Sunshine Snap Judgments: Florida's best team is the Gators or 'Noles; it ain't the 'Canes

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Big Three, for at least a year, is looking a lot more like a Top Two.

Florida college football fans got a little clarity this past weekend. We don't know who the best team in the state is, though both Florida and Florida State fans will argue for their side -- but we know definitively that it isn't Miami.

Florida added another impressive win to its growing list by throttling South Carolina's offense and converting on the exploits of the Gators defense and special teams with efficient offense of its own. For the first time this season, neither Jeff Driskel and Mike Gillislee tallied a gaudy yardage total on offense, but the Gators dealt with short fields beautifully, going six-for-six on getting six points in the red zone, and put up their biggest point total of the year as a result. It's impossible to make a case for the Gators as a national title contender and mention their offense even second, but mad scientist Brent Pease certainly seems up to the task of wringing every drop of production out of the talent he has.

Florida State has more talent on offense, and that bore itself out on Saturday against Miami. Chris Thompson carried the Seminoles early, helping stave off a huge halftime deficit before sustaining a season-ending ACL injury, and then the 'Noles let their stable of backs go to work: James Wilder had 49 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, and Devonta Freeman had his finest day in years with 70 yards and two touchdowns. EJ Manuel did enough despite Kelvin Benjamin doing too much repeatedly, and Jimbo Fisher stayed calm and called the sort of game that puts away a team that can't stand and trade blows.

Florida State's defense played well the whole night, despite allowing 10 points in short-field quick-change situations, and the Seminoles outlasted the Hurricanes and a flurry of bad calls (I mean, Tomahawk Nation's recap has "overcomes mistakes and refs" in the title) more because their depth is significantly better than Miami's than anything. FSU outscored the 'Canes 17-7 in the fourth quarter, and that Miami touchdown came with under a minute to go and just sliced into a 20-point lead. Florida State's about two touchdowns better than Miami, maybe a little more; Saturday night showed it.

That's a sad state of affairs for Miami, which was the team with the upper hand in this rivalry not that long ago: 2009, when Miami won a classic shootout on Labor Day by a 38-34 count, began with the 'Canes rolling to 3-1 in a September that featured games against FSU, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma. (If you remember how Miami won that Oklahoma game, tell me in the comments; I sure as hell don't.)

And it's going to get worse, unless the NCAA decides to go really easy on Miami for having a booster scandal as public and ugly as any since SMU. One underrated aspect of the Miami scandal, which is fading in the public mind as time goes by: if Miami gets a lighter penalty for actual NCAA violations than Penn State did, then the NCAA is going to get howled at for not enforcing its own rulebook after creating rules out of thin air to claim jurisdiction over that tragedy and save face, so the NCAA may hammer Miami because it can't look soft after trying to look hard. (The NCAA gives me many headaches.) Scholarship reductions are a certainty, a bowl ban seems very likely and might last for years, and a TV ban isn't out of the question.

How bad is it going to have to get to chase Al Golden out of Coral Gables? He's already got a team that is a distant third in the state, and is fending off or losing to Florida State for South Florida kids; if Florida (which had Aubrey Hill, its South Florida recruiter, "resign" before the season, and is now calling Will Muschamp its lead recruiter in the area while he's also doing head coach things) starts making inroads into the fiefdoms of Miami-Dade and Broward, Miami could be looking at a five-year period of mediocrity.

Would a loss to USF make the point that Miami isn't competitive in Florida right now?

USF covered and played fairly well in pushing Louisville on the road before losing 27-25 on Saturday. That is not going to make any USF fans happy, not least of which our friends at Voodoo Five:

I know what some of you are thinking. "But we played a good game! We almost beat a ranked team on the road!"

...

The Bulls did play a good enough game to win. They kept the mistakes to a minimum. The offense was very good in the second half. The team played a good enough game to get the win and maybe send their season in a new direction.

