college football game this season?

Here are our annual rankings, from No. 81 (Bryant-FIU) to No. 1.
FSU coach Mike Norvell is entering his pivotal third season with the Seminoles.
FSU coach Mike Norvell is entering his pivotal third season with the Seminoles. [ MARY SCHWALM | AP ]
Published Jul. 21

After another college football offseason filled with conference realignment and coaching changes, let’s turn our focus to what truly matters: the games.

For the sixth consecutive year, I’m ranking every Division I-A game in the state (plus three notable Football Championship Subdivision contests). As always, this list is based on how important I think the game will be and the excitement around the matchup.

81. Bryant at Florida International, Sept. 1 (Thursday)

Bryant, apparently, is a Rhode Island school that just joined the Big South Conference and is coached by Chris Merritt, who led Miami Columbus High to a pair of Class 8A state title games.

80. Southeastern Louisiana at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 10

79. South Carolina State at UCF, Sept. 1 (Thursday)

78. UConn at Florida International, Oct. 8

77. Florida International at New Mexico State, Oct. 1

UConn, New Mexico State and Florida International all are among the nation’s five worst teams in most preseason projections. Somebody has to win, I guess.

Related: How the Florida Gators, FSU and Miami became the Big Three

76. Howard at USF, Sept. 10

Former USF offensive lineman Larry Scott was Miami's interim coach in 2015.
Former USF offensive lineman Larry Scott was Miami's interim coach in 2015. [ KEITH SRAKOCIC | AP ]

A homecoming for Howard coach Larry Scott, a member of the Bulls’ inaugural class and a former USF/Florida/Miami assistant.

75. Bethune-Cookman at Miami, Sept. 3

Mario Cristobal’s Hurricanes debut should be a breeze.

74. Duquesne at Florida State, Aug. 27

No chance Mike Norvell’s Seminoles lose at home to an FCS opponent again … right?

73. Florida Atlantic at Ohio, Sept. 3

72. Eastern Washington at Florida, Oct. 1

Jim McElwain is no longer at Florida, and yet the Gators are still playing a pretty cool game against his alma mater.
Jim McElwain is no longer at Florida, and yet the Gators are still playing a pretty cool game against his alma mater. [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]

The Gators originally scheduled Eastern Washington when alumnus Jim McElwain was leading UF. Two coaches, six years and one pandemic postponement later, UF hosts the FCS power.

71. Bethune-Cookman vs. Jackson State, Oct. 15 (Jacksonville)

If Mike Norvell’s third season starts poorly, pay attention to this north Florida matchup featuring another third-year coach: Jackson State’s Deion Sanders.

70. Rice at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 15

69. Florida International at Texas State, Sept. 10

68. Louisiana Tech at Florida International, Oct. 28 (Friday)

A weeknight game between two new coaches: the Panthers’ Mike MacIntyre and Sonny Cumbie (who replaced former USF coach Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech).

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67. Middle Tennessee at Miami, Sept. 24

66. Southern Miss at Miami, Sept. 10

65. Middle Tennessee at Florida International, Nov. 26

Jordan Guerad caught a touchdown pass for Bloomingdale in the 2020 Class 7A playoffs. Now he's at Florida International.
Jordan Guerad caught a touchdown pass for Bloomingdale in the 2020 Class 7A playoffs. Now he's at Florida International. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Regular-season finale is a reunion for Bloomingdale High teammates Jalen Jackson (Middle Tennessee cornerback) and Jordan Guerad (Panthers defensive lineman).

64. Florida International at Charlotte, Oct. 22

63. Florida International at University of Texas at El Paso, Nov. 19

62. Florida International at North Texas, Nov. 5

61. Florida International at Western Kentucky, Sept. 24

60. Florida International at University of Texas at San Antonio, Oct. 14 (Friday)

An off-night game is a good excuse to see how the Roadrunners — one of last year’s best surprises — are rebuilding.

59. Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida A&M, Nov. 19 (Orlando)

Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M will meet at Camping World Stadium this year.
Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M will meet at Camping World Stadium this year. [ ROMEO T GUZMAN | Romeo T Guzman/BCU Athletics ]

The Florida Classic remains one of the top matchups of historically black colleges/universities. This year’s game at Camping World Stadium is no different.

58. Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee, Nov. 19

57. Florida Atlantic at University of Texas at El Paso, Oct. 22

56. Florida Atlantic at North Texas, Oct. 1

55. USF at Temple, Nov. 5

Jeff Scott's Bulls finally earned their first Division I-A win last year against Temple.
Jeff Scott's Bulls finally earned their first Division I-A win last year against Temple. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Bulls coach Jeff Scott got his first I-A win against the Owls last year and should get another here.

54. Temple at UCF, Oct. 13 (Thursday)

53. Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic, Nov. 26

52. Florida Atlantic at Purdue, Sept. 24

The Owls are 1-8 against current Big Ten teams and will have a hard time on the road against a Boilermakers team expected to contend in the West Division.

51. Florida at Vanderbilt, Nov. 19

50. USF at Florida, Sept. 17

Anthony Richardson and the Gators didn't have much trouble against USF last season.
Anthony Richardson and the Gators didn't have much trouble against USF last season. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The Gators beat the Bulls by 22 last season at Raymond James Stadium. I’m not expecting this meeting to be much different.

49. UCF at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 17

Florida Atlantic coach Willie Taggart split his four meetings against the Knights at USF. His Owls should be overmatched this time, even at home.

48. Duke at Miami, Oct. 22

47. Charlotte at Florida Atlantic, Aug. 27

A Conference USA showdown of two future AAC members. It’s also something to watch in Week Zero and the opener for Taggart’s make-or-break third season.

Related: Three conference realignment thoughts on the ACC, USF and Big 12

46. UCF at East Carolina, Oct. 22

45. Florida Atlantic at Florida International, Nov. 12

44. Navy at UCF, Nov. 19

Isaiah Bowser and the Knights shouldn't have an issue with Navy.
Isaiah Bowser and the Knights shouldn't have an issue with Navy. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

The Midshipmen won 11 games in 2015 and ‘19 but are 7-15 over the past two years and are expected to be near the bottom of the AAC this fall, too.

43. UCF at Tulane, Nov. 12

42. Tulane at USF, Oct. 15

41. University of Alabama at Birmingham at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 29

How will the Blazers do without Bill Clark, who resurrected the program but is stepping down due to chronic back issues?

40. East Carolina at USF, Oct. 1

39. USF at Louisville, Sept. 24

38. Jackson State vs. Florida A&M, Sept. 4 (Sunday, Miami)

FSU legend Deion Sanders will be in the state twice this season, including at Miami in Week 1.
FSU legend Deion Sanders will be in the state twice this season, including at Miami in Week 1. [ ROGELIO V. SOLIS | AP (2021) ]

The Tigers and Rattlers finished a combined 20-5 last year, so this nationally televised game is a chance for Deion Sanders to boost his resume for the next coaching cycle.

37. Miami at Georgia Tech, Nov. 12

36. Georgia Tech at UCF, Sept. 24

I wouldn’t be shocked if a Yellow Jackets loss marks the end for coach Geoff Collins (a former Gators/UCF assistant).

35. Georgia Tech at Florida State, Oct. 29

Georgia Tech's Geoff Collins topped Mike Norvell in his 2020 FSU debut.
Georgia Tech's Geoff Collins topped Mike Norvell in his 2020 FSU debut. [ DON JUAN MOORE | Don Juan Moore ]

Georgia Tech beat FSU 16-13 in Tallahassee in Mike Norvell’s 2020 debut. This, then, is a chance for Norvell to show his program’s progress.

34. Florida State at Syracuse, Nov. 12

33. Boston College at Florida State, Sept. 24

32. SMU at USF, Nov. 12

A home date against new SMU coach Rhett Lashlee (a former Miami assistant) is a potential swing game for the Bulls’ bowl hopes.

