The University of Miami had become known as simply “The U” thanks to their dominance in the 1980s and the early 1990s. They won four national titles, and narrowly missed several others. They played with a swagger that made them a national brand. But the mid-1990s saw the ‘Canes slip, even to the point of a losing season in 1997. They had a couple of nine-win campaigns following that, but they still weren’t Miami. It was the 2000 Miami Hurricanes that put the juice back in The U and set the tone for a strong four-year run among the national elite.
Ken Dorsey was one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, albeit one who would not get any respect in the Heisman voting this year .Dorsey’s 58 completion rate was solid by the standards of the time. His 8.5 yards-per-attempt and 25-5 TD/INT ratio were excellent by the standards of any time. Dorsey’s primary targets were wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Jeremy Shockey, both of whom had productive pro careers in their immediate futures.
Dorsey had the support of a 1,000-yard rusher in James Jackson, and a change-of-pace back in emerging sophomore star Clinton Portis. The pillars of the offensive line were solid, with tackles Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez getting honorable mention in the All-American voting. And the Miami offense ranked third nationally in points scored.
The defense had its own stars, headlined by future NFL Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed. With eight interceptions, Reed already had the ball hawking skills that would make him a legend with the Baltimore Ravens. Dan Morgan was an All-American at linebacker. The Hurricane D ranked seventh in the nation for points allowed.
Miami’s greatness was still recent enough that fans were regularly looking for signs the ‘Canes were back. They were never overlooked and were ranked #5 in the preseason polls.
But the season did not start well. After the obligatory 61-14 tune-up blowout of McNeese State, Miami went west to face 15th-ranked Washington. The Huskies were on the way to a Rose Bowl win and top 5 national finish themselves and they handed the Hurricanes a 34-29 loss. Miami slipped to #12.
The Hurricanes played in the old Big East Conference prior to 2004, and they blew out a couple of conference opponents to get back on track. West Virginia had a nice seven-win season, but the ‘Canes hammered the Mountaineers 47-10. Miami then buried lowly Rutgers 64-6. The Hurricanes were back up to #7 in the polls. And the season’s biggest games were ahead.
A year earlier, Florida State had beaten Virginia Tech for the national championship. The Seminoles were merely the ‘Canes historic rival. The Hokies were the team Miami was trying to leapfrog in the Big East. Both were back in the hunt this year. And the showdown with Florida State, still ranked #1 in the polls, was coming up next.
In front of the home crowd, Miami came roaring out of the gates to a 17-0 lead. Dorsey was on his way to a big day, going 27/42 for 328 yards. Moss caught seven of those balls for 115 yards. Jackson picked up 98 yards on the ground.
But that early lead was primarily due to Florida State beating themselves. The Seminoles drove into the red zone four times in the first half and came away with zero points. Twice, they turned ball over. Twice, FSU coach Bobby Bowden eschewed the field goal, went for it on fourth down, and the Hurricane defense came up with the stop.
In the meantime, Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke—the eventual Heisman Trophy winner—was having a huge day of his own, throwing for 496 yards. Once FSU stopped shooting themselves in the foot, they turned it around and took a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter.
With the money on the table, Dorsey stepped up. He hit 6 of 7 passes. The big one was to Shockey for a touchdown with 0:46 left. Miami had a 27-24 lead. Florida State rallied one more time and got into field goal range. But in a moment that came straight out of the early 1990s, when Miami twice held on to beat FSU thanks to field goals that went wide right, the Seminoles missed another big kick—to the right.
This game remains known in college football lore at Wide Right III. The immediate result was moving the Hurricanes to #4 in the polls. And as a practical matter, it signified to the world that Miami football was the real deal once again.
A couple of soft opponents awaited. Miami easily dispatched Temple 45-17 and then beat Louisiana Tech 42-31. That set up the next big showdown, this one with Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes were #3. The Hokies were #2. The winner would be in line for a shot at top-ranked Oklahoma for the national championship. So it appeared.
Virginia Tech was led by dynamic sophomore quarterback Michael Vick, but Vick had suffered an ankle injury the prior week. He tried to make a go of it in Miami, but his ankle would not hold up. In the meantime, Dorsey was making big plays against a suspect Hokie defense. With only 11 completions, Dorsey racked up 283 passing yards. Moss caught touchdown strikes from 42 and 80 yards out. Jackson pounded his way for 145 yards on the ground.
It was never a game. The Hurricanes led 28-0 after three quarters and even the 41-21 final makes the result look closer than it was. Miami was #2 in the polls and seemingly in control of their own destiny.
They went on to blow out a pretty good Pitt team, 35-7. Syracuse and Boston College each had winning seasons. The Hurricanes shut out the Orangemen 26-0 and hammered the Eagles 52-6. Miami’s 10-1 jaunt through the regular season complete. Now, it was just time to face off with Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for a national title, right?
Not so fast. Even though Miami was ranked #2 in the polls, college football was using a rigid reliance on computer rankings to determine the national championship game matchup (the four-team Playoff was still 14 years in the future). And the computer said Florida State was #2.
There was national outrage, given Miami’s head-to-head win over Florida State. That’s understandable, although it has to be said that Washington was also 10-1, with its own head-to-head win over Miami. Somehow the Huskies got left out of the argument entirely.
In any case, it was somewhat of an ironic coincidence—in a presidential election year where November and December had a riveting focus on the state of Florida and the ballot counting between George W. Bush and Albert Gore, the college football world also had all of its eyes on the Sunshine State, wondering where the computer rankings would ultimately fall.
The answer was not pleasing to Hurricane fans. Florida State got the nod to play Oklahoma. Miami settled for a Sugar Bowl bid against another in-state rival, SEC champion Florida.
Another twist though, was that the AP poll had not agreed to bind its final vote to the winner of the Orange Bowl. Miami was ahead of Florida State in the polls. The Hurricanes’ hope was that they could win the Sugar Bowl impressively enough for pollsters to keep them ahead of the ‘Noles in the event Florida State could beat undefeated Oklahoma. It was a realistic hope for a split national title.
On January 2 in New Orleans, the Hurricanes played their first major bowl game in six years. The Gators grabbed an early 7-0 lead. Miami answered with a field goal, and then a Dorsey-to-Shockey TD pass. After trading field goals, the ‘Canes went to halftime at 13-10.
They fell behind 17-13 in the third quarter and ran the risk of wasting the national outrage that was on their side in this national championship debate. But Dorsey immediately answered by throwing consecutive touchdown passes and putting Miami in control at 27-17. Florida kept it interesting with a field goal. But the ‘Canes were controlling the clock, to the tune of 35 minutes of possession time. They tacked on ten more points and won 37-20.
Whether it was a decisive enough win to share a national title is something we’ll never know. Oklahoma’s defense completely shut down FSU two nights later, 13-2. The Hurricanes had to settle for a #2 ranking and the support of most college football fans, who were more convinced than ever that Miami would have made the better opponent for the Sooners.
That was no small thing, after several years in the wilderness. But for The U, there was still one last step to take. Even though head coach Butch Davis departed for the NFL after this season, the Hurricanes were rising and would not be stopped. Their 2001 edition not only won the national championship, they produced a team that is a part of any credible discussion for the best of all-time. They came within one controversial call of repeating in 2002. They won the Orange Bowl in 2003. The 2000 Miami Hurricanes had sent the world a clear message—We’re back.