Sun shines bright on Florida football

Might as well forget the rest of the country. Forget everything from Georgia up, forget anything west of the Gulf of Mexico. Forget South Bend, Ind., forget State College, Pa.

This year, once again, college football belongs to the state of Florida, whose schools have captured four of the last 10 national championships - and may win another this year.

OK, there's a decent team in Oklahoma, and some pretty good ballplayers out in Nebraska.

But really, near the halfway point of the 2001-2002 season, the Universities of Miami and Florida are the cream of this year's class, holding firm to the top two rankings in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls - and making it look easy. Florida State, which was shocked early in the season by North Carolina, is ranked 14th, but has plenty of time to make up ground.

Florida and Miami have quarterbacks who are legitimate candidates to win the Heisman Trophy - Rex Grossman and Ken Dorsey, respectively. Both have high-powered offenses, stingy defenses, and coaches who know how to run up points in a hurry.

Meanwhile, two of the greatest powerhouses of the modern era - Notre Dame and Penn State - are off to horrendous starts, with a combined record of 1-7.

The fall of those teams, combined with the rise of the Florida teams, culminates a shift in college football that has been going on for more than a decade.

Goodbye Midwest, hello Sunshine State. This weekend, Miami meets 14th-ranked Florida State in Tallahassee. It will be a tough test for the Hurricanes, who looked sluggish last week against Troy State. Florida, meanwhile, travels to Auburn (Ala.) for a Southeastern Conference cakewalk. Its season, however, closes with a three-game minefield: No. 9 South Carolina, Florida State, and No. 13 Tennessee.

So how does one state dominate the rest of the country - including football-crazy places like Texas?

One thing is sure. The state of Florida consistently produces the fastest players in the country at the high school level, and those players are easy picking for the big three Florida universities.

Bill Buchalter, a reporter for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel who's covered high school sports for some 25 years, has tried to quantify the state's extraordinary production of speed. It's a little bit like trying to figure out why the Midwest used to produce so many jumbo-sized offensive linemen.

According to Buchalter, there were 142 Florida high school kids who last year ran the 100-meter dash in under 11 seconds, a very fast time. There were about 50 Florida kids who were Division I prospects at wide receiver (traditionally the fastest position). Also last year, there were 277 Floridian high schoolers who signed letters of intent to play Division I-A (the top level of college football).

Those top talents, Buchalter says, are nurtured by high school programs that somehow find just the right balance between pressure and patience. Florida high school football is taken very seriously, with summer conditioning and a state playoff system. It is not, however, what it is in Texas - a fanatic event played almost exclusively under the Friday lights and covered by 50 local press outlets.

"When these kids [in Florida] leave high school football, they still have a life ahead of them," Buchalter says.

The result is that the players have an opportunity to improve after high school. And, with three of the country's top programs in their backyard, there's no reason to stray too far from home.

Geoffrey Norman, who is writing a book about Florida football, says there is also an element of circumstance in the state's disproportionate gridiron success. He points out that the state has two of the game's greatest geniuses - Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Steve Spurrier of Florida - coaching in the middle of the country's deepest talent pool.

Previously, Miami had Jimmy Johnson, whose Hurricanes revolutionized the college game with their bravado and explosive air attacks in the late '80s.

"All the schools have great coaches," Norman says. "Great coaches take advantage of the talent they have. And they have a lot of speed in Florida.

"That's one of the things Jimmy Johnson did in Miami - he built a speed team."

And, as if the big three of Miami, Florida, and Florida State aren't enough, the state is growing four more big-time college football programs, mirroring the state's growing population (now about 16 million). Central Florida has been a Division I-A team since 1996; South Florida is in its first season in Division I-A; and Florida International University will begin play in Division I-AA in 2002. All have ambitions to grow their programs.

Meanwhile, former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national championship in 1984, is trying to build a top program at Florida Atlantic University, which is in its first season of I-AA competition. If you haven't heard of the Owls yet, you might soon. "We're starting out in I-AA, but we expect to be I-A in our fourth year," Schnellenberger told a local newspaper before the season. "Then, in our fifth or sixth year, we expect to be in a conference, probably the Big East. And in our seventh year, we will be competitive with the Floridas and Florida States and the top teams in the country."

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