Back /bak/, adv. Expressing a return to an earlier or normal condition.
Miami and Florida State have returned to the Top 10, a home from a bygone era that continues to influence both programs still today.
Because the natural question before us headed into their showdown Saturday is one that has trailed both programs for close to 10 years now:
Are the Hurricanes and Seminoles back?
Furthermore, what does it even mean to be back?
College football has waited on their return to prominence after a dominating 20-year stretch that put both programs on the national map. Twelve times between 1987 and 2004, Miami and Florida State met as Top 10 teams -- including a whopping seven consecutive meetings. National championship implications became the norm, not the exception. The programs combined to win six national titles in that time span and played for six others.
Both set standards that today seem unsustainable. College football has changed since Miami and Florida State rose in the mid-1980s. Their recruiting territory is no longer truly theirs; neither is their philosophy to win with athletes and speed. Everybody else has caught up to the once-trailblazing programs.
Since 2004, Miami and Florida State have combined to play in two BCS games. Miami has won zero conference titles. Florida State has won two. Yet every year, thanks to the weight of history, the inevitable question has been asked of one program. Sometimes both.
Are you back yet?
So seeing both unbeaten this late in the season, ranked in the Top 10, with national title implications again on the line has revived the irresistible notion that both are, indeed, back. But neither side believes as much. Not when their recent history speaks more to unmet expectations than championship rings.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t say we’re back because we’re not the past,” Miami tight end Clive Walford said. “I have a lot of respect for what happened in the past, but we’re trying to build our own new legacy. We’re a whole new team, with a different mindset. And we’re just trying to win every game, that’s all.”
To be sure, the Miami of today is a distant cousin to the Miami of yesteryear. They have the same name, but they bear little resemblance. What Walford says is true. This Miami team is not the past. There are no larger than life personalities. There are no household names. There are no All-Americans. There are no swaggering, trash-talking, in-your-face, we-don’t-care-what-you-think players roaming that sideline.
All those qualities that made the U one of the most despised teams outside South Florida? This team embodies none of them. Not one quote has made a bulletin board in Tallahassee. When given the opportunity to talk some smack, Miami players have politely declined and given clichéd quotes about this being just another game. Do the Canes feel disrespected knowing they are 21-point underdogs? This is as close to an inflammatory quote as you will get.
“It doesn’t really matter about whether someone respects us or not,” Miami running back Duke Johnson said. “We don’t care. We’re just here to play football and do it the way we’re being taught to.”
All of this is by design, the way Miami coach Al Golden wants it. He has his players believing in “the process,” so much so that a week generally filled with friendly back-and-forth has been doused with cold water.
In this way, Miami might never be back. But it does not have to embody an old persona to win championships. That is the key, of course. Miami has not won championships recently. Then, and only then, can Miami begin taking steps on the road back.
Quarterback Stephen Morris is not toeing a line when he says, “When you bring up the term back, our biggest thing is let’s talk about that at the end of the season.”
Florida State is closer than Miami is given what it has done over the last two seasons. The Noles won the ACC last season and went to a BCS game. They are No. 3 and more closely resemble the Florida State teams of the past -- with a dynamic quarterback in the Heisman race and NFL talent up and down its roster. But there remain skeptics who are not quite sold. Not until they see the Noles put a complete season together, and then stack them on top one by one, the way they used to.
"Is Florida State back on a national stage? Right now we are," Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "Like they were in the ‘90s and late ‘80s, I guess we’re doing the same things those guys were able to do. But as far as being back? What’s in the past is in the past. We just have the responsibility of carrying the respect, the tradition and the legacy around here.”
There is no question both teams are trying to forge their own identities, and their own legacies. Whether or not their rise back up continues, the past can never truly be in the past for Miami or Florida State.
Florida State reporter David Hale contributed to this report.