Ranking Florida’s NCAA football programs by quality of 2023-24 season

April 7, 2023

Florida is renowned for its football prowess, having a reputation for producing an abundance of NFL-caliber talent from a variety of respected schools. The state has a total of 12 football schools that range from Division II to the top of Division I, including public schools, private schools and HBCUs.

With this diverse array of colleges comes diverse players, coaches and opponents, resulting in each one paving its own unique path every season. Due to factors such as recruiting (statistics from 247 Sports), leaving stars, returning stars and strength of schedules being different for every team, some of said seasons are bound to be better—or worse—than some others.

Surrounding the act of gauging a team’s future worth with that level of uncertainty leaves most fans all the more excited for the year to come, especially if the year in question is expected to witness either a rise from the ashes or a fall from grace.

The following list ranks every NCAA football program in Florida based on that exact concept, with the purpose being to give Floridian football diehards of all backgrounds their fair share of fan service.

With that said, it should be noted that the 12 teams are ranked simply by their potential to have a strong season, not by their comparative strength. For example, the Florida Gators are both bigger and stronger than the Florida A&M Rattlers, but that does not necessarily mean that the Gators will have a better year.

12. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats

The Bethune-Cookman Wildcats are coming off of a season that saw them finish with a very underwhelming record of 2-9 (the second-worst record in Florida, behind only the 1-11 South Florida Bulls). The run included seven double-digit losses, two of which were dealt by fellow Florida schools Miami and Florida A&M.

Upon its season coming to an end, Bethune-Cookman parted ways with head coach Terry Simms and ultimately replaced him with Raymond Woodie, Jr. According to the university website, Woodie Jr.’s last two jobs have been as an assistant coach for Florida State and Florida Atlantic. This fails to tell much about his potential as a head coach, however, especially as both teams struggled with mediocre seasons while he was on their sidelines.

Not only that, but he will likely need some time to build the Wildcats in his image; an unproven head coach just beginning to lead a previously 2-9 squad is unlikely to see any booms in competitiveness right out of the gate.

In short, Bethune-Cookman could experience a gradual rise in formidability as the first few seasons of the Woodie, Jr. new era goes by, but it having a particularly great run in 2023 should not be expected.

11. South Florida Bulls

As previously established, the South Florida Bulls hold the undesirable distinction of having the worst record in Florida for 2022, with their one win being over Howard, an FCS school.

In the middle of what is currently a 10-game loss streak, things were looking so bleak that Bulls head coach Jeff Scott got canned before he could even finish the season. His successor, Alex Golesh, has never been a head coach, though he was recently an offensive coordinator for some high-scoring teams while under the University of Tennessee’s Josh Heupel.

Golesh’s initial involvement—similarly to Woodie, Jr.’s at Bethune-Cookman—should not be expected to make a winner out of nothing too soon, but something that will certainly not assist him in his mission to do so is what the near future has in store for the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

The AAC is set to go through a colossal change this summer, with multiple teams (Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida) departing as several others (Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, UTSA) are joining.

A 1-11 season is already extremely difficult to bounce back from quickly, but the combination of a new head coach and a new conference lineup will only make necessary adjustments harder to execute. The sole factor that gives USF the edge over Bethune-Cookman is the difference in head coaching résumés.

10. Stetson Hatters

The Stetson Hatters had the potential for a strong showing last year, garnering attention with a 3-1 start to their 2022 journey. However, their hopes were short-lived as they lost their next five games en route to a final record of 4-6. Yet, to their credit, the Hatters could have definitely made losing more than half of their games look worse.

Each of their four wins were decided by double-digit margins, while half of their losses were within eight points. Also, while two of their defeats saw deficits of over 20 points, one of them was to the Princeton Tigers (who won’t be facing the Hatters in 2023) and the other was to the St. Thomas Tommies (who will be facing them on the road).

Beyond that, Stetson’s biggest challenges will be away games against Montana State and Marist, with the Bobcats coming off of a 12-2 season and the Red Foxes having beaten the Hatters 45-31 last year.

As for Stetson’s coaching situation, the program will be entering its third year under Brian Young. If he can get the Hatters to at least five wins in 2023, it will be the first time they have gotten more than four in a season since 2019. While that is no less than what can be said for either Bethune-Cookman or South Florida, it still doesn’t amount to much when compared to some of the other Floridian teams yet to be named.

9. Florida International Panthers

There is very little about the Florida International Panthers that makes their 2023 path look remotely comforting, as they are coming off of a 4-8 season, have new head coach Mike MacIntyre entering only his second year with them, and will be playing in a new version of Conference USA. There are two points that can be made in favor of FIU, though.

For starters, the Panthers finished 2021 (their last year without MacIntyre) with a single win. In just one offseason, MacIntyre was able to lift them up to four wins. If that rise was indicative of an ability to build a team quickly, FIU could be on pace to at least make a bowl game this year.

