As what will hopefully be a much more normal college football season approaches, it’s time to revisit my annual tradition of ranking every game in the state. My two criteria remain the same: How exciting do I find this matchup, and how important do I expect it to be?
78. Long Island at Florida International, Sept. 2 (Thursday)
The Panthers open against a Sharks team that lost its longtime head coach in late June.
77. Central Connecticut State at Miami, Sept. 25
Confession: When I saw CCSU Blue Devils on the Hurricanes’ schedule, I had no idea what team that was. That’s a good sign, right?
76. Samford at Florida, Nov. 13
75. Fordham at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 18
74. Bethune-Cookman at UCF, Sept. 11
73. Texas El Paso at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 30
72. Jacksonville State at Florida State, Sept. 11
The Seminoles trailed Jacksonville State midway through the third quarter last year, which means this game (on a short week for FSU, no less) is trickier than it sounds.
71. Old Dominion at Florida International, Nov. 6
70. Florida Atlantic at Old Dominion, Nov. 13
69. Florida A&M at USF, Sept. 18
The Rattlers won’t be a pushover; they went 9-2 in 2019, and coach Willie Simmons drew interest as a potential South Carolina assistant this offseason.
68. UConn at UCF, Nov. 20
This should be lower because of how dreadful UConn is, but I’m a sucker for the long-awaited return of the storied Civil ConFLiCT (and the jokes I refuse to stop making).
67. UMass at FSU, Oct. 23
UMass head coach Walt Bell returns to Tallahassee, where he was FSU’s offensive coordinator in Willie Taggart’s first season.
66. Charlotte at Florida International, Oct. 8 (Friday)
65. Florida Atlantic at Charlotte, Oct. 21 (Thursday)
64. North Texas at Florida International, Nov. 20
If the preseason projections and rankings are accurate, this will be one of the Panthers’ best shots at a victory in what could be a rough season after a winless 2020.
63. Florida International at Middle Tennessee, Nov. 13
62. Florida International at Southern Miss, Nov. 27
61. UCF at Temple, Oct. 30
60. Georgia Southern at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 11
59. Florida International at Texas Tech, Sept. 18
The Panthers are 2-31 all-time against Power Five teams. The Red Raiders should make that 2-32.
58. Western Kentucky at Florida International, Oct. 23
57. Florida International at Marshall, Oct. 30
56. Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky, Nov. 20
Second-year Owls coach Willie Taggart visits his alma mater (and the school that gave him his first head-coaching job) for the first time as an opposing coach.
55. Florida Atlantic at Air Force, Sept. 25
54. East Carolina at UCF, Oct. 9
53. Florida International at Central Michigan, Sept. 25
Former Gators coach Jim McElwain is 11-9 in two seasons with the Chippewas and hung with Miami’s other team (the Hurricanes) in 2019.
52. Texas State at Florida International, Sept. 11
Texas State signed only two high school prospects this cycle, instead focusing on the transfer portal and junior college players because of the team’s need for experience and the coronavirus’ recruiting restrictions. The Bobcats should be outmatched by Baylor in Week 1, so playing the Panthers in Week 2 will be an early indicator of whether their fascinating recruiting experiment will work.
51. Florida International at Florida Atlantic, Oct. 2
The Owls have won this rivalry’s last four meetings, all by at least 19 points.
50. UF at USF, Sept. 11
The good: Raymond James Stadium should be packed for an in-state showdown. The bad: It probably won’t be competitive. The ugly: A 1 p.m. kickoff in Week 2 will be sweltering.
49. Vanderbilt at UF, Oct. 9
48. Middle Tennessee at Florida Atlantic, Nov. 27
The Owls might be playing for a spot in the Conference USA title game in this regular-season finale. Blue Raiders quarterback Bailey Hockman was a blue-chip prospect with Taggart at FSU but transferred after losing the starting job before Taggart’s first game.
47. Temple at USF, Oct. 23
46. Florida Atlantic at Alabama Birmingham, Oct. 9
A potential preview of the Conference USA title game.
45. Syracuse at FSU, Oct. 2
44. Miami at Duke, Nov. 27
43. USF at East Carolina, Oct. 28 (Thursday)
The Bulls’ best hopes for a road victory come on a weeknight against a Pirates team that might take a step closer to respectability this season.
42. Marshall at Florida Atlantic, Nov. 6
Former Alabama assistant Charles Huff is in position to succeed quickly in his first year as Marshall’s head coach, so the winner of this game will be the favorite to win the East Division. Can Taggart finally advance to a conference title game?
41. UCF at Navy, Oct. 2
40. FSU at Boston College, Nov. 20
Former Bucs assistant Jeff Hafley had the most wins (six) of any first-year coach last season.
39. Michigan State at Miami, Sept. 18
This matchup isn’t as interesting as it sounds. The Spartans are 29-29 over the past five seasons and won’t be better than mediocre this year either.
38. USF at BYU, Sept. 25
Even with Cougars star Zach Wilson off to the Jets as the No. 2 overall pick, the Bulls will still face a major challenge.
37. UF at South Carolina, Nov. 6
36. Virginia at Miami, Sept. 30 (Thursday)
35. Florida Atlantic at UF, Sept. 4
The game should be a blowout, but it’s this high because it’s our first glimpse of UF’s offense with dual-threat quarterback Emory Jones as the starter.
34. Tulane at UCF, Nov. 6
33. USF at Tulane, Nov. 20
32. Tulsa at USF, Oct. 16
31. Miami at Pitt, Oct. 30
Kenny Pickett, who quarterbacked the Panthers to their upset over No. 2 Miami in 2017, is still at Pitt for what feels like his 15th season. Can he knock off the Hurricanes at Heinz Field again?
