For the better part of the last four decades, college football in the state of Florida has been ruled by Florida, Florida State and Miami.
The “Big Three” programs have a combined 39 top-5 finishes since 1982. However, in the last decade they have produced mixed results.
Miami hasn’t won a conference title in 15 years. Florida hasn’t won the SEC in 10 years and while Florida State has won a national championship in 2013, they’re in the midst of a major rebuild.
While each program was in the midst of their glory days, Florida’s “smaller” universities started football programs. UCF began in 1979. USF started in 1997, FAU in 2001 and FIU in 2002.
Fast forward to current day and the landscape of college football in the Sunshine State is unrecognizable.
UCF is a top-10 team for the second year running, FIU has back-to-back eight win seasons, USF has won 36 games in the past four seasons and FAU won 11 games in 2017 under the high-profile Lane Kiffin.
I reached out to our SB Nation network of writers for each G5 program in Florida to explore what the future holds and if the era of “Big 3” dominance in Florida is a thing of the past.
(Author’s note: As the FIU beat writer, I answered from the FIU perspective.)
1. 20 years ago, G5’s in the state were either non-existent (FAU, FIU), at the FCS level (USF), or early in their FBS tenure (UCF). Fast forward to today. 3-star players who might have gone to the Big 3 (UF, FSU, UM) and become starters as upperclassmen are choosing the G5’s and playing immediately. How much has that hurt the Big 3 in terms of not having the depth the 90s/2000s teams had?
Steeg: I think this hurts the Big 3 severely. They’re having to rely on the “homerun” kids in the class who can come in as freshmen and perform right away. These high expectations for the 4 star and 5 star kids can either make stars, or turn them into busts. This also helps the G5 schools develop big name players by the time they become upperclassmen. They have not only the leadership, but also the skill to become future NFL prospects.
Sharon: It’s hurt tremendously. When I think of the Big Three, I think of those unbelievable Miami and FSU teams. Go look at their games on YouTube from the 80’s and 90’s. You’d see a guy like Ray Lewis or Warren Sapp show up in garbage time when they were up 40 on Rutgers, or maybe on special teams just to get snaps in. Now, players that talented want to play immediately, and UCF, USF, and the like can offer that. When the last scholarship limits were put into place in 1992 (from 95 down to 85 in then-D-IA), combined with the expansion of the game on cable TV, that opened the door for non-power schools in the state to get competitive quickly. Since that happened, we’ve seen UCF move up from 1-AA, and USF, FAU and FIU start their programs and move up to FBS. The state produces many more talented players than the combined 255 scholarships split between UF, FSU and UM can accommodate. Those players all have to go somewhere.
Smith: I think it’s hurt to an extent, but not as much as you’d think. Sharon makes a great point with the expansion of college football. The Big 3 obviously relies on Florida recruiting a ton, but so does just about every SEC and ACC school. Their continued infiltration in the state has hurt the Big 3 more than anything else in my eyes. However, I’ll add that FSU, Miami and Florida’s continued reliance on recruiting “stars” in the state has hurt them severely. For example, Devin Singletary was a three-star back and held P5 scholarships. Ideally he ends up at Miami. No one in the Big 3 saw him as a take though. Three years later and Miami has guys like DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer who have fumbling issues while FAU has one of the best backs in the country.
Henry: The “Big 3” schools in the state have been hurt tremendously in my opinion. It’s not that they can’t get the top-level recruits. They’ll always be able to attract the five-star players. However, the reason teams like UM and UF have had their struggles is because they truly lack depth. The 2, 3 and now even in some cases 4-star players who would have gone to a Big 3 and cracked the two-deep depth chart as upperclassmen are now starting immediately at a G5. Add in the fact that schools from around the nation recruit Florida very hard and it’s made a difference.
