Sunshine State Supremacy

It's certainly not the National Championship game and it's not the Sugar Bowl – where ACC Champs play. It's not even the BCS or New Years Day 2005. It's Atlanta, GA. It's the final evening in 2004. It's the Georgia Dome.

Still, it's Miami versus Florida. That's all one must hear to start getting the juices flowing. Regarding state supremacy and college football rivalries, this is truly as big as it gets for college football enthusiasts. Sunshine State college football is a different breed. The big three have brought home eight National Championships in the past twenty seasons, fourteen title games and six of eight BCS Championship games since the system was introduced in 1998.

Hurricanes versus Seminoles? That's new school. A series which started in 1951 between the two smaller state universities. Florida State used to be an all girls school, for God's sake. But the Miami and Florida going toe to toe? That's as old as old school gets in the Sunshine State. The largest state power with the most funding going against the small, private school down south.

The rivalry got heated over the years and in its final decade, Miami proved to be the true state power - capturing two of its five National Championships before Florida pulled the plug on the series after the 1987 meeting which the Canes rolled in the opener, 31-4.

Over the past seventeen seasons, three match ups between these two powerhouses - all coming this decade.

No. 2 Miami put a hurting in No. 7 Florida in the 2001 Sugar Bowl. Stinging from a BCS title game snub and shot at No. 1 Oklahoma, the Canes smacked up their longtime state rival to the tune of 37-20. Former head coach Butch Davis' rebuilding project ended prematurely when his stellar 10-1 squad was slighted in favor of No. 3 Florida State. Even worse, the senior class which brought Miami back to prominence and truly earned its moniker "The U" - left Coral Gables without winning that elusive ring which the program hadn't seen in a decade.

Santana Moss, Dan Morgan, Al Blades, Reggie Wayne, James Jackson, Delvin Brown, Quincy Hipps, Damione Lewis, Leonard Myers and a handful of other long time Canes played their last collegiate game against the Gators. Four first round draft picks and a few impact players in the NFL all bid adieu to The U falling short of their ultimate goal. Davis sold them on being a part of something special - and they were.

The 2000 Canes got the ball to the one inch line and the 2001 Canes were able to punch it in thanks to a stellar senior class including Ed Reed and Bryant McKinnie - two ballers ready to declare for the 2001 NFL Draft, but swayed by Davis' words as he called them both integral pieces in Miami's upcoming National Championship run. Both returned for their senior seasons and were the difference between 12-0 and possibly 10-2.

Instead, Davis was the one bailing prematurely - leaving a full cupboard at Miami for opportunity in the NFL. The keys to the well oiled machine were tossed to offensive coordinator and players' choice Larry Coker. Twelve games later, Miami's fifth National Championship in school's history was in the books.

While Miami absolutely dominated in 2001, Florida fell short on a few occasions - most notably the rescheduled season finale against No. 4 Tennessee. A win there and Pasadena would've turned into the Orange Bowl West with the No. 1 Canes and No. 2 Gators duking it out for the National Championship. Miami did their part, beating No. 2 Nebraska while Florida slipped to No. 5 after the Tennessee loss and instead took it to No. 6 Maryland in the 2001 Orange Bowl, 56-23.

Days later, Steve Spurrier did his best Butch Davis and left his program for NFL riches. Weeks later, the Ron Zook Era was underway.

A random, long awaited home/away series took place in 2002 and 2003. Defending champs and No. 2 Miami hit the road for Gainesville early in September 2002 and took it to No. 6 Florida, 41-16. Dominant and effective, it was win number twenty-four in what eventually grew to a thirty-four game win streak. By evening's end, that little cesspool off of I-75's Exit #75 was officially dubbed "Canesville" and Miami solidified itself even further as the true state power with its fourth straight win over Florida. Weeks later, the Canes were officially state champs after knocking off the No. 9 Seminoles in a 28-27 Orange Bowl thriller - a third straight win over Florida State.

