Florida vs. Florida State: Did Gators or 'Noles have the better 2012 season?

Mike Ehrmann

Florida and FSU bloggers take on one of the most pressing questions about the 2012 season.

Andy Hutchins, Alligator Army: ESPN's endless attempts to make something interesting happen even when nothing is interesting happening produced an interesting debate last week over a simple question: Was it Florida or Florida State that had a better 2012 season? SEC blogger and UF alum Edward Aschoff argued for the Gators, while ACC blogger and UF alum Andrea Adelson argued for the Seminoles, and their arguments boiled down to this:

Aschoff: Florida played and beat good teams, including FSU.

Adelson: Florida State won its conference, and its bowl game, and tied its school record for wins.

I think that's a really simplistic way of looking at things, and one that puts a lot more stock in bowl games than fans, players, and coaches do, but there was enough in that argument and there are enough Florida State fans on the Internet for FSU to have won ESPN's poll. Bud, is that an indication that Florida State actually had a better year, or that the bloc of FSU fans who go to libraries and vote in Internet polls is alive and well?

Bud Elliott, Tomahawk Nation: First, it is well known that if FSU fans want to win an online voting contest, it's going to happen. The genesis of this is ESPN's "best helmet poll" from, I believe, 2009, in which FSU fans literally broke ESPN's poll with their fervor for voting and/or bots. So I'll have to say no to the poll being the best way to judge which school had the better season. That doesn't mean that I disagree with its results, however.

What makes this interesting, at least from my perspective, is that I could legitimately argue it both ways. I assume you feel the same way.

Florida State does have the hardware. The Seminoles, won a BCS bowl for the first time since 1999, 12 games for the first time since 2000, the conference for the first time since 2005, and finished in the top 10 for the first time since 2003 (besting both the AP and Coaches mark of that year).

I wrote after the N.C. State loss that Florida State could afford no more losses, or, if it won the ACC, one more loss in order for the year to be considered a success. That is indeed what happened, though the loss coming to Florida hurts both in psyche, fandom and in recruiting.

But what can Florida say that it did? Almost win its division? Beat Florida State? Make the Sugar Bowl? Unfortunately, with the Sugar Bowl mention comes a discussion of the actual game itself.

The unfortunate thing with sports is that we too often fail to evaluate the entire year. Timing matters much more than it should. If the Gators were blown out by Louisville and looked like they were coached not by a head coach, but by a raging defensive coordinator with little control of its team in the third game of the year, and not the thirteenth, I think the argument for Florida would be much stronger. But from the perspective of improving over the course of the season, the Louisville loss hurts more due to the timing of getting whipped as one of the largest favorites in BCS history.

Truth be told, I think Florida had a better season on the field than Florida State did, but as far as the ability to sell progress, and being able to point to tangible accomplishments, there's little argument for taking UF over FSU.

Andy: The problem with talking about selling progress and pointing to tangible accomplishments is that there are basically three groups of people that they need to be sold to: recruits, boosters, and fans. And while Florida's ability to sell 2012 as a total success to boosters and fans is hampered by what happened in New Orleans, the Gators' sales pitch to recruits, the most important of those three groups, hasn't gotten worse.

If it had, would Florida have been able to flip Demarcus Robinson and Alex Anzalone, two of the nation's best players, one at a position of dire need and the other previously committed to a team playing for a national title, during the very short period of time between the Sugar Bowl and the end of the early enrollee window? Heck, Robinson flipped from Clemson, which made a stirring comeback in its bowl game victory and has a much, much better pitch to top-flight wide receivers than Florida's hamstrung passing game. Muschamp created momentum on the recruiting trail prior to the 2012 season and sustained it throughout the year; he built what looked like a loss-proof class, in a few ways, and it has proved to be just that.

But arguing that Florida can't sell progress because it can't sell a bowl victory is silly. Florida won its bowl game in 2009, and that season was a disappointment despite Florida going 13-1! It won bowl games in 2010 and 2011, too, and those seasons were among the worst five in the Jeremy Foley Era. Bowl games simply don't matter nearly as much in the long run as they do in the month after the game, when the regular season is fading and there's no next game for months.