2. In five years where do you see your school’s program?
Steeg: I think most would say “better than where we are currently at” but to be more specific, a conference championship would be nice. I think most Bulls fans believe we will be in a P5 conference by then as well (hopefully with UCF). There’s also a lot of other things we are looking forward to, such as the building of an Indoor Practice Facility, On Campus Stadium, and furthering the tradition of this program, despite it being less than 25 years old.
Sharon: In five years, UCF should be taking meetings with one or two power conferences in advance of the next TV contract and conference shuffle. As a university, UCF’s growth power is unrivaled within the state. As state schools go, UF and FSU have pretty much hit the ceiling as far as their own growth potential. But UCF’s growth - and the TV eyeballs and alumni donors that go along with that growth - are self-evident.
Smith: Competing for conference titles and going to bowl games annually. Those two things hopefully lead to a bigger fan base. Admittedly though, Miami has such a stranglehold on South Florida college football fandom that hoping for that could be unrealistic. UCF and USF has benefited immensely from being located in Tampa and Orlando, and having those respective cities being open about supporting their growth as a university and football program. FAU is trying to follow the UCF blueprint in expanding the university but the city of Boca Raton just hasn’t been that accepting and isn’t going to allow that to happen in my opinion. While I can see why the UCF and USF fan bases would like to be in a P5 conference, I’m pretty satisfied with FAU’s lot in the CFB landscape. C-USA isn’t the best, and hopefully a more geographical-friendly conference is on the horizon, but FAU being a G5 school is fine.
Henry: I honestly see FIU as the next UCF. Provided they allow Butch Davis to do what he does best which is recruit South Florida. He’s building the same culture he did at Miami in the 90s. Going two and three deep at every position and players have to compete for playing time every week. FIU will never eclipse UM in terms of reputation. However, players talk among themselves. He’s already well established in South Florida high schools and having people like Ken Dorsey (FIU assistant athletic director) involved in the program only adds credibility.
3. What’s your school’s major draw for recruits?
Steeg: A few things, but the ability to play in Tampa has its huge perks, we have been playing big name P5 schools recently and have many queued up in future schedules. Charlie Strong is a very personable coach and loves to get to know his players, which is a huge comfort knowing the leader of the program takes care of the kids on the team. Also, playing in an NFL stadium is a big draw, some these kids come to school with dreams of playing in the NFL, and being in a city home to a team and using the stadium can help boost them up to their dreams.
Sharon: It’s easy to get to Orlando from anywhere in the state. And if you’re out of state, the weather’s nice. The high-powered offense. The take-no-prisoners coaching philosophy. It’s 21st Century Football at its finest. Everything at UCF is new. The school has only been around since 1963, and most of the the facilities are barely ten years old. Plus we’re getting a freakin’ lazy river in a few years! UCF has always had a chip on its shoulder, and likes kids who have the same chip that maybe got overlooked by the Big Three and want to prove something.
Smith: The facilities are going to be among the best in the G5 once The Schmidt Family Complex is complete. FAU Stadium is already a top-notch facility too. Being 1.8 miles from the beach is an obvious sell too but really FAU’s tradition is still being started as we speak. Being among the first to lay that foundation is enticing. Oh, and that Lane Kiffin guy is pretty entertaining too.
Henry: Short answer- Butch. His reputation and track record as a recruiter in an area that’s arguably the best in the nation in terms of putting out top high school talent is second to none. Outside of Butch it’s tough. The fanbase is still growing. As a university, FIU is very attractive and Miami is a bit of a double-edge sword. Yes, you’ll be living in South Florida. However, it’s South Florida and there’s a ton of things to do outside of college football game.
4. How do you feel about your school’s coaching situation?
Steeg: Recently, it’s felt like a stepping-stone, with Taggart bouncing from USF to Oregon to FSU. However, getting Charlie Strong to come to USF makes it feel like it’s a higher-profile job. I think we are in the awkward middling not stepping-stone but not yet a high-profile job. With the right guy, they can stay for a long time, but they’re also susceptible to leave if a bigger guy comes calling.