Secondly, the program has consistently been one of the stronger recruiters in its conference, having had a top-five recruiting rating in Conference USA every year dating back to 2017. While that fact has failed to do much for the Panthers so far, it nonetheless adds to their overall potential on paper.

To summarize, FIU is in position to have a season successful enough to outshine the schools beneath it. But again, that does not say a lot when compared to the ones higher on the list.

8. Edward Waters Tigers

Due to sharing the state’s Division II spotlight with the abundantly successful West Florida Argonauts, the Edward Waters football program is easily the smallest in Florida. However, that does not mean it will make the smallest impact.

The Tigers are coming off of a season that saw them fall just short of a winning record, but when considering the outstanding note they finished it on, they were probably feeling a lot tougher than 5-6.

EWU managed to win its last four games in dominating fashion, with three of them being decided by 26 points or more. A good portion of the credit for the turnaround goes to Tigers head coach Toriano Morgan, whose influence has made a visible impact on the team since his hiring in 2021.

The team remains imperfect, as a losing season is still a losing season (which does nothing to help its ranking), but Edward Waters should not be an easy win for anyone this year.

7. Florida Gators

Here is a huge jump in size, as the Florida Gators are the first Power 5 squad to be featured in the rankings—and for all the wrong reasons.

The Gators possess the talent for success, having been in the top half of SEC recruiting for seven of the last eight years, but that’s about where their list of positives ends. Beyond that, their chances of making a strong run are hindered by star quarterback Anthony Richardson heading to the NFL, questionable coaching and a brutal schedule.

Head coach Billy Napier already has a season under his belt at the University of Florida, and all the program has to show for it is its second 6-7 record in a row. Those two losing seasons are the first that it’s had back-to-back since the late 1970s.

The lackluster start to his era has already made him a sore subject for many fans, and if he can’t show a sound improvement in 2023, his future with the team could be in jeopardy.

As for their schedule, the Gators have a slate that most other Floridian schools would deem impossible to win with. Some of the bigger names included are Utah (the defending Pac-12 Champion), Tennessee (the defending Orange Bowl Champion), Georgia (the winner of the last two national titles), LSU (the defending SEC West Champion) and Florida State (an in-state rival coming off of a 10-win season).

If the Gators were to lose to all of those opponents—which is very much possible—they would have to win all of their other games just to enter the postseason with a winning record. The probability of them doing so is not great though, as they will still have schools like Kentucky (beat the Gators last year), Vanderbilt (also beat the Gators last year) and South Carolina (eight-win team last year) standing in their way.

An uphill battle that steep would harm Florida’s spot on the list no matter what, but throwing in the combination of Richardson’s departure and Napier’s unconvincing first season makes the concept of victory feel like nothing more than a dream.

6. Florida Atlantic Owls

It’s a shame that Florida Atlantic is even as low as sixth on the list, as the Owls have both the talent and coaching to win.

From 2015 to 2023, FAU was a top-four recruiter in Conference USA all but once, seeing the top spot on three separate occasions. The program has also brought in Tom Herman to succeed Willie Taggart at head coach.

“Throughout the process and the more we talked with Coach Herman, the more it became apparent to me that he was the right person to lead our football program,” FAU athletic director Brian White said. “Beyond his knowledge of the game, which is obvious by his success over the years, he also truly cares about the young people in his program. He has coached winning programs everywhere he has been, and we believe he can be tremendously successful at FAU as well.”

In the past, Herman has seen success with Texas and even more so Houston. The latter of the two was then a member of the American Athletic Conference—the same league that FAU will be joining in the coming months.

The move will result in the Owls facing four new opponents in their 2023 league play: Tulsa, USF, East Carolina and Tulane. While they will initially be difficult to adjust to, Herman’s experience with each of them will surely help over time. With that said, his influence will be far more limited throughout Florida Atlantic’s non-conference stretch.

Three of FAU’s four non-conference opponents are Ohio, Clemson and Illinois. Last year, each of those three schools had a run to be proud of; Ohio won 10 games and made its conference championship, Clemson won 11 games including its conference championship, and Illinois won eight games (its most in a season since 2007). The Owls, who went 5-7 last year, will most definitely be in over their heads with that trio.

Florida Atlantic’s one-two punch of decent recruiting and coaching prowess may make it look like one of the state’s more promising teams in a few years, but its upcoming schedule is a bit too unfamiliar/tough for a struggling team with a first-year head coach to overcome in 2023. Because of that, the Owls will be placed no higher than sixth.

5. Central Florida Knights

The lack of familiarity has been a recurring theme on the list so far, but the Central Florida Knights will endure perhaps the most jarring effects from it. This is because 2023 will be their first-ever year in the Big 12, a Power 5 conference. The move will have them facing bigger and better talent on a more consistent basis. 

This year, they will be facing an astonishing seven new opponents in league play. One of those opponents is Kansas State, the conference’s defending champion.

