UMderdogs Heading North

It's that time again. Are you ready? Miami vs. Florida State – the weekend we all live for. Stats and records? Out the window. No one gives a damn. All this so called bulletin board material? Falling on deaf ears. There's nothing anyone can say or do to add more drama to the magnitude of this game. No.2 at No. 5 for all the marbles and statewide bragging rights. What more do you need?

This past dozen meetings we've seen it all. Some highs and lows for both programs – neither in tandem with the other. The Noles and Canes traded blows in the early nineties, each winning a National Championship. There were a few ‘Wide Rights" and some other less-than-classic finishes. Miami was slapped with probation in the mid-nineties and Florida State took full advantage of the non-dominant Canes to the tune of five straight wins.

But you can only kick a beaten dog so much before he turns on you and bites back. Every now and then the school bully gets tagged between the eyes by the kid in class who is sick of getting picked on.

Sick of the underdog role and playing at full strength for the first time in five years, the No. 7 Hurricanes took down the defending champs and No. 1 Seminoles, 27-24 in October 2000. Miami was back.

The following season Florida State was reeling with an 8-4 record. While the Noles might've been playing like a probation-laden squad, they were at full strength. Just a case of being out coached and not playing up to their potential.

Credit one of those four losses in 2001 to No. 1 Miami, who made the trek to Tallahassee and beat No. 14 Florida State, 49-27. It was the Canes' first win at Doak Campbell Stadium since 1991 and it ended the Noles' unbeaten streak of eight seasons. Two in a row for the Canes.

The 2002 match up featured a No. 9 Florida State team taking on the defending champs and still No. 1 Miami. The underdog Noles pounced on the Canes in the second quarter, scoring 17 of their 27 points on the day. A strong ground attack and a stingy defense were the recipe for an upset and FSU came within a few feet of doing the unthinkable. It came down to a kick and the Noles choked again. What else did anyone expect when it came down to a kick? Chalk up another Seminoles loss. Make that three in a row for the Canes and No. 28 in "The Streak."

Miami rolled on to a 12-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl title game appearance while Florida State managed to go 9-5 and wound up in the Sugar Bowl as conference champions.

Fast forward to 2003 and it's another "game of the century" type atmosphere for these two foes. Both teams sport identical 5-0 records and top five rankings – yet you wouldn't know by all the chatter this week. You'd think it was 1999 all over again and that Miami was still knee deep in the probation era. The loss of superstar running back Frank Gore has some thinking that the Canes are done. Don't even bother showing up this weekend. It's Florida State's year. They're on a roll. Undefeated. Dominating the opposition and getting back to that old school Seminoles defense.

Forget that their wins were against North Carolina, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Colorado and Duke – teams with a combined 11-16 record. To some folks in the media and a trailer full of fans in Tallahassee, Florida State is undoubtedly "back." Double digit wins over the Canes are being predicted. Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews has been rumored to have used the phrase "shutout" when discussing Miami's offense.

Pretty bold talk for a team that has done so little the past few seasons – especially in the win column against the Canes.

Miami fans will be the first group to admit that this season hasn't gotten off to a perfect start. All the off season chatter about being hungry – even famished – is hard to believe when teams like Florida and West Virginia are still hanging around in the fourth quarter. Many were expecting an all business season like that of 2001. Make a statement every week and dominate. No overlooking opponents or getting caught up reading the headlines.

While the 5-0 record and No. 2 ranking are something to be proud of, the penalties and lack of discipline at times are frustrating. The loss of Frank Gore hurts, but it is not time to pack up the farm or close down shop. Press on. Continue fighting. Die trying.

Like the Noles, the Canes are yet to play a bit name opponent either. But they're also marching into Tallahassee as underdogs who have something to prove. Unlike the Florida State, Miami has been in this position several times the past few seasons. Big games that mean EVERYTHING were commonplace this decade.

For the Seminoles, nine losses in the past two seasons don't allow them the same rites of passage that the Canes have. Go undefeated, win the big games, earn a championship this decade and beat Miami for the first time since 1999 – then you can talk. Accomplish something monumental on the football field before you puff out those chests and start talking "shutout" this weekend.

There is a false sense of arrogance coming out of Tallahassee. This game has become too big for the Noles. They are letting it define the current state of their program and that brings added pressure.

There have been comparisons between this current Florida State team and Miami of 2000 – a Hurricane bunch that took that initial step back to national prominence. A win over No. 1 Florida State that season was the third win in what became a 34-game win streak. Five years of being the Noles' whipping post came to an end on October 7th, 2000 and the rivalry was reborn. Over the next 2 ½ seasons, Miami dominated college football like no other and the 27-24 win over Florida State was the turning point.

Florida State has been down for a few years, but nowhere near as low as Miami.

There was no 5-6 season a few years removed from two National Championship appearances. They didn't lose to their arch rivals 47-0 and see a scumbag defensive coordinator re-insert his first string defense late in the fourth quarter to protect the shutout. They never experienced a complete lack of depth or the pain of an entire city and fan base losing faith in their program.

Florida State may be a bit battered and bruised – but Miami was on life support.

Don't even compare Florida State's poor coaching and lack of execution the past two years to what Miami went through for five seasons. It is an insult. The only comparison to the 2000 match up is the fact that it will be a highly competitive contest with both teams near full strength.

Going into this weekend, Miami has their hands full. Florida State will bring it all afternoon long. They are backed up. This time the tables are turned and it's the Noles with a senior class that has never beaten the Canes. This is their final opportunity. That three game losing streak is a monkey on their back that keeps them up at night. Another reason why this game means everything to Florida State.

A different vibe is flowing down in Coral Gables – the kind that usually works in Miami's favor.

