Who's Best? Trojans Or Gators?
It was a championship season - punctuated by a powerful offseason. The Florida Gators followed up their SEC crown and BCS national title with college football's No. 1-ranked recruiting class. 'We've got the best of everything now,' Gators sophomore receiver Percy Harvin said. 'The elite players want to come here. We're going to keep this thing rolling.' And just think, if the Gators can replicate that formula for three or four more years, maybe they can become the new USC.Or maybe not. 'You've got to be careful when you start comparing teams to what Coach Pete Carroll and the Trojans have accomplished,' ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said. 'I mean, USC is doing things you've just never seen before.' Since USC's 2002 team opened 3-2, the Trojans have played 60 games. Just four of them were losses - by a total of 12 points. If Trojans senior quarterback John David Booty captures the Heisman Trophy - and he's one of the favorites - that would make four different Heisman winners from USC in the past six seasons.With a nearly unprecedented glut of talent - the No. 1-ranked Trojans are nine-deep at tailback and have five defensive players who are legitimate first-team All-America candidates - it's no wonder that first-year Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh recently described USC as 'the best team in the history of college football.' 'I admire USC,' Gators coach Urban Meyer said. 'USC sells its recruits on competition, competing against the best in practice and that's hard because some of these young people now say, 'Where's my spot? Am I guaranteed a job?' 'We're challenged with that right now. I haven't seen a program do that stockpile highly ranked recruits like USC. I'm still trying to figure out how they do that.' Meyer might need a crash course in USC's methods. After all, the Trojans signed 10 of the nation's top 100 players in Rivals.com's recruiting rankings. Florida signed 11. 'Without question, we butt heads with them Florida in recruiting,' Carroll said. 'They're after the best kids in the country and we like to try to do that ourselves. We have a lot of respect for their ability to recruit.' Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said he hesitates to compare Florida with USC because the annual SEC competition facing the Gators makes it more difficult to mount a similar dynasty. 'I think Florida is just young this season and to expect them to win the SEC and play for a national championship is unrealistic,' Newberg said. 'But after this season, with the way Urban Meyer and his staff have recruited, they will be national title contenders for the next few years. In other words, you better get Florida this season because the Gators will be loaded in 2008 and beyond.' And who knows? Maybe USC vs. Florida could meet in a BCS Championship Game, matching programs that are similarly obsessed with recruiting. 'Pete Carroll really leveraged the tradition of USC,' said Bobby Burton, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. 'He really got after it his first two or three years there. He went to junior college practices in the spring, high school practices in the spring. No head coach out West had done that before. 'Now it's different. Because of USC's success with national championships and Heisman winners, they've gone to a different level. USC selects players as much as it recruits them, especially in the state of California.' The Gators have a more competitive landscape. 'Recruiting California and recruiting Florida are completely different,' said Gators secondary coach Chuck Heater, the program's recruiting coordinator. 'USC has its way in California. In Florida, as has been the case for decades, you have us, Miami and Florida State, plus so many other major-conference schools that come in trying to cherry-pick the state's best players. Our state is much more of a battleground.' But in the past two recruiting seasons, Florida has dominated the state, while drifting into other areas to pluck key players, taking a page from USC's book. The Gators successfully have gone into Virginia (Harvin), North Carolina (Brandon Spikes, Carl Johnson), South Carolina (Carlos Dunlap), Georgia (Cameron Newton), Connecticut (Aaron Hernandez), Maryland (Joe Haden) and Indiana (Jerimy Finch) for All-American players. 'There's no question about the consistency of Florida's program and the direction it's going,' Herbstreit said. 'They have as hot a coach as there is Meyer. But I think maintaining it in the SEC is going to be a lot tougher than maintaining it in the Pac-10.' Florida State's success from 1987-2000, when the Seminoles had 10-victory teams for 14 consecutive seasons, had a similar vibe to USC's recent success. 'Southern Cal is in that cycle right now,' FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. 'We had it. Miami went through it. Florida might be going through it now. How long will it last? I don't know.' One thing that might last: Head-to-head recruiting battles between USC and Florida. 'If everything stays status quo, you can expect the Trojans and Gators to be neck-and-neck for the national recruits, the guys like Percy Harvin and Joe McKnight,' Burton said. 'Both programs have a similar level of excellence,' said Gators freshman offensive lineman James Wilson of Ponte Vedra Beach Nease, who reneged on an oral commitment to USC and signed with Florida in February. 'Do you want the big city? Or do you want regular old Gainesville? Beyond that, it's the same kind of big-time football. It's competition.' USC is still setting the pace. But Florida might be gaining ground. Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353 or jjohnston@