The last time this happened, it was a cool autumn evening in a quintessential college town. Unbeaten Florida State, ranked third in the nation, came to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face unbeaten North Carolina, ranked fifth. Two schools from the Atlantic Coast Conference -- where November normally means racing indoors to sweaty gymnasiums -- had the rapt attention of the football-watching nation.
That, however, was it. They have played ACC football for 51 autumns now -- 2,679 league games in all, enough opportunities, it would seem, to establish a tradition in which excellence faces excellence at least once every few seasons. Yet FSU's 20-3 victory on Nov. 8, 1997, was the lone meeting between ACC teams ranked in the top five -- until tonight.
ACC officials and those from the conference's schools will tell you that the league's expansion was about more than athletics, that it was about academics, about bonding like-minded schools together and creating a conference that truly spanned the Atlantic coast. Yet without football and the money that follows, it never would have happened.
That three-month maelstrom in the summer of 2003, the one that resulted in the dismantling of the Big East Conference, the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and, eventually, Boston College for the ACC? All the lawsuits and spin-doctoring? The fundamental changes for the ACC's traditionally rich basketball programs? In some ways, they were all about tonight's game at the Orange Bowl in Miami, when the host Hurricanes, ranked fifth in the nation, will face the visiting Seminoles, ranked fourth, an ACC football game between national heavyweights.
"This," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said, "is a great way to start."
It's appropriate that this marquee matchup, featuring schools that have won seven national championships between them, was pushed back from Monday to tonight by Hurricane Frances. It mirrors the exhausting expansion process, in which Swofford and his staff at the ACC office began pursuing Miami as early as 2001.
Yet in the spring of 2003, the ordeal dragged out in public, when a series of conference calls and votes among the presidents and chancellors of the league's schools initially resulted in the invitation of Miami and Virginia Tech and finally culminated with another invitation to Boston College last fall. Miami and Virginia Tech are ACC members this season; BC will complete the 12-member conference in 2004-05.
"It puts ACC football nationally in a place that it probably has never been before," Swofford said. "Our programs will have to perform over a period of time, but there's a depth of quality competitively in our league now that may well match what we have in basketball. This game, to kick off the year, I think makes a statement in that regard."
Thus, the dynamics of the ACC -- which Florida State has completely dominated since it came on board in 1992, winning at least a share of the championship 11 times in 12 years -- are changed instantly because the annual matchup between FSU and Miami will have an impact nationally and in the conference.
"It has a tremendous amount of importance in the league," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "I think the team that wins it really has a leg up on the rest of the conference. The team that loses it has got to really fight. I think it's a great football game barring [the fact that it's part of] the ACC, but I think it just adds more credence to the ACC."
The participants, who met in the regular season and again in the Orange Bowl last season, are trying to keep things as routine as possible. Yes, the game will have an impact on the league race, and give the winner the inside track to a berth in the Bowl Championship Series. But the history of the moment is largely an addendum to the players and coaches.
"It's going to have an effect on the league," FSU Coach Bobby Bowden said. "Other than that, I don't think there's any difference. Let's just say going into that ballgame, as far as our players are concerned, there aren't any thoughts different than last year, the year before, the year before or the year before that."
But forging a different outcome will be the Seminoles' chief objective. Miami has beaten FSU five straight times. The last time the Seminoles won was in their last national championship season, 1999. If they are to overcome the Hurricanes this week, they will have to coerce a better performance from senior quarterback Chris Rix. In the two losses to Miami last year, Rix completed just 42.6 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Miami's Brock Berlin is in a similar situation. Benched late in last season, the transfer from Florida threw 17 interceptions to go along with just 12 touchdowns. Like Rix, he was booed by his home fans.
Both quarterbacks profess to be prepared for the best season of their career. And by now -- expansion or no expansion, league game or not -- the teams are more than prepared. The hurricane delay has left the teams with the feeling that, as Miami Coach Larry Coker said: "It's time to play. . . . We need to play."
The winner will be the early-season favorite for the ACC championship. But in the long-term, this game is merely symbolic of the rigmarole of the past few years. The ACC, and college sports, will never be the same, and the Hurricanes and Seminoles will show that tonight.
"Change can be a bit unsettling to some people, but it can also be invigorating and challenging," Swofford said. "But for the long haul, our schools felt that those changes were productive ones. I think what we want to do is preserve and respect the history and tradition that the league has had while embracing the changes that come with the decision to expand. This game is one of those changes, and it's a good one."