The biggest game on the college football schedule for Week 10 is Miami-Florida State from Tallahassee. ABC will be on hand for the 8 PM ET kickoff, Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit will be calling the game, and the winner will be in the mix with Oregon and Ohio State in the joust to see who controls the #2 position in the BCS standings behind Alabama, and the right to play in the January 7 BCS National Championship Game.
For those of us who remember quite vividly the college football world of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this game wakes up the echoes. It’s easy to say that the Miami-Florida State rivalry was hot back in the day, but I don’t think even those words convey just how hot it was.
This was must-see television for anyone who simply liked sports, much less college football. It was the biggest rivalry in any sport at that time. When I try to think of examples of local rivalries that got so heated that it carried over onto the national stage, the only comparable ones I can think of are the Red Sox-Yankees of the early ’00s (I know the national media has abused this rivalry over the last several years, but 2003-05 were the years it really was “all that”) and the Steelers-Ravens hatred that started in 2008, and it looks like we can mark 2012 as the year that rivalry simply returns to its local roots.
Miami-Florida State had that kind of juice from 1987-94, and really even more. A college football rivalry means one chance to beat someone (or at least it did until the Alabama-LSU game of 2011). There weren’t 18 games and a League Championship Series, nor were there home-and-homes with playoff battles ahead. The ‘Canes and ‘Noles hooked up and the winner would likely be playing for a national title on New Year’s Day, and the loser would have to find some other source of motivation.
Before we delve into this year’s matchup, let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane, with a look at the games during the high point of the Miami-Florida State rivalry.
1987: Both teams were ranked in the top five. This was the year that started Bobby Bowden’s long run of Top 10 finishes and major bowl bids. Miami was coached by Jimmy Johnson and coming off a crushing loss to Penn State in the previous year’s national championship battle. Florida State took a 19-3 lead, but Miami came all the way back to lead 26-19.
The Seminoles drove for the tying touchdown with 42 seconds left. Prior to 1996 there was no overtime, so Bowden had to decide whether to play for the win or tie. Musberger was in the booth and ardently pushed for the tie, saying it would keep FSU in the national title race. Bowden opted for a two-point conversion that failed.
None of the discussion would have been necessary were it not for a missed extra point by Florida State earlier in the game. Neither team lost the rest of the way. Miami beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl to win the national title, while Florida State beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to finish #2. A rivalry had just heated up.
1988: As games go, this wasn’t one of the epic battles. In fact, it was a terrible game from an entertainment standpoint. Florida State came into Miami ranked #1, with trash-talking corner Deion Sanders leading the way on a season the ‘Noles were certain would mean redemption. This game was a prime-time affair to open the 1988 season and a supposedly rebuilding Miami team stunned the country with a dominating 31-0 win that moved them from #8 to #1 in a single week. Notre Dame would later beat Miami in that year’s greatest game, and the ‘Canes finished #2. Florida State won the rest of their games, including a Sugar Bowl win over Auburn, but never got back in the championship picture.
1989: Even when Florida State won, they couldn’t get over the hump. The Seminoles beat the Hurricanes 24-10 in a no-doubt-about-it kind of performance. But FSU had lost two games to open the year, including to Brett Favre’s Southern Miss. Miami later got its revenge on Notre Dame and won the national championship anyway.
1990: Perhaps the least memorable of the games in this stretch, Miami won 31-22, but a subsequent loss to Notre Dame ended their national title hopes. Both the ‘Canes and ‘Noles still went to major bowl games and both won them.
1991: The least memorable game was followed by what, for me anyway, is the most memorable. The game was played in November, later than usual and both teams were undefeated. Florida State had opened the season #1 and lived up to the billing with each test they faced on a difficult schedule. They led 16-10, but Miami drove in and took the lead.
FSU got a crack at a game-winning field goal, but it missed wide right by the narrowest of margins–to this day, I remember being in my college house and thinking the kick was good and being shocked to see the officials signaling miss. Indeed, the replays showed the ball just went “wide right”, a phrase that was going to become nationally famous.
