The Hurricane winds of change keep whipping through the Miami-Florida State rivalry.
Over the past decade and a half, this rivalry has had a difficult time deciding what it wants to be. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; rivalries gain texture when the two teams involved are constantly changing. It is fascinating to see how one team fares as a favorite and then as an underdog. It is revealing to see bitter rivals in various contexts and conditions: Who enjoys playing with house money and who can carry the pressure of being the heavyweight? Viewed through that lens, this rivalry enters a new chapter this year, with Miami being the heavy favorite and Florida State stumbling through the darkness, trying to find more light.
Yet, while it will certainly be fun to see Miami play the role of the team expected to win — and FSU in the underdog’s chair — there is a larger story attached to this game which isn’t very happy. In the big picture, the 2018 edition of Hurricanes-Seminoles does represent a step back for this rivalry. Desperation, not aspiration, lies at the center of this clash which once crowned national champions and sent shockwaves through the rest of the college football world.
Two years ago, Florida State — though not at its 2013-2014 peak under Jimbo Fisher — was still good enough to make and win the Orange Bowl. Last year, Miami’s win over Florida State and subsequent ACC Coastal championship, complete with an Orange Bowl appearance of its own, announced that The U was back — maybe not permanently, but at least for the time being. The past two years brought these storied programs closer to the vision ACC Commissioner John Swofford had when he brought Miami into the conference: Florida State and The U, playing for high stakes each year.
The ACC always counted on the idea that FSU and Miami would take what they had from 1987 through 2001 and carry it into the new league. Yet, the golden days of their rivalry ended in the 2004 Orange Bowl, just before Miami moved from the Big East to expand the ACC’s football footprint. A total of 13 ACC Championship Games have been played, and not one has featured the Canes and Noles. Yes, Clemson has represented the ACC quite well in the College Football Playoff over the past four seasons. Yes, Florida State — until recently — has done its fair share to bolster a league which, in 2016, stood above all the other Power Five conferences at the end of the bowl season.
Yet, in nearly a decade and a half of shared involvement in the ACC, the FSU-Miami dream has never truly come to fruition. It was hoped after Miami’s 2017 breakthrough (above) that this meeting of Sunshine State schools could once again become what it was always meant to be. That dream will have to wait at least a year, and based on Florida State’s present condition, probably another one until 2020 if we are being realistic. Clemson might still carry the banner — and carry it well — for the ACC, but the 2016 league which was deep from top to bottom now looks much thinner in 2018. It’s Clemson and then everyone else.
This is the backdrop to the latest edition of Noles-Canes, which will unfold this coming Saturday in Miami.
Last year was the game Miami HAD to win under Mark Richt in order to change the flow of one of college football’s most important rivalries. In previous years, Florida State was the target — the gold standard Miami aspired to reach, but couldn’t quite match. Now, Miami has the upper hand, but even though the Canes are finally sitting pretty within the narrow confines of this matchup, their larger outlook isn’t that rosy.
It could be that this team has begun to evolve under new quarterback N’Kosi Perry. It could be that — much as USC finally soared at this same juncture of the 2016 season under a freshman, Sam Darnold, who wasn’t the team’s Opening Day starter — Perry is about to similarly transform the Hurricanes after Richt chose Malik Rosier for the LSU opener. We have seen a number of quarterbacks get ignored by head coaches in the first few weeks of September, only to then come off the bench and light up the skies in October and November. Perry could be the latest talent to author such a story… but we are still in a “wait and see” position with Perry. A dominant win over North Carolina — a terrible team which has crashed and burned — does not prove that Miami is ready to match last season’s lofty achievements.
Even though Miami is the pronounced favorite in this game against Florida State — as it should be — the Canes are an unproven team. Don’t forget that. I say this not to criticize the Canes, but to merely remind you that they haven’t affirmed their place at the top of the sport. They have a lot of work to do to achieve that goal. Before The U can dream big dreams about this season, it has to string together strong performances in what appears to be a very weak ACC. A month of early-round knockouts would build back this team’s 2017 swagger. Then we can talk about Miami’s modern-day staying power in college football. Saturday is a time for the Canes to show how desperately they want to remain relevant on a national scale.
For Florida State, the “desperation” angle is even more pronounced. It therefore requires much less of an explanation.
Louisville is not a very good team, and FSU quite frankly should have lost to the Cardinals. However, Bobby Petrino made one of the worst play calls you will see in this sport in 2018. The Seminoles and Deondre Francois were good enough to take advantage. It has happened many times in sports that a struggling team wins a game it had no business winning, and then — from that escape — finds the winning chemistry and mentality which had previously been elusive. Maybe Florida State will catch lightning. That is the hope the Seminoles and Willie Taggart will bring to the ballyard against Richt and the Canes on Saturday.
Yet, the mere presence of hope and optimism won’t solve this team’s many flaws — its sloppiness, its inadequate offensive line, and its porous secondary. A comeback win in Louisville might inspire this team, but inspiration won’t be enough to save FSU’s season. The Noles have to make substantial advancements in their level of play to belong on the same field as the Canes. Florida State has to play this game with desperation. Anything less is likely to lead to defeat.
No, Miami and Florida State do not inhabit the same situation. Miami is still legitimately a team with division championship potential, while Florida State is going to struggle to merely make a bowl game this year. The Canes and Noles are not on the same plane. Yet, they are both in a position where greatness has eluded them in September and might continue to be evasive in the next two months. One will win this Saturday, but given the eroded condition of this rivalry in 2018, a win might not mean that either team is ready to rise to the top tier of college football this season. The winner will have to reaffirm itself many times in the second half of the season to show that this game, on October 6, was a genuine catapult.
Past Miami-FSU games didn’t need that explainer. It was once known that the winner of Canes-Noles would automatically be in the center of the national title discussion, at the very least assured of a prime January bowl. Neither Miami nor FSU can rest comfortably in that realization this year.
Let the desperation begin. The aspirations have to wait in 2018 for The U and Florida State.
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