31. UCF at Memphis, Nov. 5

30. SMU at UCF, Oct. 1

29. USF at Tulsa, Nov. 18 (Friday)

USF and Tulsa have a history of close games, including the Bulls' 32-31 loss last year.
USF and Tulsa have a history of close games, including the Bulls' 32-31 loss last year. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Four of their five all-time meetings have been one-score games, so this should be good Friday night entertainment.

28. South Carolina at Florida, Nov. 12

27. USF at Houston, Oct. 29

26. Louisiana at Florida State, Nov. 19

Higher than you’d expect because I’m curious to see the state of the Ragin’ Cajuns program Billy Napier left behind and because Louisiana didn’t back down from Iowa State or Texas the last two years. This could be close.

Related: Why Billy Napier’s personality is vital to Florida Gators’ success

25. Missouri at Florida, Oct. 8

Florida coach Dan Mullen, right, is held back by coaches and law enforcement after a fight broke out at the end of the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Missouri in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP)
Florida coach Dan Mullen, right, is held back by coaches and law enforcement after a fight broke out at the end of the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Missouri in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via AP) [ BRAD MCCLENNY | AP ]

The last two meetings have featured a brawl, a pair of Star Wars shoutouts and Dan Mullen’s final game. Good luck topping that.

Related: Eliah Drinkwitz: No beef with former Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen

24. USF at Cincinnati, Oct. 8

23. Louisville at UCF, Sept. 9 (Friday)

22. Miami at Virginia Tech, Oct. 15

21. Miami at Virginia, Oct. 29

It’s ahead of the Hokies game because the Cavaliers have an excellent quarterback (Brennan Armstrong) and because I’m more interested in Virginia’s new coach (former Clemson assistant Tony Elliott) than Virginia Tech’s new coach (Brent Pry).

Related: Inside the collapse of Florida college football’s Big Three

20. Florida State at Louisville, Sept. 16 (Friday)

The Seminoles get an open date to prepare for their ACC opener against Malik Cunningham and the Cardinals.

19. North Carolina at Miami, Oct. 8

18. BYU at USF, Sept. 3

The Bulls didn’t broadcast their spring game to try to hide details from BYU for the opener. Will it pay off in a statement victory?

17. Wake Forest at Florida State, Oct. 1

Wake Forest will be a tricky game for Florida State at the start of a rough three-game stretch.
Wake Forest will be a tricky game for Florida State at the start of a rough three-game stretch. [ CHRIS CARLSON | AP (2021) ]

The Demon Deacons will be a preseason top-20 team and begin a brutal three-game stretch for FSU that continues with …

16. Florida State at North Carolina State, Oct. 8

FSU is 2-4 in its last six trips to Raleigh and will face a top-15 Wolfpack team with a future NFL quarterback (Devin Leary) and a realistic shot at winning the Atlantic Division.

15. Cincinnati at UCF, Oct. 29

The Bearcats should dip after last year’s College Football Playoff run but, like future Big 12 colleague UCF, rank among the top AAC contenders.

14. Kentucky at Florida, Sept. 10

Kentucky has beaten the Gators in two of the last four years.
Kentucky has beaten the Gators in two of the last four years. [ TIMOTHY D. EASLEY | AP ]

Billy Napier’s SEC debut will not be easy. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is gaining NFL buzz, and Mark Stoops’ program has the kind of stability the Gators haven’t experienced in years.

13. LSU at Florida, Oct. 15

Lower than usual because I’m not expecting either team to be great, even if this intense rivalry rarely disappoints.

12. Clemson at Florida State, Oct. 15

The final game of the Seminoles’ tough three-week stretch. FSU has lost six in a row in the series but was in last year’s game until the final play.

11. Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 29 (Jacksonville)

Though I expect the Bulldogs to regress slightly from their national championship team, I don’t envision Billy Napier toppling former Alabama colleague Kirby Smart in Year 1.