Miami ended up co-national champs with fellow undefeated Washington. Florida State lost a week later to Florida and turned in an uninspired win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. For perhaps the only time in this rivalry, the ‘Noles seemed broken by a loss.
1992: Miami led 19-16 late in the game, when Florida State drove and got in position for a tie. Once again, the field goal missed Wide Right. We don’t know how this affected the national championship race–the Miami win meant they were able to play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl’s 1 vs. 2 battle, and it’s hard to see who voters would have opted for in the event of a tie. Miami was ranked higher than Florida State at the time, but the fact the rivalry game was in Miami might have tipped some sentiment the ‘Noles way. We’ll never know. Alabama rolled the ‘Canes to take the national crown, while Florida State moved up to #2 with an Orange Bowl win.
1993: Florida State finally got their breakthrough year. They were the preseason #1 and handled Miami decisively 28-10, and ended the season as national champs. After the two previous seasons, the Seminoles’ most highly touted recruit was the top kicker in the nation, Scott Bentley. He wasn’t needed for the Miami game, but it was appropriate that his short field goal won the Orange Bowl game against Nebraska and the national title.
1994: An early loss had put Miami behind the eight-ball, but they delivered a big 34-20 win over #3 Florida State. This college football season was defined by a race between two unbeatens, Nebraska and Penn State selling themselves to the voters, because under the old bowl system they were committed to separate games. The Miami-Florida State result meant the Hurricanes, rather than the Seminoles, were ranked #3 at the end of the season and got a chance to play Nebraska and then hope Penn State could be upset. Miami led 17-9 in the fourth quarter, but the Cornhuskers big offensive line began to take over and won the game 24-17.
The rivalry began to lose its national steam at this point, resurfacing for a memorable game in 2000, when Florida State again lost on a field goal that went wide right. Two years later, the Seminoles switched gears–they lost on a field goal wide left. Both teams joined the ACC and there was anticipation of regular December battles in the conference championship game. Amazingly, there has been none in a league that’s had the divisional format since 2005. Miami has never even made it to ACC title game against anyone.
Whether Saturday night’s meeting is the first of two (Miami will have to beat Virginia Tech next week to make that happen), we know this–the Hurricanes and Seminoles are both in the Top 10 and both undefeated in November, and a little nostalgia for 20-25 years ago has been reawakened.
SATURDAY NIGHT’S GAME
The rankings and the history might tell us this will be a special game in Tallahassee, but the oddsmakers aren’t seeing it that way. Florida State comes into the game as a 21-point favorite, with the Over/Under at 62. If the game goes the way Las Vegas says, we’re looking at a 42-21 type win for the Seminoles.
When you go through each team’s resume, it’s hard to argue. Miami has barely survived Wake Forest and North Carolina, while Florida State took Clemson and blasted them into next week with a 51-14 pummeling on the road. FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is a good bet for the Heisman. Miami’s win over Florida in September looks less impressive now, as the Gators look increasingly dysfunctional.
Is there any chance of an upset? I’m not picking it, but let’s look at a realistic scenario. Miami’s running game is coming on strong, as they’ve routinely piled up 200 yards as a team, and gotten production from two different backs in Duke Johnson and Dallas Crawford. If they control the tempo, they can take some pressure off their quarterback Stephen Morris. We’ve seen Morris play some really good games, but he also makes too many mistakes and if he has to throw too often, nothing good is going to come of it.
Miami’s running game has been better than Florida State’s, and if they get the crowd out of it and keep it tight, then some history might be reawakened.
I can’t give that scenario any more than a 10-15 percent chance of happening. It’s a better argument that Miami will cover the spread using that approach, but it would take perfection to create an outright upset on the road. Florida State is playing very good defense right now, and Winston has been razor-sharp all year on his completion percentages and decision-making. This looks like the Seminoles night.