Whit Watson's Blog: The Big Five

Does the state of Florida have room for a Big Five? The University of Florida began playing football in 1906. Miami's program was born in 1926, and Florida State followed in 1947. Together, the Big Three have accounted for 95 bowl appearances, 26 outright or shared conference titles, and eight national championships

The University of Central Florida began playing football in the fall of 1979, just a few months after the school changed its name from "Florida Technological University" in December of '78. After a decade of play in Division III and Division II, the Knights broke into I-AA football in 1990 with a 10-4 season under Gene McDowell, and made the final leap into major college football in 1996.

That same year - 1996 - saw the University of South Florida play three intrasquad scrimmages at Tampa-area high schools, as the Bulls prepared for their I-AA debut in the fall of '97. In eight seasons prior to 2005, the Bulls went 55-33 under one head coach, Jim Leavitt. The Bulls had winning records in six of those eight campaigns, highlighted by a 9-2 record in 2002, losing only to Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Together, the Golden Knights and the Bulls have recorded zero conference titles and zero bowl appearances. In 34 years of football combined, they've amassed exactly one ten-win season - McDowell's 10-4 campaign in 1990 at UCF, which ended with a 44-7 loss to eventual national champion Georgia Southern in the third round of the I-AA playoffs. By comparison, Florida has won ten games in a season on nine different occasions, Miami has done it fourteen times, and Bobby Bowden has done it 18 times at Florida State.

On paper, UCF and USF aren't in the same area code as the Big Three, much less the same conversation. However, everybody has to start somewhere.

In 1906, Florida's football schedule included two games against Rollins College, a private liberal arts school in Winter Park that dropped football in 1949. Ironically, Miami debuted its program against Rollins back in '26, and the schedule that year included games against Stetson and the University of Havana - as in Cuba, where the Hurricanes played on Christmas Day. When Ed Williamson took over the Florida State program in 1947, he had no stadium, no scholarships, and no team name. He also had no wins - Williamson was 0-5 in his only season as head coach.

Different eras, I know. Leather helmets and all that. The point is, the Big Three weren't always so big. For that matter, many of the teams that we consider "nationally prominent" today aren't too far removed from Nowheresville.

When USF debuted in 1997, Louisville was a 1-10 team. Last year, the Cardinals went 11-1, won the Conference USA title, won the Liberty Bowl, and finished 6th in the final AP poll.

When UCF put on the pads in 1979, Utah was 6-6, with one winning season in its previous five. Last year, the Utes were a perfect 12-0, won the Mountain West, won the Fiesta Bowl, and was ranked fourth in the final poll.

Where were these teams ten years ago? Where was Boise State? Where was Fresno State? Off the map, is where they were. Last year, they all finished in the top 25. Virginia Tech was invisible before Frank Beamer got there. Hell, they were invisible for a few years WITH Beamer - four losing seasons in his first six years, followed by ten straight bowl appearances and four conference titles.

In these modern times, any school that has the financial resources and the commitment from the administration - schools like Virginia Tech, Louisville, and yes, UCF and USF - can force its way into the national picture. Coaches can provide players with scouting reports on DVD. Fans can buy tickets online, and if they can't make the game, they can listen to it through the same website. When recruits come to campus, they can tour sparkling practice facilities and stadiums - and when they can't make the trip, coaches can keep tabs on them via the Internet and cell phones. Football staffs can promise kids national exposure on cable television and serve up the carrot of playing in a conference championship game. None of this was possible when the Big Three took their first wobbly football steps. Fact is, leaping into national prominence in college football has never been easier than it is right now.

Maybe "easier" is the wrong word. There are no guarantees for UCF or USF, not with all the money in the world. They still have to recruit - a task made simpler in the fertile fields of Florida - and they still have to win. In fact, that's all they have to do this season. Win.

If South Florida wins out against Cincinnati, Connecticut, and West Virginia, they claim the Big East title and a BCS bowl berth. If UCF can beat Rice next week, they'll seal a spot in the Conference USA championship game, possibly at home in the Citrus Bowl. In both cases, the Bulls and Golden Knights control their own destinies in the race to win a conference title in their first year in the league. While you ponder that, ponder this: Florida will not play for an SEC title this year. If Miami stumbles against Georgia Tech or Virginia, the Hurricanes may not play for an ACC title, either. Florida State, with three losses, still has to beat Miami - again - or Virginia Tech to claim another conference championship. There is a chance - and let's be honest, it's a slim one - that none of the Big Three will claim a conference crown in 2005.

Of course, even if the Bulls and Knights can pull off an unprecedented conference double-double, they will still face the scorn of college football snobs everywhere. Fans of more storied programs will sneer at their weak schedules, and roll their eyes at the cheers of the "bandwagon" fans. Expect it, Bulls. Accept it, Knights. You can't force tradition, and you can't create history. All you can do is keep winning, and over time, wins become tradition, and conference titles become history.

Just win. Do that, and we're one step closer to a Big Five.

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