It's been a week of being called out, insulted and doubted. Last Thursday night it was ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit putting Miami on blast in front of the nation with his comments. Lazy. Undisciplined. Shirts untucked. Heads hung low. Sluggishly moving on and off the field. Cell phone(s) on the sideline.

His attack was out of line, but his point was crystal clear. The Canes are not playing like the Miami team everyone has witnessed the past three seasons. The talent is there, but the attitude is missing. Larry Coker was told flat out that he needed to get hold of this team. The 29-1 honeymoon is over if it isn't 30-1 after this weekend. He will finally be judged under the same microscope as all college head coaches – something he's avoided in his short tenure at Miami.

Going into a monumental weekend such as this, an underdog Miami team has a much better shot at winning than a highly overconfident group of Canes.

Last year Florida State and Ohio State faced a Miami team that took them lightly. Almost two touchdown favorites in both games, the Canes believed the hype and though that sheer talent could will them to a win. It took a missed kick to beat the Noles and a phantom flag in overtime to lose to the Buckeyes. Regardless, the Canes didn't bring their best game in either match up because they didn't feel they needed to. Like the smart kid in the back of the classroom who never studies but aces every exam, Miami just expected to show up and win.

Conversely, two times last year the Canes had to prove their worth and showed what happens when you doubt them.

In the second game of the 2002 it was No. 2 Miami at No. 6 Florida. The Canes were a 2-point underdog and the talk was that this was "not the same Miami team." Too many key losses. Too tough to win at "The Swamp." Florida was primed for a big year after falling short in 2001. Blah, blah, blah.

Miami took that game personally and lit up Canesville that autumn evening to the tune of, 41-16.

A few months later the Canes were coming off a lackadaisical showing at Rutgers and that No. 1 ranking was gone. The media said their piece and called Miami out. Not a championship caliber team. No heart. Can't stop the run. Too worried about NFL futures and not playing as a unit. Some said that Tennessee had a shot at upsetting the new No. 2 Hurricanes in Neyland Stadium.

Instead Miami shut down the Volunteers, made a 26-3 statement in Knoxville and reclaimed their No. 1 ranking the following Monday.

A week ago I thought Miami was in serious trouble. The loss of Gore was one thing, but I expected West Virginia to be a statement game. Coming off the bye week, I expected a healthy and hungry group of Canes to strut into the Orange Bowl for a nationally televised Thursday night game. I refused to buy into the "looking ahead" chatter. The Mountaineers were a sub-par team and the Canes should've capitalized on their lack of talent. Period.

It slipped my mind for a moment that every week we're our opponent's National Championship game. West Virginia could save a 1-3 season with a win at Miami while the Canes had their tunnel vision set on Tallahassee. While that is no excuse for a lack of ability to convert in the red zone and some poor execution, it is the truth. Miami could've cared less about that West Virginia game and it showed all night long until their season was officially in danger. At that point some big time players made their big time plays and saved a season… again.

How that comeback win translates into a positive in Seminole Country, I don't know. Opponents should've wanted Miami to blow the Mountaineers out. Puff out those chests. Overlook Florida State like they did last year. Come into Tallahassee favored and overconfident. Sneak up on the Canes like they did in 2002 – except this time make the friggin' kick or don't let it come down to that.

Instead, Florida State gets a wide-eyed Miami team that knows it slipped up. They completely fathom the magnitude of this weekend. They're vulnerable after last week and that it will take twice the effort – not half – to win this weekend. It will take some special players to step up and fill the void left by Gore. Hard hitting defense and huge plays on special teams keys to Miami winning this game.

Coaching is also key. Coker and staff cannot stress enough the importance of eliminating recent mistakes. The Canes have been penalized 52 times for 423 yards in five games this season. While some of this responsibility falls directly on the coaches, mentally the players need to bring it like they haven't all season.

The coaches, in the meanwhile, have to open up the playbook. Out coach Florida State without panicking and overdoing it. Stay within this team's personality – but don't get stubborn. The Hurricanes have a ton of playmakers. Find the guys with the hot hands and get them the ball.

Every Hurricane was embarrassed by last week's performance and knows they need to play at that next level against Florida State. This is the first step in an intense four game stretch where Miami will face Virginia Tech and Tennessee as well. That run starts this weekend against a team they know all too well. Stumble here and it could be a long way down.

The Seminoles and their fans have every right be confident this weekend. In theory, they should beat the Canes. They're the favorite, playing at home and have lost three in a row to Miami. Momentum is due to start swinging back into their favor the way this rivalry goes.

But there's a fine line between confident and overconfident or cocky. The Seminoles are wandering back and forth. Last week's confidence became pure arrogance this week. FSU feels they are due. Miami is down and will pay. Look at that performance against West Virginia – the Canes are completely overrated.

Keep thinking that right up to kickoff, boys. Underestimate Miami. Judge this team on their last quarter of football and ignore the way they have handled every challenge they have faced the past three seasons. Talk about a shutout or two touchdown victories. Let the Canes know just how "horrible" and "overrated" they are. Tell them again how they have no chance this weekend.

Fuel that fire. Talk your trash. If you win, you win. Good for you. Welcome back to the rivalry – finally. See you next Labor Day in our house.

But if you do lose, look within for blame. You were overconfident and forgot you were playing the Miami Hurricanes this weekend. A team that knows how to break your heart like no other. That finds a way to win every close game in this series since 1971. That is 14-9 against you since 1980 – with over half of your wins in our probation era. Are you seeing a pattern here?

You picked the wrong team to underestimate. If you pull out the win, you earned it. Still, something smells funny in Tallahassee – and I think it's a Miami upset.

Miami 23 Florida State 20


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