You can say that Charlie Ward was the most dazzling college quarterback you ever saw, and you would be right. You can say that Danny Wuerffel produced one of the most remarkable four-year college football careers of all time, and that he stands alongside Steve Spurrier and Tim Tebow as the most important Florida Gator football player who ever lived.
You would be right.
Many other towering figures have been part of the Florida-Florida State football rivalry: Fred Biletnikoff, Jack Youngblood, Peter Warrick, Fred Taylor, Deion Sanders, Jevon Kearse, Peter Boulware, and many more.
Yet, if you had to pick the three best players ever to play in the Florida State-Florida rivalry, two of the three selections are obvious, and the third one is extremely hard to argue against.
This doesn’t mean the other choices are chopped liver – they aren’t – but these three present the most airtight cases (or something close to that standard).
The envelope, please:
3 – Warrick Dunn
Though not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the College Football Hall of Fame (the latter exclusion being due to a limited and unnecessarily shortsighted rule about First-Team All-America status), Dunn set an extremely high standard in both the NFL and college ball. He was First-Team All-ACC three times. He was a three-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.
More than that, he made the Pro Bowl in his first, fourth and ninth seasons, a rather remarkable feat. Dunn survived in the NFL as a small running back for 11 years, which is easier to appreciate today, given the pounding running backs (and running quarterbacks such as Cam Newton) take.
Great without being a superstar is still great. Dunn was an elite player in college and the pros. Moreover, he was a Gator killer as a member of the Florida State Seminoles. His catch-and-run touchdown late in the 1993 game in The Swamp is arguably the best and most memorable play in the history of the FSU-UF rivalry.
When you take all of that into account, Dunn’s place as No. 3 on this list doesn’t seem unreasonable at all.
2 – Emmitt Smith
Wait, why isn’t he No. 1? We will get to that in a moment. One of the elite running backs of all time, Smith made the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Durability, consistency, productivity, toughness – Emmitt Smith possessed all those qualities in abundance. He was First-Team All-SEC three straight years in Gainesville, at a time (1987 through 1989) when SEC football was still a running back’s game. Defenses knew what was coming, and they still couldn’t stop Smith.
In his freshman year of 1987, Smith debuted in the rivalry with 116 yards on just 17 carries with 2 TDs despite the Gators loss to the Noles. His final time in the rivalry, he rushed for 153 yards in another 1989 loss.
Everything Smith did in college, he did on a larger scale for the Dallas Cowboys. He played through enormous pain, chiefly a separated shoulder in a late-season game against the New York Giants in 1993. His warrior mentality helped Dallas win that game, secure home-field advantage through the playoffs, and beat the San Francisco 49ers to make and then win another Super Bowl.
Smith was an essential, indispensable part of the Dallas Cowboys’ last dynastic run of three Super Bowls in four seasons. No Gator has left a bigger imprint on the NFL.
1 – Derrick Brooks
Why is Brooks No. 1 and Smith No. 2? Brooks won a Super Bowl as Smith did (not three, but both reached the mountaintop in the NFL). He was an 11-time Pro Bowler, the best of the best at his position throughout his NFL career. He stands on the same plane as Smith in that regard.
Brooks is also – like Smith – a member of both the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. Across the board, he matches Smith.
What was the tiebreaker? Very simply, Brooks – unlike Smith – played in the very best years of the FSU-UF rivalry, in the mid-1990s, when every Nole-Gator game was a seismic event producing earth-shaking results. The unquestioned leader of those FSU defenses led them dominate college football.
None of this is Emmitt Smith’s fault, but Brooks has everything Smith has PLUS the ownership of a place in the sweet spot of a rivalry.
FAU hires former FSU coach Willie Taggart
The “coaching carousel” of college football continues to spin, and for Florida State fans, they have to be pleased, as it looks like Willie Taggart will immediately take another job and not even leave the state.
Florida Atlantic is nearing completion of a deal w/Willie Taggart, source told @Stadium. Taggart would be a huge get for FAU w/his recruiting ties in the state
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) December 11, 2019
Taggart, who was fired in November, halfway into his second season at Florida State, will be replacing Lane Kiffin, who departed for Ole Miss after Saturday’s Conference USA championship game win over UAB.