This question largely comes down to whether an embarrassing loss in a low-stakes game against a highly motivated team cancels out Florida having no worse than the nation's third-best regular season, one with good wins over a transcendant Heisman Trophy winner and three of the SEC's best teams, and a great win over the ACC champion in which Florida ground a very good Florida State team to dust in Doak. I can see the argument for the rotten egg laid in the Sugar Bowl trumping the omelets Muschamp and Co. made all year, but that doesn't mean I believe it.

And if Florida was making omelets (with ingredients selected by the last cook, mind), how are we to interpret Florida State having every star aligned to play for a national title and still coming nowhere near doing so? This was Florida State's greatest chance to be genuinely back and not "BACK!" in more than a decade, with Clemson and Florida coming to Tallahassee (without a defense and without an offense, respectively, according to conventional wisdom), and yet the 'Noles lost their national title shot by losing to a team that fired its coach and got blown off the field by a team that barely knew what the forward pass is.

Florida might have trouble selling the idea that it's a bona fide national title contender after the Sugar Bowl. But good luck selling any Florida or Florida State fan on the idea that Florida didn't re-establish alpha dog status in the state with that trampling in Tally, and good luck selling the idea that winning the ACC is better than playing in the the season-long playoff that is the SEC to any recruit who wants to hoist crystal.

Bud: Florida is recruiting extremely well. At one point, I thought they had a shot at the No. 1 class, but that will go to the Crimson Tide. Hargreaves should start from day one.

But I think you're a bit crazy if you don't think the recruiting pitch is at all diminished. Louisville is loaded with players from the state of Florida, many of which played with the very players Florida is recruiting. To see them go out and get dismantled in such a disorganized, poorly coached fashion, to a team loaded with players from the Sunshine State certainly has some effect on recruits. I think Anzalone's dad had him coming to Florida regardless of the bowl result, and Robinson always seemed to lean to UF, while some of his handlers wanted him to attend Clemson.

Florida can absolutely sell progress from 2011 to 2012, but it cannot claim that it got better as the season progressed. If it had beaten Louisville, then I'd perhaps buy it. But to follow up an outlier offensive performance against Florida State with three weeks to prepare against a defensive coordinator with one foot out the door to Kentucky by putting up such a horrible performance against Louisville? That pretty much stifles any notion that Florida got better as the season progressed. Some could argue that the Gators regressed, and that their offensive performance against FSU was largely a fluke.

The Sugar Bowl, much like the Orange Bowl, were no-win situations. Heck, FSU was favored by 14, won by 21, more than doubled NIU's yards, and thoroughly dominated the game with the exception of some phenomenal punting by NIU, and FSU fans were still unsatisfied. Winning these awful BCS matchups are like showing up for work, I guess. You better do it, and you better not expect much credit. You said the games were "low stakes," and I agree, but only for the winner.

In the preseason, I predicted that FSU would go 11-1 (29.9% chance) or 10-2 (32.1% chance). Given the collapse of the ACC, I think the 10-2 was a slight disappointment, but this idea that 2012 was national title or bust, for a Florida State program that hadn't accomplished all the things it did this year in many a year, is media hindsight. This team was picked 8th by the AP and 7th by the Coaches in the preseason, and finished right there. This narrative that FSU isn't back or one of the nation's best teams, is simply false. Florida State has won 31 games in the last three years. Only five BCS conference schools have won more (Oregon, Alabama, LSU, Stanford and Oklahoma). It's not Alabama, but neither are Florida, Notre Dame, Georgia, Oregon or anyone else.

Does Florida have the best setup in the state? Yeah, I don't think anyone reasonably argues otherwise. A lot more money, better conference, much more central location to the population centers in the state, etc. But one comeback win in Tallahassee isn't going to re-establish any sort of dominance. If you want to argue that it stopped Florida State's momentum, I'll buy that. Florida's lost, what, 13 starters off the 2012 team? They have some capable backups in spots, I'll admit, but those were some stars who are off to the NFL. Let's see how the Gators do when they don't have Elam, Floyd, etc.

