For the first time since 2011, Florida and Florida State meet in their annual rivalry game with neither team being ranked. It’s only the second time in the last 30 years that’s happened, and this year, it’s even less meaningful with neither team currently even bowl-eligible. It’s a far cry from those mid-to-late 1990s meetings that carried national-title implications.
With that in mind, we turned to our resident experts in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Zach Abolverdi and Sanjay Kirpalani, to get to the bottom of the biggest issues with both teams and figure out when this game will hold meaning again. The future of these programs will be decided on the recruiting trail, and that’s the focus of this rivalry roundtable.
Florida and Florida State currently sit 9-10, respectively, in the 247sports composite rankings for 2018. Which team is more likely to finish with the higher rating?
Sanjay Kirpalani, FSU recruiting reporter: I think it largely depends on the changes that are made at both schools and how recruits react to them. We know Florida is going to have a whole new staff in place and it’s likely that Florida State’s staff undergoes a makeover, as well.
With the Gators, there’s a bit of the unknown in who will they end up hiring? Even if it’s a guy like Chip Kelly, he’s never fit the bill as an ace recruiter dating back to his time at Oregon. Still, Florida will always recruit itself and the Gators are likely to get the momentum boost that comes with injecting new blood into the program.
With Florida State, assuming Jimbo Fisher sticks around (for the record, I believe he will), there’s at least a track record to fall back on. Since he’s taken over the program, all but one of his classes have finished in the top 10 of the 247Sports team composite. The one class that didn’t finished 11th (2013). Plus, he has a record of hiring coaches who know how to get it done on the recruiting trail. With that in mind, I’d say Florida State probably has the better chance of finishing with the higher-rated class, even though the margin probably won’t be by much.
Zach Abolverdi, Florida recruiting reporter: If Jim McElwain was still the coach at Florida, I’d probably predict Florida State to finish with a better ranking. Fisher still gets both recognition and respect from recruits for his past success with the Seminoles. That’s why he has a top-10 class despite his team’s record. With a Heisman Trophy winner and a national championship on his résumé in Tallahassee, Fisher has established himself as one of the best coaches in college football and recruits realize that.
McElwain, however, did not possess that same level of pull with prospects. He wouldn’t have been able to survive a 4-win season the way Fisher will. So if McElwain was still at the helm, Florida would’ve had a tough time holding onto its top-10 rating because of hot-seat talk and the negative recruiting impact. However, if a home-run hire such as Kelly happens, I think Florida ends up with a higher ranking than Florida State and a better finish than McElwain would’ve been able to deliver.
Miami has 11 of the top 50 recruits in the state of Florida committed in its 2018 class. That’s more than Florida and Florida State combined. Two-part question here: Is Miami back? And how does your team flip the script to compete with the Hurricanes on the recruiting trail?
Kirpalani: For the first question, I’d say the answer is yes. The Hurricanes are one of three unbeaten Power 5 schools and they’ve won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time since entering the conference. Plus, they have a realistic path to the College Football Playoff and a recruiting class that is tops in the ACC and No. 4 nationally. Whatever “back” means, the ‘Canes are in my book.
On the second question, for Florida State, it’s relatively simple. The Seminoles have to make some changes in areas where things have gotten stale. But it’s not like the program has gone into the tank. After all, this is a program that has won 10 or more games in each of the last five seasons. Miami’s best team in more than a decade needed a last-second touchdown pass to end a seven-year losing skid to Florida State’s worst squad in a decade, so it’s not like the margin between the two programs is huge.
From a recruiting standpoint, Florida State has the ACC’s second-best class behind the Hurricanes and they’ve signed top groups in the previous few cycles, so the program isn’t devoid of talent.
Assuming Florida State makes some changes to the coaching staff and adds some new wrinkles to what they do scheme-wise, I think they have the talent necessary to turn things around fairly quickly.
Abolverdi: We’ll see if the Hurricanes are officially back by the way the way they finish their season on the field, but they’re definitely back on the recruiting trail. The 2017 recruiting class was Mark Richt’s first full recruiting cycle at Miami and the ‘Canes finished just outside of the top 10 nationally (No. 12) after South Florida cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Brian Edwards both chose Florida on National Signing Day.
But Richt and his staff bounced back from those misses by landing four top-150 defensive backs in the current cycle (Al Blades Jr., Josh Jobe, Gurvan Hall and Gilbert Frierson). Last year the Gators signed more top-50 players from the state of Florida than any other program in the country, but Miami will claim that crown in the Class of 2018 with those four defensive backs, 5-star running back Lorenzo Lingard and 4-star receiver Mark Pope.