Sharon: This is the one thing that actually makes me cautiously optimistic. After a decade of George O’Leary, UCF fans finally got exposed to the concept of being a stepping-stone school for coaches when Scott Frost left after barely 24 months. Now Josh Heupel is here, and the more success he has, the more his name will be bandied about as a hot commodity. Coaches want to come to UCF because it’s incredibly easy to recruit and win here. A lot of fans want this to be a destination and not a stop, but I’m in favor of what keeps UCF winning.
Smith: Definitely a stepping stone for young coaches and a final stop for coaches near the end of their career. I’m fine with either. Just win baby.
Henry: That’s a tough question. For Butch Davis obviously, it’s not. He’s 67. If a younger coach in his thirties or so takes the job and succeeds, the high-profile jobs will come calling. FIU just doesn’t have the resources to compete with a P5 in that regard right now.
5. What’s the fanbase situation like at your respective school?
Steeg: Oh man, Tampa is a great city, but it’s also Gainesville south. USF is always going to be second in the city when it comes to sports, and when UF comes to Tampa in a few years, I expect the atmosphere to be more like a UF home game than an away game. We have a loyal following of Bulls fans all over the city, and have been seeing a decent turnout at games, but unfortunately there’s quite a few people in our fanbase that are USF fans but also UF/FSU/UM fans.
Sharon: This is one thing where UCF has successfully countered the Big Three over the years. When I came to UCF as a freshman in 2001, you saw a lot of t-shirts and hoodies from other schools. But now that’s changed. The construction of Spectrum Stadium on campus, and the environment created on game days, was a major turning point. And the culture that‘s been created among the younger members of the fan base has established UCF as an equal among the other schools in the state with regard to the culture it has built.
Smith: There’s a very small devout following who are FAU fans first and Miami fans second. But that’s rare. As I mentioned before, The U is too big a brand for FAU and FIU to ever surpass in South Florida. When I was a student, there were plenty of students wearing Miami Hurricanes shirts (though I didn’t wear Miami apparel, I’m a huge Oregon fan and wore Oregon clothes all the time on campus so I’ll lump myself with the other “fowl owls” though I did actually go to all the football games lol). The amount of winning last season seemed to change the fan support among students. Of course, this season was a major setback and is sure to bring back the “same old FAU” aura of year’s past. I’ll add that the city of Boca is hard to galvanize as FAU supporters since many residents are graduates of either the Big 3 or out of state schools. Not to mention they’re old too and probably could care less about FAU football. The only way for FAU fan support to grow in South Florida is to win and market the hell out of the football program when it’s winning.
Henry: This is by far the most contentious topic around FIU football. It elicits strong feelings on social media and in-person. A fair amount of UM fans are graduates of FIU. Not fans of both FIU and UM. That distinction is key. With the program only being in existence since 2002, they’ve yet to build up a large loyal fanbase. The ones that do show up are VERY dedicated. But even with back to back bowl berths, sellouts at 20,000 seat Riccardo Silva Stadium are still hard to come by.
6. In terms of talent. How do you feel your program fares among the G5’s and against the Big 3?
Steeg: The talent is definitely above most of the G5, there’s a few schools that are equal to us (Houston, UCF, App State come to mind this season). Our strength lately has been consistency in recruiting, we had the top class in the AAC for 3 straight years from 2013-2015, and then top 5 in 2016-2018 so far. Taggart was a fantastic recruiter, Strong is proving to be so-so, but getting guys like Blake Barnett, Jordan Cronkrite, and Brandon Boyce to come to USF has been huge for us this year that I feel good about our talent.
Sharon: UCF is clearly at or near the top. I say near because there are always going to be dips in the curve, but like the stock market, the general trend is always up. Not losing a game the last two years proves that, as has UCF’s success in the NFL Draft. Success breeds success, and I think if you compared UCF’s talent among the Big Three, they’d compare much more favorably than those schools might think. Florida, FSU and Miami might get the five-stars, but UCF has established a knack for developing players into the best they can be.