10. Miami at Clemson, Nov. 19

There will be a lot of buzz around the state’s best team traveling to a playoff contender. If both play up to their potential, they’ll face each other two weeks later in the ACC championship, which dulls this matchup slightly.

9. Pitt at Miami, Nov. 26

Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke will try to lead the Hurricanes to a win over Pitt.
Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke will try to lead the Hurricanes to a win over Pitt. [ KEITH SRAKOCIC | AP ]

Bigger than Clemson because there’s a good chance the regular-season finale decides the Coastal Division … and sets up a likely date with the Tigers a week later for the ACC title.

8. Florida at Texas A&M, Nov. 5

Jimbo Fisher was 7-1 against the Gators at FSU, and his 2020 win over Florida was his first marquee triumph at Texas A&M. Fisher’s quarterback, Max Johnson — son of former Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson — also beat UF twice as LSU’s starter.

7. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 24

The Gators have won 16 of the last 17 meetings, but Josh Heupel’s Volunteers should challenge Florida this year. Unless that’s just wishful thinking from a sucker who wants this once-great rivalry to be relevant again.

Related: SEC, save the Florida Gators vs. Tennessee football rivalry

6. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 25 (Friday)

A rivalry win would earn Billy Napier some goodwill with fans at the end of his first year or be a boost for the Seminoles, no matter how Mike Norvell’s third season shakes out.

5. UCF at USF, Nov. 25/26

The War on I-4 will take a pause, if not significant break, when UCF moves to the Big 12.
The War on I-4 will take a pause, if not significant break, when UCF moves to the Big 12. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2017) ]

With the Knights headed to the Big 12 and few spots available on future non-conference schedules, this, unfortunately, will probably be the last War on I-4 for a while. Here’s hoping it goes out with a bang.

4. Florida State at Miami, Nov. 5

Florida State-Miami has given us some great games, including the Seminoles' fourth-and-14 victory last year.
Florida State-Miami has given us some great games, including the Seminoles' fourth-and-14 victory last year. [ MARK WALLHEISER | AP ]

Unlike Florida-Florida State, this rivalry continues to deliver, even without lofty stakes. Mario Cristobal will try to become the fourth Miami coach since 1978 to beat FSU in his first attempt. The other three: Manny Diaz, Randy Shannon and Larry Coker.

Related: Will Florida Gators, FSU and Miami ever be the Big Three again?

3. Utah at Florida, Sept. 3

Billy Napier's Florida Gators debut will be against a very good Utah team.
Billy Napier's Florida Gators debut will be against a very good Utah team. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]

The Billy Napier era opens against the defending Pac-12 champions, who will start the year in the top 15. Florida fans should keep their expectations muted against former Urban Meyer assistant Kyle Whittingham. It’s also an awkward homecoming for Mohamoud Diabate, UF’s second-leading tackler who transferred to Utah in the offseason.

2. Miami at Texas A&M, Sept. 17

Jimbo Fisher was 7-1 against Miami during his Florida State tenure.
Jimbo Fisher was 7-1 against Miami during his Florida State tenure. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP ]

The Aggies and Hurricanes should both be 2-0 and nationally ranked heading into their Week 3 meeting at Kyle Field. The playoff hype will spike for the victor. It’s worth remembering that Jimbo Fisher also went 7-1 against Miami when he was at FSU.

1. Florida State vs. LSU, Sept. 4 (Sunday, New Orleans)

Florida State coach Mike Norvell opens his pivotal third year against LSU.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell opens his pivotal third year against LSU. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Orlando Sentinel ]

This game doesn’t have playoff implications, but it’s the most fascinating game in the state because I have no idea what to make of either team. New LSU coach Brian Kelly knows FSU well from his time at Notre Dame, but can his Tigers compete at a high level immediately? Mike Norvell has played big-name programs well (including last year’s opener against the Irish) but is lacking in marquee wins. A triumph would be monumental for Norvell’s tenure —and the trajectory of his Seminoles —as he begins a pivotal third season. The stakes and uncertainty make this our top game of the season.

• • •

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