Derrick Henry, Laremy Tunsil and Joey Bosa have a few things in common.
They are arguably the best player in the country at their positions. They are likely to be the first player selected at their positions in the 2016 NFL Draft. They are from the same recruiting class in 2013.
Henry, Tunsil and Bosa are also from the state of Florida, and they left home to become All-America talents at Alabama, Ole Miss and Ohio State. They were among the top 10 players in Florida as high school seniors, and along with fellow top-10 2013 recruits Alex Collins (Arkansas) and Mackensie Alexander (Clemson), they left the state to become stars elsewhere.
In recent years, college football programs have been able to go into Florida and extract top recruits more easily than they did when Florida, Florida State and Miami dominated the national landscape.
When former UGA coach Mark Richt decided to continue his coaching career with Miami, it may have been the final step in the resurrection of Florida’s “Big Three” programs. Other top programs, like the ones in the SEC, may find it a little tougher to pry away the state’s top talents in the coming recruiting cycles.
Miami became a national power in the mid-1980s, when Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson created a cultural phenomenon with “The U.” Bobby Bowden’s Florida State program rose to prominence a few years later. Then Steve Spurrier brought the Fun N’ Gun to The Swamp in 1990, and an incredible era of Sunshine State dominance was in full swing.
Florida won at least nine games every year and six SEC titles while the Head Ball Coach was in town. Florida State finished in the top four of the final Associated Press poll every year from 1987-99. Miami captured five national titles and won at least 10 games 14 times in 21 years.
However, at no point since Spurrier went to the NFL in 2002 have all three Florida powers been at their peak at the same time. Florida State gradually slipped from dominance in the twilight of Bowden’s career. Florida sandwiched two poor coaching hires (Ron Zook, Will Muschamp) around a fabulous one (Urban Meyer). Miami has been hamstrung by a number of issues, including NCAA sanctions, coaching misfires and a waning financial commitment from the university.
The outlook for the three schools hasn’t looked this strong in a long time. Jimbo Fisher is 37-3 in the past three seasons at Florida State, and the biggest win in 2015 for the Seminoles came when he didn’t leave for LSU. Jim McElwain is likely going to win SEC coach of the year honors after winning 10 games and the SEC East in his first year at Florida.
And now “The U” is back.
Miami does not have the alumni base to match Florida and Florida State, but the collection of Hurricanes who have played in the NFL are among the most outspoken about their alma mater in the country. Richt, who played for Schnellenberger, has an opportunity to reconnect the school with its glorious past, but he also has the character and gravitas to win big without breaking NCAA rules.
So what happens to the college football power structure if Florida, Florida State and Miami are all great again? The three schools haven’t all won 10 games in a season since 2000, and getting to 10 wins in 2015 doesn’t make a team elite (see where the Gators are ranked this coming week for confirmation of that).
But now the “Big Three” has that chance. Fisher and Richt have proven they can recruit at a high level and develop NFL players. McElwain certainly proved he could be an elite coach in 2015, and his staff also appears to be well on its way as elite recruiters.
If all three schools have it rolling at the same time, both on the scoreboard and on the recruiting trail, it could have a big impact on other big-time schools outside the state — particularly the ones in the SEC.
Looking at where the top 50 recruits in Florida have ended up since 2002 (based on 247Sports’ composite ranking) shows a gradual decline of the “Big Three” and the rise of out-of-state programs, particularly in the SEC West.
From 2002-04, Florida, Florida State and Miami combined to snare an average of 31 top-50 recruits in the state (33 in 2002, 26 in 2003 and 34 in 2004). The SEC (other than Florida) collected 13 total over the course of those three years.
The “Big Three” earned signatures from 18 of the top 50 in 2015, which was a new low during this period. Florida was switching coaches and Miami was unable to find any recruiting momentum with Al Golden at the helm. SEC schools not named Florida landed 14 of the top 50, including 12 for the SEC West.
Auburn, Alabama and LSU have made the most inroads, but so did other programs. There’s been a difference at the very top of the rankings as well.
From 2000-03, at least eight of the top 10 recruits in Florida signed with the Gators, Seminoles or Hurricanes. Those three have snapped up eight or more only twice in the 12 years since. The low was four, in 2012 and 2013, which includes the group of star players mentioned at the top.
We can’t see recruiting data from the 1990s (and it wasn’t as reliable anyway) but the Florida schools protected even more of the state’s top talent back then. Given some of the changes to college football, namely the television contracts that allow a player’s family to watch nearly every game at Ohio State, LSU or Southern California, it’s hard to suggest that McElwain, Fisher and Richt could wall off the Sunshine State like Spurrier, Bowden and Johnson once did.
Still, it seems likely they will do a better job moving forward. The three schools have 16 commits from the top 50 in the Class of 2016, and that’s with many players yet to make a decision. The rest of the SEC has landed at least 12 top-50 guys from Florida for five years running, but those schools only have five commits from the group at this point.
Sure, there are way more than 50 great players in Florida, and other programs will be able to grab players from the Sunshine State because those three schools can’t take them all. But if McElwain and Richt get Florida and Miami humming like Fisher has things at Florida State, those three schools could again claim much of the top talent in the state.
It might only influence a few of the top recruits per year, but if it is the right kids, that will be enough to alter college football. Put Henry and Tunsil on the Gators, and they are probably playing in the 2015 College Football Playoff, not Alabama. If Patrick Peterson stays home with Miami, does LSU become “DBU?”
It’s not entirely a coincidence that the SEC’s reign of national dominance coincided with Florida State and Miami slipping from the ranks of the elite, or that the SEC West has ruled the conference when Florida was not at peak performance.
Florida State is already back, while Florida and Miami appear primed to join it. A new and improved version of the “Big Three” could make life a little tougher for the other elite schools in the South.