Inside the wildest football year in the state of Florida

Leave it to Lane Kiffin to summarize the state of college football across Florida:

“Who would have thought that we’d be sitting here at this time of year and have more wins than Florida and Florida State combined?” he asked at his weekly news conference. “That’s pretty neat.”

Yet his Florida Atlantic team is not the only one that can make that claim.

So can Miami.

And UCF.

And USF.

Then there is FIU, with the same number of wins as the Seminoles and Gators combined.

If folks are depressed and despondent north of Orlando watching Florida State and Florida struggle to 3-6 records, fans are riding Lane Trains and wearing Turnover Chains down south. An offseason that turned the spotlight on the state thanks to bold coaching hires and College Football Playoff expectations has turned in unpredictable ways.

So unpredictable, in fact, it is tough to choose which qualifies as the biggest surprise this season:

Is it preseason playoff favorite Florida State struggling to its worst season since 1976?

Is it undefeated Miami, No. 3 in the College Football Playoff ranking with its first ACC Coastal Division title?

Is it undefeated UCF, with a coach in Scott Frost who has quickly emerged as one of the hottest names in the country?

Is it flailing Florida, now searching for its third coach since the 2014 season?

Is it surging FAU, off to its best start in Conference USA play as Kiffin keeps trolling along?

Statistically speaking, the least probable among all these scenarios is what has happened at Florida State. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seminoles had a 0.2 percent chance to be 3-6 or worse when the season began.

But it is not as if what has happened at the other FBS schools in the state had a statistically favorable chance of happening, either. All these schools have produced eyebrow-raising moments, all for different reasons.

That has kept the spotlight on the state as teams begin their stretch runs, with conference championships, playoff possibilities, New Year’s Six hopes and program reboots hanging in the balance.

Big Three down to one

It might seem hard to remember now, but Hurricane Irma impacted all seven FBS programs in Florida back in early September. FIU and FAU ended up leaving Florida to play games, while Miami and UCF sent their players home to be with family. Florida, Florida State and USF sheltered in place. Those five programs canceled their Sept. 9 games.

The long layoff ended up galvanizing Miami. It went the other way for Florida State, thanks in part to a brutal opening schedule and the loss of quarterback Deondre Francois, who’s out for the season after injuring his knee in the opener against Alabama.

Their first game back after 21 days off came against NC State, the most experienced team returning in the ACC. Florida State lost a close game at home to drop to 0-2. But the turning point came two weeks later, in Tallahassee, on a warm October afternoon.

Malik Rosier threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Langham with six seconds left to give Miami a 24-20 victory — breaking a seven-year losing streak to the Seminoles. Florida State, which entered the season with five straight 10-win seasons, officially had zero hope to make the College Football Playoff or the ACC championship game.

The calendar read Oct. 7.

“It was a shocker,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We’ve always, always made the plays we’ve had to at the end of these games. We’ve won these games. It shocked us as a team. No one hurt worse than our guys. No one hurt worse for them than I did.

“It just shows you how fine that line is between winning and losing no matter where your program is at.”

For Miami, the win gave the Hurricanes a newfound confidence, faith and momentum. They won another close game against Georgia Tech the following week, then another against Syracuse and another against North Carolina.

But their two most dominating performances came the past two weeks against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, in prime-time games, with a national television audience watching their resurgence — and the gaudy, flashy Turnover Chain become a rallying cry not just for the team but also for the community.

“It all starts with us seniors,” said starting Miami left tackle KC McDermott. “We came together in the offseason and said, ‘We’re not going to fall short of any of our goals this year. We’re going to keep pressing forward, and if some adversity comes up we’re not going to sit back and dwell on it like we have in the past. We’re going to take it and use it to fuel us to get better,’ and that’s something we’ve done.”

That is something that has not happened up in Gainesville, either. Florida entered the season off two straight SEC championship game appearances, and though Jim McElwain had never been fully embraced, he was not exactly on the hot seat, either. But that quickly changed midway through the season: McElwain was the first SEC coach to get fired, and the Gators have since clinched a losing record.