A year later, possibly one of the most exciting games in the history of the storied rivalry, which the Canes then lead 26-25. No. 19 Florida strolled into the Orange Bowl confident against No. 3 Miami and seeking revenge - not only for the previous season's thrashing, but also against defect quarterback Brock Berlin. Berlin bailed the University of Florida due to a lack of playing time. Taking his talents to an arch rival didn't sit well with his former school. The Gators knew exactly what a win over the Canes - at that point 36-2 for the decade with back to back title game appearances and a National Championship.

Miami struck first with Devin Hester's 97-yard kickoff return for touchdown. Florida answered back with a field goal, gave up a ton of yards on the kickoff, held the Canes to three, answered with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Ingle Martin to Carlos Perez and it was tied up 10-10.

Over the next quarter and a half of ball Florida outscored Miami 23-0. Miscue after miscue had the Canes down with little reason to be optimistic.

With the weight of the OB on his shoulders, Berlin chipped away at the 33-10 deficit completion by completion. Eleven straight at one point – each one more meaningful than the last. In the final 21:10 of the contest, he was 18 of 21 for 279 yards and a touchdown. The defense held Florida scoreless the final quarter and a half of play. Big play after big play was made. The Gators wilted under the Orange Bowl lights and in the end, a fifth straight loss to a hated state rival. Miami went on to beat Florida State twice in 2003 and were again awarded the Florida Cup and dubbed "State Champs."

2004 has hardly gone as either Miami or Florida expected. The Canes kicked off the season a preseason No. 6 and optimistic after a thrilled 16-10 overtime win over rival No. 5 Florida State. True to form, No. 11 Florida thumped a pasty in the season opener. This time, Eastern Michigan in a 49-10 rout. A week later, after climbing to No. 9 in the polls - Florida was stunned by No. 13 Tennessee, 30-28 in the game's waning moments. Deeper in the season a three point loss to defending champs and then No. 24 Louisiana State, 24-21 - again choking late in the contest.

The season low? An embarrassing 38-31 loss at Mississippi State - a then 1-5 squad, riding a 5-game losing streak and a 24-point underdog. A week later an unranked Florida lost to rival No. 7 Georgia, 31-24 and in the blink of an eye 4-4 on the season. Two days later, the hammer fell and Zook was fired after amassing a 20-14 record over two and a half seasons at Florida.

In Coral Gables, the Canes jumped out to a 6-0 start before suffering their first setback of the season. After the thriller against Florida State, Miami rolled against Louisiana Tech, Houston, Georgia Tech, No. 17 Louisville and Houston. Star offensive lineman Eric Winston was a casualty along the way, tearing up his knee in Atlanta - but some good did come out of that 27-3 win against the Yellow Jackets.

Miami's offense woke from its slumber when Berlin was sent to the bench for a series in favor of back up Kyle Wright. The coaching move proved to be brilliant. Fans clamoring for Wright to start over Berlin were quickly hushed as #16 was erratic and definitely not ready for prime time college football. Conversely, Berlin realized the coaches meant business and with only eight games left in his college career - it was time to let it all hang out. True freshman Lance Leggett became that big time deep threat at receiver in the blink of an eye. His 57-yard touchdown reception put Miami ahead 20-3 and sent both his and Berlin's confidence through the roof.

The Canes looked as if they were finally jelling. The exciting 41-38 win over No. 17 Louisville proved to be even bigger of a game than originally though as the Cardinals head into bowl season 10-1 with a No. 7 ranking. Unfortunately for Miami's defense, they were exposed in that win - giving up 38 points and over 500 yards on the ground and through the air. N.C. State took advantage with 440 yards and 31 points a week later, but Miami mustered up enough game to score 45 and win by two touchdowns in a game nowhere near as close as the final score.

The following week in one of those proverbial pitfall games, No. 3 Miami was upset by North Carolina, 31-28 and a week later stunned by Clemson, 24-17 in overtime. 6-0 and optimistic quickly became 6-2 and big time concern. Still, the Canes dug deep and rallied for a road trip to Charlottesville. A 31-21 upset of No. 11 and slightly favored Virginia was followed up by a 52-7 beating of Wake Forest and an off week to prepare for a visiting No. 11 Virginia Tech. An ACC Championship and Sugar Bowl berth against No. 3 Auburn were on the line - yet Miami wasn't up for the challenge.

