Miami is finally back on the rise, Florida State is on the decline and the rivalry has lost a little luster due to the inability of both programs to be on top at the same time.

Five years ago, the roles were completely reversed—the Canes just pulling out of an NCAA investigation and identity-less under Al Golden, while Jimbo Fisher fielded a squad that boasted a Heisman-winning quarterback, going undefeated and winning the national championship.

One would have to go back a good quarter century to find an era where this rivalry matched two programs completely atop their game—the winner of this match-up damn-near a shoo-in for the national title game, while the loser found themselves immediately knocked out of the running.

That
is what Miami / Florida State weekend used to mean. Since then, both have had some individual moments of greatness—followed by eras of despair—though never back on top together. A downer for the program struggling, but for the one in better shape—it turns that annual game-of-the-year and roadblock into something much more manageable.

Still, when it comes down to the Hurricanes versus the Seminoles, there’s no sleeping on the lesser squad as they can always save a season and stop the bleeding with an upset. This year is no different—no matter what the bookies or big mouths tell you.

Truth be told, all the pressure is on Miami come Saturday—the Hurricanes going up against history, as well as dealing with heightened expectations for the first time in a long while. One would have to go back to the early 2000′s to find a time when UM was such a heavy favorite over FSU; an era where Miami was a constant BCS fixture, a national champion, owners of a 34-game win-streak and an absolute factory regarding first round and NFL talent.

The Canes topped the Noles six straight between 2000 and 2004; meeting and emerging victorious three times in less than 11 months between the 2003 and 2004 season—which included an Orange Bowl victory, as well. It was a time when Miami could do no wrong, be it rolling convincingly in 2001 en route to a national title, mounting a double-digit comeback and surviving a missed kick a year later, dominating in the rain up north the season after that, or clinching an overtime thriller to open the 2004 season—the Canes’ first year in the ACC.

That overtime comeback also marks the last time Miami beat Florida State at home, dropping the next six in a row. The Canes lost 10 of the past 13 to the Noles, as well—as the rivalry got super-lopsided; UM dropping seven in a row until pulling one out in Tallahassee last season. Golden was 0-5 against Florida State in his career, while Randy Shannon eked out a 2-2 record, thanks to Bobby Bowden being on the decline his last few seasons.

Once Fisher took over, FSU flat-out owned UM—until Mark Richt showed up and began righting the ship; Miami falling on a blocked extra point in 2016, before last year’s thrilling comeback. Still, even in those Shannon and Golden eras where Florida State was the superior squad, Miami dug in for the fight and almost scored a few upsets; none greater than 2014.

The second-ranked Seminoles trekked south as defending national champions four year ago, as well as double-digit favorites against an unranked, three-loss Hurricanes squad. UM had a true freshman quarterback under center in Brad Kaaya, hoping to build on a 9-4 run in 2013. After falling to Louisville in the opener and in road games against Louisville and Georgia Tech, Miami won three in a row and took some momentum into the match-up with Florida State.

The Canes came to play early, jumping out to a 16-0 lead—cut to 23-10 at the half. Miami had a chance to pull away in the second half, but a fumble turned a potential 13-point lead into three after Florida State drove and field and settled for three. Dalvin Cook then stuck the fork in late—capped with a 26-yard touchdown run to pull ahead—while the Canes’ offense went out with a whimper on a potential game-winning drive, the Noles winning, 30-26.

The better team won in the end, but damned if the lesser squad didn’t make it interesting—Miami ultimately giving away a win. more than Florida State showed up, dominated and handed the Canes a loss. All those talking about a rout this weekend and pouring it on—let this trip down memory lane serve as a reminder that it’s not always a walk in the park for the better squad.

MIAMI & FSU — HOW WE GOT HERE

After falling to LSU in the opener, Miami has rebounded with four consecutive wins—albeit against lesser foes in Savannah State, Toledo, Florida International and North Carolina. Still, the switch from Malik Rosier to N’Kosi Perry under center, coupled with improved defense and forced turnovers—six against the Tar Heels; three for scores—the Canes are hitting a nice stride as they close on the season’s halfway point. Miami is also welcoming back Jaquan Johnson in the secondary; the senior safety sidelined since the second half against the Rockets.

Florida State heads south with a different narrative. Ranked No. 3 to start the 2017 season, the Noles finished 7-6—losing a starting quarterback week one and a head coach by year’s end; certainly not the way anybody drew it up. This season got off to a brutal start when Virginia Tech crushed FSU in Tallahassee for the opener. A second half rally was needed a week later when Samford visited, but the early hangover stuck around for a 30-7 road loss at Syracuse.

The Noles bounced back with a home win over Northern Illinois, while surviving on the road last week at Louisville—a game the Cardinals had in the bag; a chance to run out the clock—but fumbled away, allowing the Noles to go on a game-winning drive. Deondre Francois threw four touchdowns in the victory, though Florida State’s ground attack was stifled—Cam Akers carrying 17 times for 42 yards, the sophomore yet to crack the 100-yard mark in five games this season.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYERS FOR MIAMI

N’Kosi Perry — The r-freshman will get his second start and will face the most-aggressive defense he’s seen in his short career. Despite the Noles being a mess, this is still a program that has recruited well and boasts their share of talent. Perry doesn’t necessarily have to win the game for Miami—but he certainly can’t give it away in the form of missing targets, not converting third downs or turning the ball over.

Would expect Richt and staff to implement a game plan that allows Perry to take his shots down field—but also one with high-percentage throws, while leaning on his legs, as well as some talented running backs that can put the Canes’ offense in manageable and-short situations.

