For years now, at least since Tim Tebow made every Florida Gators game must-see TV, even for people who weren't self-identified Gator Nation members, there has been a hierarchy of college football teams in the state.
The Gators stood atop the landscape. The Seminoles: second best. And below them, a series of programs with fortunes that shifted from year to year — Miami, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida and all the rest.
The Gators were all anyone really wanted to talk about, with names like Tebow, Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. The 'Noles? Not so much.
Even during the just-concluded E.J. Manuel era, which was more successful than not, there was a distinct feeling of frustrated climax. As I noticed last year when I was in Tallahassee for the Florida game — sitting in the student section, no less — there was no real expectation of victory for the home team.
Even though last year's Gators squad wasn't especially compelling, and even though Manuel was arguably the best ACC quarterback (especially if you ask the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round this year), it somehow wasn't surprising that Manuel struggled against the Seminoles' in-state rivals.
Last year's Florida game was a struggle for Manuel for the second consecutive year. He was intercepted three times in last year's game, in addition to coughing up the ball in the fourth quarter. If you had only seen Manuel in those games against Florida, there's no way you'd call him a first-round pick who could immediately start in the NFL — or at least the approximation thereof that's showcased in Buffalo these days. In part, that perception stemmed from a gulf between the two programs. Indications are that gulf is about to be bridged — courtesy of a redshirt freshman quarterback, one "Famous" Jameis Winston.
Winston's legend began before he took his first snap for the 'Noles in Pittsburgh — a tough place to win for a road team. All reports are that he wowed the media corps before the season began, as summed up nicely by espn.com's David M. Hale in the understatedly titled "The legend of Jameis Winston."
"Winston's coming-out party for the media last month was a showstopper. He waxed poetic about [Texas A&M quarterback Johnny] Manziel's offseason troubles, encouraging reporters to whack him on the head if he duplicated such indiscretions," Hale wrote. "He underscored his agreeable nature by assuring a white reporter that ‘I'd make you feel comfortable in a black church.' He suggested nothing in the world was worse than a rainy day without laughter, then proceeded to practice his MC Hammer dance in front of the cameras."
Readers, this is how you create positive coverage for yourself. Black quarterbacks always have a bit extra to prove in the eyes of the white media; consider, for example, how Cam Newton's reputation took major hits after the laptop incident in Gainesville, driving the signal-caller into the waiting arms of the Auburn Tigers. Or consider, closer to home, the heat Byron Leftwich and David Garrard took from local press. Winston seems to know instinctively what some athletes spend their entire careers figuring out — the press is a weapon that can be used for or against an athlete, and it's entirely possible to manipulate coverage by making reporters feel "comfortable."
Those who saw the Pittsburgh game recognize how good Winston looked, especially when the game was still in the balance. The stat line is one for posterity: 25 completions in 27 attempts, four passing touchdowns, 356 yards. And he ran for a touchdown.
"It's ‘Monday Night Football,' " Winston said, according to Fox Sports. "We come in and play ‘Monday Night Football' in a pro stadium? I was so pumped for that."
We can make easy comparisons that may prove specious. He runs as well as Tebow or Newton, but he seems to have a better grasp for making reads as a freshman than either of those pros. His childhood hero was Randall Cunningham, and that might be a useful point of comparison — as of right now. In a couple of years, who knows?
What we now know: FSU is relevant in the national title picture. The best quarterback in the state wears garnet and gold. The Gators, having become boring to watch during the Muschamp era, look Paleolithic by comparison. November is a long way off, so we don't know who the better team is now. But we all know which team is more fun to watch.