Their game against Florida State next week has become the butt of jokes across the country.

The undefeateds

Four teams remain undefeated in college football. Florida is the only state that is home to two of them. Before the season began, Miami had a 1.8 percent chance to go unbeaten this season; UCF a 2 percent chance.

There are some parallels to their rise, none more obvious than where they stood two years ago: teams in transition with new head coaches trying to build a new culture and restructure the entire program. UCF was in a more desperate situation, though. In 2015, the Knights went 0-12. UCF offensive tackle Aaron Evans described that year as “frustration and heartbreak.”

“We were losing and everyone sinks into themselves,” Evans recalled. “It was self-preservation at that point. You’re guarding your pride, your ego. It’s just a struggle. It’s very embarrassing. Everyone on campus was talking bad about you. It was a perfect storm that year.”

When Frost took over the program, he had been to 10 straight bowl games as an assistant coach. Losing would never be an option. UCF went to a bowl game last season, and expectations were higher going into this year. But the Knights were picked second behind USF in the AAC East Division, picking up zero first-place votes.

Nobody could disagree with that assessment at the time. Not even Frost realized what his team was about to do as the weeks and months wore on.

“I knew we were going to be better on offense this year, but I didn’t know how much better,” Frost said. “The improvement that they’ve made is probably well past what I would have hoped. It was a perfect recipe that everything worked together to get us to this point, and this group believes right now. They’re having fun and playing for each other. It is one of the special teams I’ve been around.”

About one-quarter of the roster went through 0-12. Now they are 9-0.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of them privately and I get everything from ‘I was ready to quit football’ to ‘I didn’t know if I wanted to be here’ to ‘I hated football and now I want to be a coach’ to ‘I didn’t know it could be like this,'” Frost said. “Those are great things to hear as a coach.”

Winning with offense

UCF is not the only Florida team winning with huge offensive numbers. You could make the argument the state’s Group of 5 schools are having their best collective season thanks to their fast and furious offenses.

Taking notes, Florida and Florida State?

UCF, USF and FAU are posting huge numbers thanks to a variance on spread, up-tempo systems. Frost brought what he learned under Chip Kelly at Oregon, while Kiffin has melded his own offensive philosophies with coordinator Kendal Briles’ spread-tempo principles.

USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert comes from the same Briles tree.

The result: UCF, USF and FAU rank among the top 11 teams in the country in scoring offense, each averaging over 39 points per game. They also rank in the top 25 in total offense, each averaging over 462 yards per game.

“You just feel the excitement,” Kiffin said. “South Florida is a great place to play football. Now that we’re winning, we’re seeing that reaction. We were fortunate to sign the top class in the conference last year having won no games, so you feel even more energy now.”

Florida and Florida State fans might want to avert their eyes now, although there is a good chance they already have: Both teams rank among the bottom 20 teams in the country in scoring and total offense. The Seminoles have failed to score more than 28 points in any game this season; the Gators have done it just once.

Easy to see why Kiffin would have something to brag about to reporters, and his own fan base.

FAU is 7-3 and undefeated in Conference USA play. The Owls host FIU, already bowl eligible for the first time since 2011, on Saturday in Boca Raton. An FAU win clinches its first Conference USA East Division and a shot at hosting the C-USA championship game on Dec. 2.

But you might have already known that since Kiffin has done his best to promote the cause. Whether he is using Twitter to troll Alabama and Tennessee fans or sending out gifs with Owls wearing their own gold chains, Kiffin has used his platform to draw attention to himself and, by extension, Florida Atlantic.

That, of course, has led to speculation that he might be one-and-done at FAU. Job speculation swirls around Frost, too, with Florida perhaps taking a hard look at him. Hometown Nebraska could come calling, too, when the season ends.

Kiffin takes it all stride: “That’s always going to happen,” he said. “If you lose two games, then not only does no one want you, they want to fire you where you’re at. I don’t worry about that. That’s all part of the job. As a head coach, you always get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose.”

Somewhere in Tallahassee, Jimbo Fisher nods in agreement.

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