The ultimate goal of a National Championship wasn't reached. Nor was that secondary goal of winning the ACC in year one and getting back to a fifth straight BCS game. The consolation prize - New Years in Atlanta against a storied rival from Gainesville.

Those still lamenting the fact the Canes aren't tasting Sugar? Stop. Miami version 2004 wants no part of Auburn version 2004 at this point of the season. In preparations for Florida, The U is without starting and back up tight ends Kevin Everett and Greg Olsen. Winston was lost for the season at left tackle, leaving a young offensive line without depth, leadership and stability. Running back Tyrone Moss was recently cleared to play, but is still hobbled by injury. Back up running back Andrew Johnson showed some spunk against Wake Forest but has since torn an ACL and is out until 2005.

On defense, the list of injured continues to grow. Aside from those lost before the season and earlier in the year - the Canes are now without starting linebacker Rocky McIntosh and might've lost defensive end Bryan Pata for Friday's game due to a knee and ankle injury suffered in a Georgia Dome practice.

Insult has even come to injury in comical and shocking form, as well. Wright will not back up Berlin as he lost the battle with a bumblebee near his locker. Stung on the bottom of his foot and highly allergic to the yellow and black striped menaces, Wright is out for the Peach Bowl.

En route to Atlanta, a car accident threatened the safety of linebacker Willie Williams and defensive back Rashaun Jones. Both have returned to practice - but the point has been driven home - 2004 wasn't meant to be Miami's year. Anything that can go wrong, will. Injuries are being dished out like side dishes at training table. In Miami's most recent title runs, injuries were virtually non existent.

Still, the Gators loom - as does the battle for state supremacy. No time for excuses. Future recruits are watching and bragging rights are at stake. Florida is entering the Urban Meyer zone yet will be without his services or their former leader as Zook is the new head coach at Illinois. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has the reigns and in an attempt to prove he is head coach worthy, will look to show the college football world he knows how to run the show at a big time program. A win over Miami would look great on his resume - and after ending the regular season with a victory over state rival Florida State, Florida's players are salivating at the opportunity to knock off the Sunshine State's most dominant program as they close out an old regime and prepare to embark on a new one.

Miami's outlook? Hard to tell. Losing three of their last five after starting out 6-0 and beating the National Championship drum truly do little for the psyche and personality of a somewhat young team. In consecutive seasons, the Canes have struggled in bounce back games. Last year they were flat against Tennessee after being thumped by Virginia Tech the previous week. This season, a disheartening effort against Clemson following the upset in Chapel Hill. 2004's season ending loss to the Hokies was a dagger. Coker admitted his team was "crushed" by the loss and days later a senior lineman took to the airwaves and referred to this year's post season game as the "Whoop Dee Doo" Bowl. One would hope that the coaching staff has done something these past few weeks to talk their team in off the ledge, reminding them there is still so much at stake here.

Just utter "Florida Gators" in front of an old school Miamian and they'll immediately foam at the mouth or shout "Gator Flop" in a Tourette's like manner. The hatred runs extremely deep. While the Canes on this current squad might not comprehend the rivalry, this is truly as big as Sunshine State football gets.

Any Canes needing a lesson in Lethargy:101 and where it gets you - dust off the old media guides and read about the 1993 Miami Hurricanes. Entering the season after back to back title game appearances which resulted in one National Championship, the '93 Canes had title game aspirations welcomed a new quarterback into the fold - exit Heisman winner Gino Torretta, enter unknown Frank Costa. A 4-0 record out the gates and No. 3 Miami prepared for No. 1 Florida State with sheer optimism after winning three straight against the long time rival.

Instead, the Canes were thumped 28-10 and the wheels slowly began to fall off. Four wins were rattled off and at 8-1, Miami had climbed back to No. 4 in the polls when visiting No. 9 West Virginia. The 17-14 loss completely knocked the Canes out of the title hunt and with a 10-2 record, they were shipped to the Fiesta Bowl to take on a hungry No. 16 Arizona bunch.