Both teams have recruited at a very high level under their new coaching regimes, seem to be committed to winning, etc. I don't see one program pulling way ahead of the other in the foreseeable future. For that to happen, it's usually about the rival making big mistakes (Bobby Bowden still coaching for six years too long and Urban Meyer's unretiring and Foley letting him return).

Andy: If the recruiting pitch were actually diminished, it would have actually hurt recruiting. Travonte Valentine, a 2014 DT and former Louisville commit who committed to Florida over the summer, only modified his commitment to "soft" after the game. Saying the recruiting pitch is diminished and raising doubts about Muschamp's ability to coach is a media-created storyline, far more more than one about Florida State missing a title chance is.

Florida State fans can use Mark Stoops' impending departure, or EJ Manuel's mom showing up in Tallahassee, or the "fluke" nature of Florida playing better against FSU than it had in a month, but none of that changes what happens on the field, where Florida was through and through the better team except for a fluky third quarter fueled by turnovers and special teams breakdowns: The Gators drove 50 yards six times on FSU, and Florida State drove 50 yards twice — doing so for the second time after 24 straight Florida points on a "Why is this even happening?" garbage time drive to that narrowed the margin from an embarrassing 37-20 score (the same one Florida whipped Tennessee by) to 37-26. Jaylen Watkins, via the ABC broadcast of Florida-Florida State, has my response to claiming that result was a fluke.

Jaylen_watkins_td_medium

The narrative about FSU being back is a dumb one, and I'll admit that, because being "back" would mean being the team that existed in the 1990s, one that was a top-five squad for a solid decade. Expecting a dynasty like that to be revived in a single year would be ridiculous, because we'll probably never see that again in college football.

But that Florida State program was guaranteed a title shot when it ran roughshod in the ACC. This one, even in its best year in a decade, one that sets up to guarantee a title shot with a good year in a down ACC, shoots itself in the foot against a bad N.C. State team and takes itself completely out of national title contention.

And if FSU isn't capable of playing for a national title in a year that featured the 'Noles playing reduced versions of ascendant Clemson and Florida programs at Doak, a fifth-year senior at quarterback distributing the ball to ample skill position talent, and a defense studded with NFL picks, when, exactly, is FSU going to be capable of doing that?

After all, Florida was a USC win over Notre Dame away from playing in Miami with a first-year starter at quarterback and a tight end as its only reliable option in the passing game despite playing five top-10 teams. Florida nearly scaled its brick wall; FSU got mired in a schedule as soft as tapioca pudding.

In one of your preseason posts, you wrote this:

FSU needs double-digit wins in the regular season for the first time since 2003. It needs a conference title for the first time since 2005 and a BCS game for the first time in seven years.

Clearly, Florida State managed to meet those expectations. And still, somehow, Florida State managed to end up underachieving, which is a very Florida State thing to do.

Florida needed to show progress from a 6-6 season in 2011, and instead of taking a hop up to 8-4 or 9-3, as most fans expected and wanted, it got to 11-1 — the largest single-season improvement in Florida football history that wasn't a turnaround from 0-10-1 to 8-4.

Florida loses a lot, sure, but Florida didn't have the No. 1 player in the 2010 recruiting class all year, and the Gators are poised to turn an offensive line that managed to look great in 2012 despite Xavier Nixon's best efforts into a much better unit in 2012. Jeff Driskel should improve, and the passing game should have more than 1.5 reliable targets. Matt Jones (you remember him, surely) looks like another great running back, and he's joined by one of the most productive high school running backs ever.

The Gators aren't poised to be the dominant team in Florida like they were for the six straight years that they crushed Florida State, when Urban Meyer won two national titles in his first four years on the job; Florida State's in much better hands now. And yet there are legitimate concerns about Jimbo Fisher's play-calling that will persist in 2013 and beyond, ones that have sane, smart FSU fans wondering if he's the right guy for the job, and questions about how Florida State can replace the majority of its coaching staff but keep Rick Trickett.

Florida State left fans with this question after 2012: "If not now, then when?" Florida's question is a lot simpler, and more fun: "How soon?"

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