Smith: The talent is certainly better than it was a few year ago but there’s still steps to make. Devin Singletary could be the first FAU player to leave early to enter the NFL Draft. That statement alone should let you know just how young this program is and how inconsistent the talent level has been. Our first-team offense and defense should compete against any G5 school in Florida but asking for anything more is unrealistic right now.
Henry: Against the G5’s in the state, FIU’s talent currently and incoming can hang with anyone. Versus the Big 3 they’re still a couple of recruiting classes away. When they played UM earlier this season, it was clear that the talent gap is closing but not enough to where they should be considered a favorite to beat a P5 school in the state.
7. What’s an area that you would say your school can’t currently compete with against the Big 3?
Steeg: Facilities. No indoor practice facility, no on campus stadium, but for a program only 21 years old, it feels fine for where we are at. It feels like we are ahead of schedule when it comes to FBS football still.
Sharon: Money. UCF is not an old enough institution to have a massive legacy alumni base from which to cull millions of dollars on an annual basis (some 97% of UCF alumni are still alive, if you can believe that), and as a member of The American, let’s face it, the TV contract revenue is not in the same atmosphere as what teams in the ACC and SEC get. Among the top ten schools in the first CFP rankings, UCF has the lowest annual revenue by far and away. And look what they’ve accomplished with it.
Smith: Money and exposure. The tv-deal money is peanuts compared to the Big 3 and the exposure isn’t exactly the best when compared to USF and UCF either.
Henry: Facilities, Game-day atmosphere and resources. What FIU has isn’t abysmal by any stretch. Riccardo Silva Stadium has plans for expansion. An indoor practice facility is almost a must in Florida, especially South Florida where the temperatures can reach over well over 100 degrees in the summer and thunderstorms are a daily occurrence. In terms of game-day atmosphere there’s no doubt it has room for improvement. Butch has added things like the Panther Walk where the team and cheerleaders walk through campus straight into the stadium pre-game. But it pales in comparison to a UCF.
8. Do we ever see a time again where the Big 3 are able to run the state again?
Steeg: I don’t think so, it seems like after last year when USF and UCF were ranked for the first time together and FSU and UF weren’t, it feels like there was a power shift in the state. More recruits are looking at the smaller schools to start right away and compete. With USF being able to schedule FSU, UF, and Miami, we have and will be able to prove that the Big 3 aren’t as high and mighty as they were in the past.
Sharon: No. Control the state, maybe. There’s still enough legacy money and institutional memory that they’ll still retain power. But now they’ll have a plurality, rather than a majority. For the very first time, they’re looking over their shoulders at UCF, USF, FAU and FIU, and are trying to figure out ways to impede their progress (just look at how the power leagues control the College Football Playoff and you’ll see the clearest example of it). That alone is an acknowledgement that at least some of their power is gone, and it’s not coming back.
Smith: The Big 3 were thriving on borrowed time when UCF and USF implemented football and jumped to the FBS simply because Orlando and Tampa are two of the biggest cities in the state. Now that USF and UCF (to a larger extent) have had time to develop strong fan bases, combined with a proven history of excellence as a football program, the days of the Big 3 towering over the other FBS programs are over. When FAU fans are showing up to Miami for College Gameday representing the Owls, or even UCF hosting Gameday itself, it shows that the dynamics in the state have changed and that’s really a credit to the G5 schools in Florida making good hires. The politics in the state will still, and perhaps always, favor the Big 3. But the amount of power they had in the 90s and early aughts will be gone forever as long as the G5 schools in Florida continue to make a commitment to their respective football programs.
Henry: No. It doesn’t mean that the Big 3 aren’t capable of winning a national championship any given season. Their conference affiliations essentially give them a birthright to that. But will there be another period of time like the 90s and 2000s where two or even all three P5 teams can contend for a national championship? In my opinion those days are over.