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Saturday, September 7, 2013
A Miami win could have lasting effect

By David M. Hale

It's been a decade since Miami last won a regular-season game against in-state rival Florida. It's stunning how much can change in 10 years.

That 2003 game, a 38-33 Hurricanes victory that featured a remarkable second-half comeback led by Florida transfer Brock Berlin, was Miami still at the height of its power. On the other side, Florida was at a low point, the Ron Zook era nearing its zenith, the Urban Meyer regime still two years away.

In the decade since, Florida blossomed. The Gators won two national championships and spawned one of college football's all-time greats. Miami swapped conferences, cycled through coaches and, for the past few years, has dodged the black cloud of NCAA sanctions.

No player on Miami's roster has been a part of this rivalry, but they know it all too well. They know where their program used to be and they understand that they're now measured against that history.

For most of the past 10 years, Miami has fallen well short of that standard, but now the Hurricanes stand at a precipice. So it's fitting that the biggest obstacle toward regaining national relevance is once again the Florida Gators.

Duke Johnson
Duke Johnson sees Saturday's game against Florida as a way to bring Miami back to the forefront of college football.
“[A victory] would be a big boost for the program and my teammates just because it’s something we’ve worked so hard for," running back Duke Johnson said. "Coach [Al] Golden has done a great job of getting us focused the past couple of years and getting us on track to where Miami used to be, to where if we put in the right kind of effort and the right kind of energy, we can get it back."

When Miami won that 2003 game, the Hurricanes were still a part of the Big East. A year later, they joined the ACC in what was supposed to signal a changing of college football's power structure. The dream was that Miami would add another football powerhouse to the conference, but the Hurricanes instead languished.

But this season holds promise that the sleeping giant is about to wake up, and Florida presents a true test.

Clemson's victory over Georgia last week was meaningful for the ACC in that it signaled the conference has a team that is a true threat to win a national championship. But the Tigers, along with Florida State, were already viewed as serious challengers to the SEC's throne. What's been missing in the conference for years is what the SEC has in spades -- depth beyond the top dogs. That's where Miami's possible resurgence becomes could become very important.

Virginia Tech and North Carolina had their shots at chipping away a niche for the ACC's second tier in the opening week of the season, but both programs lost badly to superior SEC foes. Now Miami can earn some retribution.

The matchup doesn't exactly favor the Hurricanes, but unlike the 26-3 shellacking Florida dished out in their last meeting in 2008, Miami won't be completely overmatched. This is a Hurricanes team on the upswing, with an array of offensive talent led by Johnson and quarterback Stephen Morris. The question is just how far the program has come, and this game against Florida is likely to provide a strong answer in one direction or the other.

“It’s a big rivalry," Johnson said. "It’s just like us and Florida State, but it’s more attention now because we haven’t played in so long, and everything has been building up and waiting for this moment.”

Johnson has been waiting. Miami has been waiting. The ACC has been waiting.

The Hurricanes aren't alone this week in their quest to bring respect to the league. Virginia hosts No. 2 Oregon, and the Cavaliers' defense is coming off one of its best performances in years. Oregon provides an immense challenge.

Syracuse travels to No. 19 Northwestern, hoping to avoid a second consecutive loss to a Big Ten foe. As much as the SEC has dominated the college football landscape, it's the Big Ten that took the biggest swing at the ACC, nabbing Maryland during last year's realignment carousel and taking aim that a geographic market the ACC hopes to dominate.

A victory by either school would be meaningful for the league, but neither would have the same box-office cachet as a Miami victory might.

That's no knock on Virginia or Syracuse, but rather a testament to what Miami -- a good Miami, the version that staged that thrilling comeback in 2003 -- could provide to the ACC's credibility on a national scale. It's not about burnishing an already impressive resume like Clemson's, or pulling an unlikely upset over a ranked foe, as Virginia or Syracuse hope to do. It's about going toe-to-toe with an established power and proving that Miami, once again, belongs.

And after a decade of waiting, there's no better showcase for Miami to emerge from its slumber than a game against Florida.

"This game would be a way of showing what we have," Johnson said, "and how far we’ve come.”