FSU-Miami rivalry gaining steam, but still a shadow of former self

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Seven times over a 19-year period (1983-2001), the national champion emerged from this game. Even more remarkably, 12 times over a 17-year period (1986-2002), one of the two played for the national championship. Anyone with an iota of interest in college football was glued to the tube for Deion Sanders' punt return ('87) and Willis McGahee's screen pass ('02), morbidly fascinated by FSU's infamous Wide Rights ('91, '92, '00) and mesmerized by the bevy of superstars (Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn) who took part in the sport's most electrifying rivalry of the day.

Saturday night, No. 13 Miami (3-1) and No. 23 FSU (4-1) meet again at Sun Life Stadium, but the game seems a distant shadow of its former self. It's been seven years since the two last met as top 10 teams and, following ugly downturns and coaching changes at both schools, they're only now starting to generate legitimate optimism. The 'Canes have improved every season under fourth-year coach Randy Shannon and boast an exciting passing offense led by dynamic quarterback Jacory Harris. The 'Noles, in the first year of the Jimbo Fisher era, have shown marked improvement on defense, leading the nation in sacks (25).

There is more excitement on the two campuses than in the past few years, with both teams ranked entering the game for the first time since 2006 and ACC championship aspirations still very much in play for both squads. Yet it says something about the state of the rivalry that their earlier losses to other opponents (Miami to Ohio State, FSU to Oklahoma) had a bigger impact on the national-title race than their own game will. And who would have ever thought that an Oregon-Stanford game would hold greater implications than Florida State-Miami?

"[Compared with] 15 years ago, we've still got a ways to go," said FSU's Fisher, who came to Tallahassee as offensive coordinator in 2007 before succeeding Bowden last December. "I don't mean that we can't get there or won't get there, but those were probably the most elite programs in the country at that particular time."

Indeed, in today's competitive environment, it's hard to imagine any two rivals dominating the national landscape for such an extended time. The closest modern comparison is Oklahoma-Texas, which has produced a BCS Championship Game participant six times since 2000. But even the Red River Rivalry hasn't captured the nation's imagination quite the way those FSU-Miami classics did.

Even after several years of dormancy, interest in the rivalry remains high. Last year's thrilling 38-34 Miami win on Labor Day night garnered the second-highest college football audience (at the time) in ESPN history -- behind only the teams' 2006 game. While it doesn't have the century-old history of Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama, clearly Miami-FSU still resonates, particularly with the 40-and-under crowd, which grew up at the height of the rivalry.

"It's two teams who are going to play hard and get after each other," said Shannon. "... There's a reason the TV networks put it on primetime."

One can only imagine the audience the networks will get if and when these teams become national contenders again. Then again, after nearly a decade of mediocrity, one also can't help but wonder when that day might come.

Both programs emerged in the '80s by pioneering the sport's changing emphasis from power to speed at a time when the country's population shift helped create a preponderance of high school talent in their backyards. Florida began its emergence under Steve Spurrier a decade later, creating a trio of football factories in the same state.

Today, however, the Sunshine State schools hardly have a stranglehold on their home-grown talent. Everyone recruits Florida. And nearly every top-flight program has an abundance of speed.

Meanwhile, the importance of conference alignment has risen dramatically in the BCS era. It may seem strange to a college newcomer, but the 'Noles and 'Canes were independents when they first made waves, with Miami later joining the Big East ('91) and Florida State the ACC ('92), and the 'Canes ultimately joining the ACC in 2004.

At the time, ACC officials envisioned the conference emerging as a new superpower led by the two Florida forerunners. Unfortunately, the move coincided almost exactly with the decline of those two programs and with Urban Meyer's arrival at Florida. Today, the SEC has emerged as the nation's most respected conference -- and games like Florida-Alabama have become the 2010 equivalent to Florida State-Miami in 2000.

Bowden, who said this week on SI.com's Mandel Initiative podcast that he'll be rushing home from a book signing in Vero Beach, Fla., to watch Saturday's game, believes the state's power balance shifts in a "circle" and, inevitably, will return to the 'Canes and 'Noles.

"I think they both are beginning to get back to that," said Bowden. "Miami ruled the roost from '83 until about '92. And then Florida State took over during the '90s, won two national championships. And then Florida took over in the 2000s. It's kind of been a cycle, and I really feel like Florida State and Miami both are climbing back up. ... They're about even which one's getting up the quickest. This game's going to tell us something."

Of course, Bowden said much the same thing every year during his last half-decade in Tallahassee, even as his teams slunk to 7-6 seasons in 2006 and '09. FSU fans still aren't entirely sold on the program's direction, as evidenced by an average of 16,000 empty seats at the team's first three home games this year. Most diehards, however, believed Bowden's and longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews' departures necessary to move forward, and Andrews' replacement, Mark Stoops, has made an immediate impact.

That said, when the 'Noles traveled to Oklahoma on Sept. 11, they looked like they didn't belong on the same field. The Sooners won in a romp, 47-17. This will be FSU's first game of significance since.

Meanwhile, Miami's offense has become increasingly explosive, with Harris and receiver Leonard Hankerson forming one of the nation's most potent combos. However, when the 'Canes visited No. 2 Ohio State, Harris threw four interceptions, and the Buckeyes looked far closer to national-title contention.

"I think we're both headed in the right direction," said Fisher. "We've both got a lot of great young players on our team. Randy's been doing a great job of getting them back in it, we're still trying to get back to that level. I do think they're both headed in that direction."

Let's hope Fisher's right. In its heyday Florida State-Miami was special for a host of reasons -- it was new, it was hip, it was glamorous and, more often than not, it was dramatic. But the single biggest reason we watched was because the teams were so darn good. Saturday night's game will be fun, but the rivalry won't truly be "back" until the stakes are again at their highest.