Travis Homer -or- DeeJay Dallas — The Hurricanes must run the football to take the pressure off of Perry and to prove this offense is two-dimensional. After a slow start to the season, Homer has started to come on strong—114 yards against FIU and 88 last week against North Carolina, including a 56-yard breakaway where he was pushed out just short of the goal line.

Dallas has continued to emerge, as well—11 carries for 114 yards against the Tar Heels, as well as a 110-yard outing at Toledo. Miami can also lean on freshman Lorenzo Lingard and Cam’Ron Davis—while utilizing Trayone Gray at fullback. Point being; the Canes have weapons on the ground—so barring the line does it’s job, these guys should create some havoc and the Canes should rush for 200+yards on the day.

Gerald Willis — A disruptive force all season, this needs to be a breakout game for Willis. It’s his first crack at Florida State since arriving at Miami and as a one-time Florida Gator, he knows the magnitude of this rivalry.

The Seminoles’ offensive line remains a hot mess and Francois visibly frustrated at time this year; be it the lack of protection or struggles to understand a new system. Regardless, the Hurricanes’ defensive tackle has been a menace so far this season, proving his 5-star status as a recruit. Willis needs to keep that motor revving all day and to play the role of disruptor.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYERS FOR FLORIDA STATE

Deondre Francois — No. 12 proved he was all the part of a warrior in the 2016 version of this rivalry, taking a beating from Miami’s defensive line and coming back or more, throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns (though his temporary back-up Sean Maguire tossed a pick that led to an early Miami score and eventual 13-0 lead.)

Twice in the second half Francois got the ball in the hands of his running backs for touchdowns, as well as a drive that ended in a field goal—completing a 20-0 run. Francois missed last season with an injury and is back this year playing in a new system—which hasn’t yielded great results thus far. He’ll have to come up big and not give this game away if FSU has any shot at pulling off the upset.

Cam Akers — Seminoles faithful heralded Akers as “the next Dalvin Cook” upon his arrival in Tallahassee and the result has been anything but that. A talented back, Akers doesn’t Cook’s explosive speed or general playmaker abilities. Still, Akers did ding Miami for 121 yards last season and the Canes were gashed at times by North Carolina last Thursday night; several different backs breaking off big runs—while the Heels ran for 240 yards on the ground, in a game they trailed big and were forced to throw late.

The Noles’ offensive line struggles have negated anything special from Akers so far this season, but he’s still a threat to make some noise if he finds a hole and defenders are out of place.

FSU’s Entire Offensive Line — Without consistent play from this inconsistent bunch, it’s going to be a long day for both Francois, Akers and any receivers trying to get open. Miami’s talented defensive line and linebackers are licking their chops—but can’t get too overconfident here.

A rivalry game like this will elevate everybody’s play across the board. If the Noles’ line can somehow pull together and play a scrappy game, the offense could make some noise and help keep this closer than it should be, on paper.

THE PREDICTION : HOW IT SHOULD ALL PLAY OUT

This is a must-win game for Miami any way it’s sliced or diced. The road to becoming a national title contender again; it starts with winning rivalry games—especially ones in conference, that count towards winning the division. The Noles are in the Atlantic, but an ACC loss is a conference loss that could derail any plans to repeat at Coastal Division champs.

Beyond that, you’re talking about a rivalry that has been tremendously lopsided—Florida State winning 10 of the past 13 and Miami winless at home since 2004. (Outside of a bowl game, the Canes are yet to beat the Seminoles at HardRock; UM’s home stadium for a decade.) The Canes did their job stopping the bleeding with last year’s, 24-20 comeback win in Tallahassee—now it’s time to take care of business at home, ending another losing streak.

There’s also something to be said for winning these winnable games and capitalizing on a rival’s down cycle. Florida State had a field day recruiting against Miami during Shapirogate, as a mangled NCAA investigation dragged on for three years and hurt the Canes—a did back-to-back sub-par hirings that left bad head coaches atop a once-powerful program. Anytime Miami has been down, Florida State has made sure to kick the Canes—using UM’s disadvantage to their advantage. It’s time to repay that favor against FSU.

Miami hasn’t put a pasting on Florida State in a good while. Even during that six-game win-streak at the turn of the century; most of those games were close; one point in 2002, two points in the 2004 Orange Bowl, six points in overtime in 2004, etc. The Canes ended a home-unbeaten streak at Doak Campbell in 2001—but that was “only” a 22-point win with what was considered the greatest team in the history of college football. (Hardly the 65-7 shellacking Miami would put on 12th-ranked Washington in a revenge game later in the year.)

Emotions are always firing when these two tee it up—and with the Hurricanes in the unfamiliar position of being a double-digit favorite, it’s something Mark Richt and staff better have tempered this week in practice. Would be very easy for Miami to believe the hype and headlines talking about how this is going to be a bloodbath—resulting in any overconfidence.

The Canes need to bring that same, aggressive, ball-hungry defense the Tar Heels faced—as well as an offense that is focused and executes. That seven-penalty outing against North Carolina or six penalties against Florida International—Miami need to get back to the disciplined play it saw at Toledo on a mistake-free afternoon. UNC’s lone touchdown drive was the result of a personal foul on third down, extending the drive instead of getting the defense off the field.

The blueprint is there and Miami is the superior, more-balanced team. It’s simply a matter of executing at this point; not getting caught up in the emotions or recent rivalry history—staying focused on the task at hand, winning possessions and taking care of business. An upset by the Seminoles can save their season, while ultimately destroying the Hurricanes’.

After years of struggling against Florida State at home, or simply letting close games slip away—this is the year Miami finally reverses the curse and gears up for a second-half run, mostly on the road. Enjoy the comforts of home for the biggest game at HardRock this season and enjoy the process of kicking these Noles while they’re down.

Miami 27, Florida State 19


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