Even the competition that UCF is used to will not be easy, as both Cincinnati and Houston—the two other teams joining the Big 12 from the AAC—saw at least eight wins in 2022.

The Knights are not a bad squad by any stretch of the imagination, as five of their last six seasons have included nine wins or more, but a simply decent team at a smaller level should not be expected to be any better at a larger level.

4. Miami Hurricanes

The Miami Hurricanes were one of Florida football’s biggest disappointments last season, finishing 5-7. The record was their worst since 2007 and left them as the worst of the state’s “big three” (Miami, Florida and Florida State). Yet, despite their recent struggles, the Hurricanes are another team that has what it takes to be competitive in due time.

Along with being led by second-year head coach Mario Cristobal, Miami has been a top-four recruiter in the ACC for 12 years straight. The only question is whether the Hurricanes are to a point in the Cristobal era where they can survive their 2023 schedule.

Later this year, Miami will encounter a total of five teams that hit eight wins or more in 2022; North Carolina and Clemson, the conference’s defending divisional champs, make up two of those five.

All of this leaves the Hurricanes with circumstances similar to those of the lower-ranked Florida Gators: a talented roster at risk of being held back by an underachieving head coach and a challenging slate. But if Miami is in a similar boat as Florida, why is the former ranked so much higher?

Essentially, the Hurricanes are benefiting from the concerns surrounding multiple teams below them. Florida lost its quarterback and plays a tougher schedule, FAU has a first-year head coach and is joining a new conference (while also having tougher non-conference opponents) and UCF is moving to an entirely new level of football.

If the Hurricanes were dealing with matters half as severe as those, they would have probably been placed lower on the list. But, since they are fortunate enough to have less bumps in the road ahead, they have been given a ranking that is a bit more forgiving.

3. West Florida Argonauts

Having finished last season with a 12-2 record and an appearance in the national semifinals, the West Florida Argonauts had the best 2022 of all Floridian teams—and the run was in no way a fluke.

In just six seasons as a Division II football program (the 2020-21 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), West Florida has already made four playoff appearances, two national championship appearances and won a national title.

Being so formidable year in and year out made UWF one of few names with a legitimate argument to sit atop these rankings, but one thing brings all of the hype to a screeching halt: the coaching change.

Pete Shinnick was the Argos head coach for all six of their seasons, but he has since taken the head coaching job at Towson and been replaced by Kaleb Nobles.

Nobles, a former UWF quarterback, has worked under both Shinnick and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, getting some of the best mentoring that a young coach could ask for. Also, his love for the school adds to his fitness for the position.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be the next head football coach at the University of West Florida,” Nobles said in his bio for the UWF website. “My wife and I are true Argos as we are both UWF graduates, and I look forward to continuing the legacy of Building Champions For Life.”

However, he has still never had an opportunity to prove himself as a head coach until now, and it feels somewhat far-fetched to expect him to fill shoes the size of Shinnick’s in his first season.

Will West Florida be a good team in 2023? Absolutely, but being good and being the best in the state are two completely different things. That with the fact that teams two and one don’t have new head coaches is why the Argos will sit no higher than third.

2. Florida A&M Rattlers

Florida A&M just might be entering this upcoming season on a stronger note than any other team in the state. The Rattlers finished 2022 at 9-2 with the nine wins being consecutive; no other Florida team has an active win streak that large.

As for their head coaching situation, Willie Simmons has been leading the Rattlers since 2018, making him the longest-tenured head coach in Floridian college football.

The 2022 record, the outrageous win streak, the experience of the head coach, it all adds up to a team that should strike fear into the hearts of all who encounter it. But there is one squad that remains to be covered, one that checks all of those boxes and then some.

1. Florida State Seminoles

The Florida State Seminoles have a good-looking 2022 record, as they finished 10-3 for the first time since 2016. They have the hype that comes with an impressive win streak, having won their last six games. They even have an experienced head coach, as Mike Norvell has been their guy since 2020.

Putting all of those positive influences aside, two more factors that give Florida State its undeniable edge are its roster and schedule.

FSU is consistently a top recruiter in the ACC, sitting as one of the top four every year for over a decade (and being number one in the conference on several occasions in that span). The team also has multiple stars returning in the fall, most namely quarterback Jordan Travis, wide receiver Johnny Wilson, and defensive end Jared Verse.

Looking at their schedule, the Seminoles are in what is relatively a very comfortable position. Assuming that last season can serve as any implication to how 2023 will unfold, the only game that has the Seminoles as clear-cut underdogs is their road trip to Clemson. Other than that, every game is susceptible to landing in their win column.

If the only concern that can be brought up about a team is one of its 12 opponents, then its circumstances are near perfect for a year of overwhelming success, and that precise description applies to Florida State beautifully. With that in mind, the Seminoles are the favorites to see the best college football season in the entire state of Florida for 2023.

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