Instead, Skip Holtz, the man who made a big deal about rewarding "productivity and effort" out of his players during the bye week, made more awful decisions than all of his players did combined, and very possibly took that chance to win the game away from them. These are just the latest in a string of bad in-game decisions that, combined with the structural problems with the team and the dwindling talent level, leave me thinking that it's time to find another coach for USF football.

So, um, ouch. But Holtz' seat should be hot: he inherited a team that had gone 8-5 the year before and got it to 8-5 again in 2010, beating Miami but getting two wins in overtime that season; 2011's Bulls went 5-7 after beating Notre Dame and starting 4-0; this year's vintage started 2-0 and has lost five straight, and is going to struggle mightily to get to bowl eligibility. USF's had big wins to help keep the faith in years past; I don't think the Bulls are going to get one this year, given that playing Miami in South Florida — though USF won there in 2010, in a rare game for the University of South Florida in South Florida — is really their only chance. Then again: Miami's not exactly great.

I'll admit I didn't see any of the USF game live — and in the hours of ESPN I watched on Saturday night, didn't even see replays from it. But combine the dwindling chances for a bowl game or a signature win this year, the downward trajectory in the last three, and the clear lack of enthusiasm on the part of fans, and Holtz' timeframe for saving his job is getting shorter and shorter. If USF-Miami turns into a game that decides whether Holtz stays (USF could be 2-7 after two straight home losses to Big East teams by that point) and plays a role in deciding whether Golden bails, it'll be a bizarre mirror of the Florida-Florida State game that looms as a Thanksgiving treat.

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UCF never trailed in its 35-17 win over Memphis, outscored the Tigers in the second half by a 21-7 tally, and led 35-10 before giving up a touchdown with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. UCF is better than Memphis. We knew that.

UCF was better than Southern Mississippi, though, and needed overtime to finish the Golden Eagles; UCF will be better than Marshall, probably, this coming Saturday. UCF can take an effective two-game lead in Conference USA's East Division with a win over the Herd. UCF has been good, good enough to escape the Central Florida tag this year.

Being good is about where the Knights' peak is and should be right now. George O'Leary isn't a great coach, nor is he good at saying words:

And UCF still picks fourth after the Big Three for Florida schools at best. More often, Central Florida kids who are good end up falling into the gray area that none of the Big Three is dominant in, and get love from out-of-state schools with recruiters who like coming to Florida. Urban Meyer's past success at Florida (and, especially, at schools like Lakeland) is going to make Ohio State a player in the region for years to come, and Charlie Strong's Louisville staff is built for dipping into Florida, to note just two examples.

O'Leary's not the coach who can build UCF into a program that flips that power structure on its ear, and he's 66. The Knights are just going to be average to good under him. Is that good enough until he decides to retire?

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I definitely took a shot at both Florida International and Florida Atlantic by writing "when" in discussing the ramifications of their Week 8 games. AND THEN THEY LOST HILARIOUSLY.

FIU's failure: the Golden Panthers led 21-7 in the first quarter, and 37-21 in the third quarter, but allowed Troy to throw for 245 yards and run for 187 more and rally for a 38-37 win by giving up a game-winning drive to the Trojans after pinning them at their own 6. Troy led for all of 11 seconds, but they were the last ones, and the last ones are the most important.

FAU's even more dispiriting flop: after leading 31-17 in the fourth quarter, the Owls gave up two touchdowns in the final six minutes to South Alabama, then lost in double overtime by losing two yards on a drive and having a field goal blocked. That loss is also the Jaguars' first FBS win.

FIU and FAU are a combined 2-13. This Sunshine State Sun Belt Stupid-Off is really going well! I have no idea who's going to win/lose!

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In non-FBS Florida school action: Florida A&M fell to South Carolina State in overtime, 27-20; Bethune-Cookman rolled Norfolk State, 48-3; and Jacksonville lost to San Diego, 24-7, in its first Pioneer League loss of the year.

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