The reason Florida State fans have to be so enthusiastic is the Taggart was reportedly owed over $17 million on his buyout with four years left on his deal. However, that amount has to be lessened some, if not significantly, since he’s going to immediately take another head coaching job.
FAU made the hire official later on Wednesday night:
— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) December 11, 2019
Taggart went just 9-12 in his season and a half, which included Florida State suffering their first losing season in over forty years in 2018, when they went 5 – 7. When 2019 began with a collapsing loss at home to Boise State and then a near loss-OT victory over UL-Monroe, it seemed the handwriting was on the wall.
The final blow in Tallahassee came when Taggart’s team looked lifeless and undisciplined in their 27-10 loss to ACC instate rival Miami. He was dismissed the next afternoon.
Taggart came to FSU from Oregon, where he spent one year and went 7-5 before jumping, again, in December of 2017 to take the Noles job. He previously was the coach at USF for four seasons, where after starting 2-10 year one, he reversed that number in his final year (2016) to 10 – 2.
FAU enjoyed a resurgence under Kiffin and just won the C-USA Championship Game for the second time in three years. South Florida is obviously fertile ground for recruits and Taggart definitely has much experience recruiting the state for both the Seminoles, the Bulls and having also previously played High School football in Sarasota.
FSU coaching staff- who’s in and who’s out so far
Mike Norvell is wasting no time getting into his recruiting stride in Tallahassee, and he’s starting from the top down, with his coaching staff. So far, he’s secured two coaches that will be a part of the FSU staff in 2020.
With head coaching changes, traditionally comes a “clean sweep” of the previous coaches staff. However, Norvell’s first official hire was one of the programs most familiar faces, Odell Haggins. Norvell announced on Monday that Haggins will continue to run the Noles Defensive line and will be an associate head coach.
— FSU Football (@FSUFootball) December 9, 2019
In his announcement he said, “I’m extremely excited to announce that Coach Odell Haggins will be my first official assistant coach here at Florida State,” Norvell said. “He is an incredible representative of Florida State football, a tremendous leader and teacher and a wonderful man. His knowledge and understanding of the Nole Way will be critical in our pursuit of excellence for this football team on and off the field.”
Norvell’s next hire, announced Monday afternoon, is Auburn OC Kenny Dillingham in the same role with the Seminoles.
Source: Florida State is hiring Auburn OC Kenny Dillingham as the offensive coordinator. He worked under Mike Norvell at Memphis and Arizona State is considered one of the country's rising OC stars.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 9, 2019
The news means that Kendal Briles is officially out, who likely won’t have a hard time landing somewhere else, as one of the nations most promising OC’s, despite the lackluster year with FSU’s struggling offense.
Dillingham was preciously an assistant to Norvell at Memphis for three seasons from 2016 to 2018, before taking his job at Auburn. In his final year at Memphis he was promoted to OC, and lead an offense that ranked fourth nationally in total offense (534.3 ypg), third in rushing offense (285.5 ypg) and seventh in scoring offense (43.6 ppg).
Now on to what may be the most import hire of Norvell’s new staff, a frontman for the FSU defense. Right now, it is rumored that his third hire could be a coordinator from another SEC powerhouse. There’s lots of chatter online about the potential of Norvell landing Georgia’s current DC, Dan Lanning. While nothing has been confirmed yet, the move seems likely due to the connection between Norvell and Lanning at both Arizona State in 2012 and again at Memphis in 2016. Many Seminole fans are speculating on his potential move to Tallahassee when they noticed Lanning following FSU players and media on Twitter Monday afternoon.
Why is uga dc Dan lanning following our players 🤫 pic.twitter.com/ign0sEK2qp
— COONIE (@CooN6GoTDouGH) December 9, 2019
As of right now, it is just talk, though he certainly would be an amazing hire for FSU. Much of what undid Willie Taggart was the failure to produce a solid defensive scheme. If an announcement about Lanning’s move is made in the next couple of days, it would be an excellent first week on the job for Norvell.