30. North Carolina State at Miami, Oct. 23
29. North Carolina State at FSU, Nov. 6
28. USF at North Carolina State, Sept. 2 (Thursday)
The most interesting of the Wolfpack trio because it’s the season opener. I didn’t take much away from Jeff Scott’s first year because of the pandemic, so this will be first real look at what Scott and his Bulls can do.
27. UF at Missouri, Nov. 20
I wonder if Gators coach Dan Mullen can fit a Darth Vader costume into his carry-on bag…
26. Georgia Tech at Miami, Nov. 6
The Yellow Jackets have potential with quarterback Jeff Sims (the former longtime FSU commit) and talented running back Jahmyr Gibbs. We’ll see if that leads to a Year 3 bump for coach Geoff Collins.
25. Houston at USF, Nov. 6
24. FSU at Wake Forest, Sept. 18
23. Tennessee at UF, Sept. 25
Nostalgia pushes this likely lopsided matchup higher than it should be. Hopefully ex-UCF coach Josh Heupel can turn this into a contested rivalry again. Just don’t expect it to happen this fall.
22. USF at SMU, Oct. 2
It’s the first time Mustangs defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will face the program he built from the ground up.
21. Louisville at FSU, Sept. 25
20. UCF at Louisville, Sept. 17 (Friday)
The Knights have won four of their last five regular-season games against Power Five teams, so it shouldn’t be a shock if they beat the Cardinals on the road.
19. UF at Kentucky, Oct. 2
The Gators’ last three trips to Lexington have all been decided by one score, including the 2019 comeback led by Bucs rookie Kyle Trask.
18. Appalachian State at Miami, Sept. 11
Recent Miami teams have struggled after losses in big games. If the Hurricanes lose to Alabama in Week 1, this becomes a significant gauge on how much the program has grown, because the Mountaineers are good enough to scare, if not upset, Miami.
17. Cincinnati at USF, Nov. 12 (Friday)
A homecoming for running back Jerome Ford, an Armwood High alumnus who will try to keep the Bearcats atop the Group of Five.
16. Memphis at UCF, Oct. 22 (Friday)
I’m not sure what to make of the Tigers in the post-Mike Norvell era, but they have the skill players to be an AAC contender.
15. USF at UCF, Nov. 26 (Friday)
Though the Bulls were more competitive in this game than I expected last year, I don’t think USF is ready to snap its four-game losing streak in the series.
14. FSU at Clemson, Oct. 30
Even if the Seminoles improve, they’ll still be a notch or two below these perennial playoff participants.
13. Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20
It wouldn’t surprise me if Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente is fired before going to Hard Rock Stadium. It also wouldn’t surprise me if his Hokies are still in contention to win the Coastal Division.
12. UCF at SMU, Nov. 13
This high-scoring shootout has potential to be one of the most entertaining games of the year and a major factor in the AAC championship race.
11. FSU at North Carolina, Oct. 9
FSU’s 31-28 upset over the No. 5 Tar Heels was one of the most confounding results of 2020. The rematch will help show us whether last year’s win was a fluke or a sign of things to come under second-year coach Mike Norvell.
10. Boise State at UCF, Sept. 2 (Thursday)
With a 12-team playoff, this game would be even bigger. Alas, it’s only Gus Malzahn’s UCF debut, a matchup of top-tier Group of Five programs and the return of full college stadiums to the state.
9. UF at LSU, Oct. 16
The LS-Shoe defeat kickstarted UF’s season-ending three-game losing streak. The Tigers still have talent (including quarterback Max Johnson, the son of former Bucs Super Bowl champ Brad Johnson), and this spicy rivalry has a recent history of fantastic games.
8. UCF at Cincinnati, Oct. 16
A pivotal contest in the AAC race and the national conversation for a Cincinnati team trying to break the Group of Five’s College Football Playoff glass ceiling.
7. Miami vs. Alabama, Sept. 4 (Atlanta)
Spoiler: The Crimson Tide should be really good again. ‘Bama has won its 10 neutral-site openers under Nick Saban by an average of 25 points each. Realistically, Miami fans should hope the Hurricanes are competitive in this big-name matchup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
6. FSU at UF, Nov. 27
Because of the pandemic, the Gators and Seminoles didn’t play last year for the first time since the series started in 1958. Let’s not take this storied rivalry for granted, okay?
5. Miami at FSU, Nov. 13
This rivalry is one spot higher because of the ACC implications it could have for the Hurricanes. The late-season date gives Norvell more time to figure out his roster as he looks to rebound from last year’s 52-10 debacle.
4. Notre Dame at FSU, Sept. 5 (Sunday)
There’s an outsized buzz around FSU (especially on the recruiting trail) for a team that went 3-6 last year. Will the good vibes remain after the nation watches the day’s only game? It helps that Notre Dame will have a new starter after the departure of Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in program history.
3. Miami at North Carolina, Oct. 16
A matchup of two of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Miami’s D’Eriq King and UNC’s Sam Howell (the former longtime FSU commit and presumptive top-10 pick). The Coastal Division will likely be on the line in a potential top-10 matchup.
2. UF vs. Georgia, Oct. 30 (Jacksonville)
The winner will be the clear favorite in the SEC East. And with how talented Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs should be, this one will have national implications.
1. Alabama vs. UF, Sept. 18
The Georgia game is probably the most important for the Gators, but this one is the most interesting. Though Dan Mullen is 0-10 as a head coach against Nick Saban, UF played ‘Bama tighter than anyone else last year. UF also gets some scheduling breaks with an early-season matchup (as Saban figures out his next wave of blue-chip personnel) and date intThe Swamp. Add in the championship context, and this becomes the state’s top game of the season.
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