Fortunately for the Gators, they already have a jump on the next cycle with 12 commits. Their 2019 class ranks No. 1 nationally, although Miami isn’t too far behind at No. 8. Both commitment lists are in their early stages, but Florida will certainly have a chance to regain the in-state crown from the Hurricanes.
What is the bigger issue for this current recruiting class: Florida’s coaching change or Florida State’s poor season with no coaching change?
Kirpalani: I think Florida was wise to make a change because it was pretty obvious that McElwain just wasn’t a fit. Now that the Gators have moved on, it’s simply a matter of finding that right fit; Florida is a program that has everything else you need to win big. I don’t think Florida will ever have a problem attracting talent, so I think the Gators will be fine even though the program is in a transition period.
To answer the question, I think Florida State would suffer in the long run if the Seminoles don’t make some changes. Fisher has earned the benefit of the doubt to get things fixed, but his staff clearly needs to be evaluated and there are changes that can and should be made among the group. The program has been on the decline in certain areas since the national title season in 2013, and I think that is part of the reason why the Seminoles find themselves in the circumstance they are faced with now. If they don’t make changes, it makes it quite a bit easier to recruit against Florida State considering what is going on around them with the schools they normally compete with for talent.
Abolverdi: Florida’s coaching change, without a doubt. It doesn’t feel that way because of how the class reacted to the news and has stayed mostly intact, but that’s not the norm. Most recruiting classes experience at least a few de-commitments when a head coach gets fired.
Many Florida fans feared that would happen because McElwain and his staff had finally established the necessary recruiting relationships and were on the verge of signing an elite class. However, it looks like the Gators still have that possibility without him.
Their 2018 class has a core group of leaders in Matt Corral, Randy Russell and Amari Burney. Those three are in constant communication with other commits and actively trying to keep the class together. You just don’t see that kind of commitment level very often.
If not for their leadership and the allure of Kelly coming, Florida commits would be jumping ship. That’s not going to happen to Fisher at Florida State, even if the Seminoles lose Saturday.
Which in-state player would have the biggest immediate impact for your team in 2018, even if they aren’t considering your team right now?
Kirpalani: I’d say 5-star Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy defensive end and current Clemson commit Xavier Thomas. He’s the No. 3 overall player in the country, the top-ranked defensive player and the top overall player in the Sunshine State.
Florida State’s defense has taken a step back this season, and part of the reason why is because the pass rush has not been the same after losing standout defensive end DeMarcus Walker to graduation.
Thomas would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. One, he’s one of the most gifted pass rushers I’ve seen in all my years covering recruiting. The South Carolina native is simply a man among boys on the prep level and he has all the tools necessary to make an impact early in college. Second, you would be taking him away from a rival in Clemson if Florida State were to flip him. Instead, it looks like he’s going to be a problem for Fisher and his staff to deal with for the next few years.
Abolverdi: Safety is the biggest priority for the Gators in the class, so I’m going with Florida commit and early enrollee Russell. The Miami product has the ability to play several spots in the secondary, but he’s a true safety (ranked No. 12 nationally by 247Sports) and packs a huge punch with his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame.
His hitting ability, instincts and cover skills are all evident on film. He has one of the most impressive tapes in the country at a position of need for Florida. I expect him to push for playing time in the spring and catch on the way Florida freshman cornerback Marco Wilson has this season.
When will the Florida-Florida State game matter again, from a national perspective?
Kirpalani: I think it will be sooner than most people think. To put a time frame on it, I think it will be a nationally relevant game again in two years.
I expect the Gators to make a quality hire and get back to their winning ways relatively soon. Similarly, I think Florida State will make the changes they need to make in order to get back on the right track.
I’d be very surprised if we are sitting here in two years and one or both of these schools are sitting in a similar position to what we see now.
Abolverdi: I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Florida interim coach Randy Shannon, but I agree with his feelings on this. Shannon said Monday this game still matters to in-state recruits because it’s personal to them, especially the commits on both sides.
The game Saturday may not draw visitors from around the country, but the rivalry will still attract players from the Sunshine State who grew up rooting for one of the schools and/or now have offers from them as a recruits. Not even 4-6 records can ruin their interest in this game.
“I’m coming just so I can see Florida beat FSU,” Gators 2019 safety commit Jaleel McRae told SEC Country last Saturday.