It’s also as if the map has shrunk, the way we think about fewer and fewer teams, with two (Alabama and Clemson) having met each other in four straight playoffs and three title games and with one major conference (the Pac-12) present in only two of five playoffs and barely so in four yawning years. Somehow, a Saturday with only two Football Bowl Subdivision games reinforced the thought that nowadays, we think about northwest South Carolina (Clemson), and western Alabama (Alabama) and eastern Georgia (Georgia) and sometimes Oklahoma or Ohio State or Notre Dame, but kids, there was a day — there were lots of days — when following college football meant following Florida for far more than weird news items.
From 1983 to 2013, the triumvirate of Florida State, Miami and Florida hogged 11 national titles with at least three each and appeared six other times in games either ballyhooed as title games or lavishly resented as title games. They also loathed one another with a fanatical hotness in every possible direction, adding to the allure.
That persists, but now we’ve got a preseason Associated Press poll with Florida tucked at No. 8 and Florida State and Miami missing near the end of a decade in which the three combined to finish in the top five only twice (Florida State in 2013 and 2014). Last year ended with Florida at No. 7 and Florida State and Miami unranked. The year before ended with Miami at No. 13 and Florida and Florida State unranked. Florida’s 10-3 finish last year counted as surprise, when historically it’s a surprise that it could be a surprise. And now we’ve got the fresh memory of the slapstick game Florida and Miami played Saturday night, such a mess that poll voters would show both chutzpah and acumen if they note Florida’s 24-20 win yet dock it all the way off the chart.
As the game and the season began, given the era in which we dwell, Florida vs. Miami looked to forge only two national meanings. It would help determine what Florida’s record will become after eight games when, for its ninth, on Nov. 2, it will head for Jacksonville and its inevitable manhandling by Georgia. And it would help gauge whether Miami might have the wherewithal to get to the ACC title game Dec. 7 in Charlotte for its inevitable manhandling by Clemson.
Florida came off a 41-15 win over a bummed-out Michigan on Dec. 29 in a Peach Bowl in which Florida did not belong (Kentucky did), and Miami came off a 35-3 loss to Wisconsin on Dec. 27 in a Pinstripe Bowl in which Miami did not belong (as doesn’t anyone who goes all the way to the Bronx to spend an entire night getting six first downs). Soon, Miami Coach Mark Richt retired earlier than expected, after which Manny Diaz, having left Miami as defensive coordinator for Temple as head coach Dec. 13, returned to Miami as head coach Dec. 30, closing a 17-day tenure notable as slightly longer than lunch.
Here’s what appeared to happen Saturday: Florida and Miami, both clearly afraid of UCF since their future nonconference schedules do not include UCF, both traveled to Orlando. They dared not go too close to UCF’s stadium, as that would be too frightening, so they agreed to meet up about 18 humid miles away in the stadium where interlopers alight each year for a Citrus Bowl. Still, both sides clearly shuddered at the thought of UCF nearby with its 25-1 mark the past two seasons, its ransacking of Auburn and its near-success against LSU even after a catastrophic quarterback injury — so they spilled mistakes all over the rug.
Very few games have all of a combined 23 penalties for 225 yards, a team (Miami) committing two holding penalties on one play, a team (Miami) taking 10 sad-sack sacks, a go-ahead drive (by Florida) of three plays and 11 yards after a muffed punt (by Miami), and two telltale possessions such as these:
Miami rode a ghastly interception (thrown by Florida) to a spot 25 yards from cementing the game with 13 minutes left and a 20-17 lead, yet sabotaged itself with disturbing strategic timidity, yet followed that with a successful fake field goal, yet saw that successful fake imperiled by a holding penalty, yet saw that holding penalty relieved by an out-of-bounds, unnecessary-roughness penalty (on Florida), yet wound up trying another field goal, from 27 yards, which it missed.
You really should have seen it. Or not.
Then, after another ghastly interception (thrown by Florida), Miami sat 25 yards from victory with four minutes left and a 24-20 deficit, then went backward 32 yards, then faced fourth and 34, then gained rescue from a pass interference penalty (on Florida), then wound up with a closing snap (by Miami) that clunked and caromed off quarterback Jarren Williams, who gamely retrieved it and hurled it rightward to the ground as if to create a fitting finishing piece of explanatory art.
You really should have seen it. Or not.
At least, back early in the second quarter, Florida had fumbled a handoff exchange (of course) from the Miami 7-yard line, enabling Miami to debut its 2019 turnover chain, which turned out to be a mighty beast of jewelry with a “305” celebrating Miami’s area code and as garish as all, well, Miami.
Everyone agreed college football might not belong in soupy August, and then came the wee hours when Arizona of the Pac-12 had the guts to go to Hawaii, a program both second-tier and good. So the Pac-12 christened another voyage with a 45-38 loss that had Khalil Tate’s 30-yard scramble to the 1-yard line as time expired. Whether that means it’s time to stop thinking all that much about the Pac-12, Florida vs. Miami showed it’s already time to stop thinking all that much about the old state of Florida except for UCF, unless Florida State rustles from the crypt, which isn’t forecast. That’s all while September has yet even to awaken.