Rumors still swirl about Miami's pregame preparations, lesiure time activities and lackadaisical attitude leading up to the contest. The mindset was that Canes only played for National Championships. The past four seasons had produced two trophies, three title game opportunities and the one season they were out of the hunt (1990) they rolled No. 3 Texas, 46-3 in the Cotton Bowl and were arguably the best team in college football. Sitting ugly at No. 10 and taking on a sub par Pac 10 team wasn't the Canes' way to ring in the New Year - and it showed when they were blanked, 29-0 on national TV. Definitely the lowest point of the Dennis Erickson era.

With the 2004 Peach Bowl days away, where is Miami's collective head? Has this coaching staff shaken this team's post-Hokie slump - or is everyone still himming and hawing about what could've been? Hard to tell. Players and coaches seem to be saying the right things - but coachspeak and cliches mean little when that ball is kicked off New Years Eve night.

As a writer who's covered this team for a decade - and a lifelong fan - it'd be easy to cite history and bury one's self in Miami's recent success for comfort. That said, the orange and green blinders fell off somewhere between Chapel Hill and a scoreless second half against Clemson. There are some harsh realities surrounding the state of Miami football. It's future. It's mindset. It's legacy - past, present and future. That said, we can save that debate for another time. Right now there is only one mantra - Beat Florida.

"Whoop Dee Doo" Bowl? Hardly. The opportunity to beat on the Gators is a privilege. Any Cane who makes a comment like that doesn't realize the tiebreaker held over Virginia was the difference between Atlanta and getting shipped to a blue field in Boise to take on Fresno State on December 27th. Can anyone say Whoop Dee Don't?

Friday evening in the Georgia Dome will take a monumental coaching effort for a Miami win. Injuries and a nonchalant mindset do not bode well when an optimistic, hungry and fired up rival is lining up on the other side of the ball. Based on the play and coaching strategies against North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech - this writer's finger is getting close to hitting the panic button. A loss is tolerable and understandable based on Miami's injuries - but what is never acceptable is when this team doesn't show up. The glazed eyes and lost looks on the sideline against Clemson in overtime? Very disheartening. The inability for someone to step up and make a play against Virginia Tech late in the game with so, so much on the line? Even more heartbreaking. A season could've been saved with an ACC win and Sugar Bowl berth. Instead it's 8-3 and things aren't so peachy - pun intended.

Miami Football has experienced thrilling highs in 2004 and the lowest of lows. A very schizophrenic season, to say the least. That said, there are sixty minutes of football to play and the foe is as hated a rival as this program has ever seen.

How do the 2004 Canes handle it? Proactive and punching the opponent in the mouth early - or reactive and making moves based on the other team dictating the game's momentum? We'll soon find out. One can't imagine the likes of Brock Berlin, Antrel Rolle, Kevin Everett, Santonio Thomas, Frank Gore, Rocky McIntosh and Roscoe Parrish ending their Hurricane careers with a loss. A few good seniors and some underclassmen rumored to be entering next year's NFL Draft. Then again, who expected them to lose two of their final three games in the Orange Bowl - including the finale - and to drop their first of the season on a cool night in Chapel Hill to a 22-point underdog?

With this current bunch, expect the unexpected. What's that mean in this case? Tune in Friday night. In this writer's humble opinion, the heart says Miami finds a way - but the head thinks Florida wants it more and shows it on the field. Little has been proven this season - especially as of late - to dictate otherwise. It feels like late 1993 all over again. A "Whoop Dee Doo" Bowl and mindset that this team feels it deserved to be somewhere else might just get this team whooped if these kids aren't fired up for this programs most hated and storied rival.

Prove my prediction wrong, Canes. I'd love nothing more than to eat my words and wash them down with some tasty gator meat. Miami's post-Virginia Tech vibe was somber and frustrated. One would hope that the twenty-seven days between games was enough time for these Canes to realize the importance of putting a licking on the Gators and how lucky they are to have landed in this postseason scenario after throwing up an 8-3 regular season record.

End 2004 on a high and rolling into 2005 as state champs – with a sense of accomplishment and full of optimism for a new regime of Miami Football.


The Call -- Florida 23, Miami 19


Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1996, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA and handles online sales and provides all content for www.allCanes.com - #1 shop for Miami Hurricanes Apparel online. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at chris@allCanes.com


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