The season is less than a week away so it’s time to rip open the preseason preview of the Sunshine Seven. I’ve been at the helm of this weekly write up for I believe 4 or 5 years now and I have to say, this year is definitely the most interesting year looking ahead for the Sunshine Seven. Simply put, every team in the grouping has, what potentially could be, a star studded coaching staff. In this preview we’ll look into each team’s staff and what they have coming back into the fold from the 2016-2017 season. I usually “rank” the teams but I’ll hold off until post week 1.
FSU is led by Jimbo Fisher who is in his eighth year as the head coach and eleventh year on the staff for the Noles. Fisher’s staff is unique in the sense that Fisher is the defacto Offensive Coordinator and calls the plays. Just like we learned with James Coley when he left FSU for Miami a few years back (under the previous regime) any person dubbed the “OC” at FSU really just holds that position in name only. The Defensive Coordinator is the much maligned Charles Kelly. He has had an uneven tenure the last few seasons at FSU that has highlighted tremendous talent to come through Tallahassee from the defensive side of the ball but yet still give up eye popping scores and broken assignments to opponents. There were murmurs last year that Kelly may get fired mid-season last year (more specifically after the bludgeoning that FSU took against Louisville) but Kelly and the defense righted the ship and he was brought back as defensive coordinator for at least the 2017 season.
The Noles under Fisher may have roster attrition through graduating players or even players that leave early for the NFL but they are able to reload each year with new weapons from the high school ranks. Heading into 2017 the Noles have All Conference and potentially All American players on both the defense and offense. Some of their names and positions are: QB Deondre Francois, Defensive Secondary players Tarvares McFadden and Derwin James and quite a few more.
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, FSU is on the minds of the national media as a potential College Football Playoff (CFP) candidate. Most of the preseason polls have them rated as a top 5 team, if not top 3.
I’ll be honest with you all, as you know I’m a Miami Hurricanes fan (duh) but I try and be impartial and more a college football fan when I write these pieces. Essentially, I try and take out my biases when it comes to FSU and Florida. But I’ll be honest, I really don’t get the allure of the Gators by the national media and college football realm.
A few years ago, then-head-coach Will Muschamp, was fired for not having a potent enough offense. His defensive unit’s year in and out were always stellar if not the tops in college football. But his offenses? Whew, some of the worst. In arrives newly hired Head Coach Jim McElwain from Colorado State who boasted one of the highest scoring and efficient passing attacks in the nation. McElwain is heading into year three of his tenure as the Gators Head Coach and he still has not seemed to have settled on a starting quarterback nor a true identity on offense. Yet, the national media has the Gators ranked in the top 15-20 in preseason rankings. I don’t get it.
Looking at their defensive side of the ball the Gators are led by former Miami Hurricane player and then Head Coach Randy Shannon. It’ll truly be an interesting year for both the offense and defense for the Gators because as mentioned previously about the identity of the offensive side of the ball, Shannon is breaking into this new role as the defensive coordinator as well. When he was the Canes defensive coordinator in the early 2000s he was known for blitzing occasionally but mainly letting the defensive linemen wreak havoc and let the safeties sit back in coverage to guard against the big play (essentially two centerfielders). With Muschamp’s defensive recruits peeling away from the program year by year, will we see the top notch defensive performances we’ve been so accustomed to seeing from the Gators? We’ll have to see what Shannon can conjure up.
The third ranked of the big three over the last decade plus is the Miami Hurricanes. They return tons of talent along the defense and skill positions besides the quarterback position on the offense. There coaching staff also remained intact from last year’s group so the “buzz” that always seems to be around the Canes heading into the 2017 season seems warranted. The Canes on offense actually run a similar coaching hierarchy as the Noles. Head Coach Mark Richt calls the plays on game day just like Jimbo Fisher and Manny Diaz, who is the defensive coordinator has full autonomy for his defensive unit.
Looking ahead to next year, as mentioned previously, there are tons of defensive stalwarts returning. Probably the most important piece to the defense may actually be a new arrival, graduate transfer Dee Delaney out of The Citadel. He’ll take over as a starting cornerback for the recently vacated starting position by Corn Elder. On the offense, the most important returning player in my eyes has to be Mark Walton. Due to the running back depth (very little) and the fact that he’s such a playmaker when the ball is in his hands and he’s in space, he’s the number one returner on the offense.
Preseason rankings for Miami have them hovering around the mid-teens to early 20s by most of the national media outlets. The early tilt with FSU could launch Miami into the national media conversation if they could pull off the away game victory but we’ll have to see how newly named starting quarterback Malik Rosier does pacing both the passing game and running game for Coach Richt.
The college football coaching world can be a fascinating environment to watch young coaches grow into success, gain more responsibility at a new place of employment with usually more expectations and then find out if they truly can succeed at the “next level up.” USF saw both the fruits of this principal and spoils of it. Their previous Head Coach, Willie Taggart, built USF into a team with a high octane offense that simply outscored their opponents to pull away for victories in 2016. After going 10-2 last season at USF, Oregon decided to back a brinks truck up to Taggart’s residence and offer him the Head Coaching position at their university. He quickly accepted and was out of Tampa for Eugene.
Charlie Strong limped through yet another rebuilding year at Texas and although he was turning around the culture of the program from the previous regime, the win totals were not high enough for the Texas Longhorns to want to keep him around another season. Due to Strong’s.. deep ties (see! I didn’t go with a pun there!) to the state of Florida area from his days as the Gators defensive coordinator, Strong was a natural fit for the vacancy. Strong now takes over a team that still has an explosive offense led by Heisman candidate quarterback Quinton Flowers but a defense that he’ll need to tweak to turn games from being track meets to hopefully one sided bludgeoning’s.
Similar to USF last season, UCF was a lot of fun to watch because of their high octane offense and tissue paper thin defense. Scott Frost was in his first year at the helm of UCF last season and literally had nowhere to go but up in the wins-loss column (previous season UCF lost all their games) and provided excitement on the field for the UCF fan base with the hyper fast offensive attack. After playing TONS of freshman last season (all skill positions and also throughout the defense) Frost and his staff still put together a bowl eligible team and look to build on that success heading into the 2017 season.
If Frost can get to the nine or ten win mark, look out. He’ll probably be another candidate just like Willie Taggart was last year as a “hot up-and-coming head coaching candidate” after the 2017 season concludes. Keep in mind this nugget of information too about Frost: he was born in Nebraska, played his college ball at Nebraska and was even a grad assistant at the university in the early 00’s. If the Corn Huskers struggle this year in the Big Ten, don’t be surprised if Frost isn’t the first candidate on their mind for a new hire.
Ahh… the Owl’s.. I’m going to admit something to you all, watching FAU is probably my favorite program right behind Miami in terms of watching experience. Why you ask? Because the last five years or so they’ve won in bizarre fashion (hail mary’s, pick six’s) and also lost in outlandish ways too (field goals blocked and returned for scores, etc.). Not to mention they of course had the whole Carl Pelini fiasco. It’s been a fun time in Boca Raton.
Now they’ve hired Lane Kiffin after another season of 3-9 under then head coach Charlie Partridge.
The Owls look to be… More competitive in 2017? I guess? Once Kiffin was announced as the head coach he’s made some… interesting coaching moves. He brought his brother on staff as the defensive coordinator from his previous position at Ole Miss. Not a bad idea from a high level. Maybe a little nepotism but okay. There are rumors that while his brother was at Ole Miss he may have been involved (again, just rumors) in NCAA violations.
For his offensive coordinator, Kiffin brought in Kendall Briles, son of Art Briles. Yep, that Art Briles. You want more controversy on the offense? Don’t worry fam, I got you. He also recruited and signed De’Andre Johnson from Eastern Mississippi Community College to potentially be that starting QB for the Owls next year. Johnson was the FSU player from a few years ago who was involved in a bar assault against a female patron that was caught on camera. It was not a good look for both the university and Johnson so he transferred out of Tallahassee and looked for his next opportunity. No Power 5 teams offered Johnson so once Kiffin was in place at FAU and offered Johnson in January, it was his best option.
Now, I watched “Last Chance U” on Netflix where Johnson was one of the main players followed during season two and he seemed like a nice enough, articulate enough person that just got into a bad situation and handled it even more poorly. We’ll have to see how all parties involved at FAU will adjust to their new settings. What I can promise is this though: it’s going to be interesting, just like it has been for the last few years.
Both FAU and FIU intrigue me as a college football fan. I’ve seen them win a few contests over the course of the last few seasons and it makes me ponder “can they keep up the success? Can they finally break through?” Both teams have shown flashes of potential and the fact that they’re both in the rich recruiting state of Florida and more specifically the south Florida hotbed always leads me to believe they can get enough three star and two star recruits from the local power house schools that could make them compete in the group of five conferences.
FIU finished another lack luster year that resulted in an abrupt change of power halfway through the season with Ron Turner leaving his position as the Head Coach. After the season concluded FIU decided to bring a familiar face to the program by hiring Head Coach Butch Davis. Davis brings an eye for recruiting talent that was put on display both at Miami in the late 90s and early 2000s and then at North Carolina in the late 2000s as well. FIU could be his toughest task in his coaching career however because of the fact that the Golden Panthers have been college football’s doormat of a program the last 10 or so seasons. We’ll have to see if there is instant success at FIU for Davis but the odds are long. He’ll have to turn the roster over almost completely in his first few years just to get competitive again. Year one will be a true “year zero” situation.
The Sunshine Seven has the potential to be a truly interesting look back during the season so I hope you all tag along for the ride. The state has always been a bastion of talent for both the college and professional ranks. Now with seven certifiable coaches there could be an opportunity for the coaches to elevate their programs to ranks some of them have never been to before.