In searching for perspective on this year's Miami-Florida State game, there seems no better source than Hurricanes Coach Mark Richt.
Richt spent five years as a quarterback at Miami then more than a decade on the staff at Florida State before eventually returning to his alma mater, three experiences that round out his opinion on the heated intrastate rivalry.
"I think that it's still a very, very important and passionate game for the players and the coaches and the fans," Richt said Wednesday. "I think on a national basis, it's not quite as exciting as it used to be. Because, first of all, Florida State has been dominating it lately, and Miami really hasn't been in position where people are talking much about the 'Canes when it comes to the national community of people that love college football. If we can keep winning, and playing the kind of games of football that people respect, and win our share of these, then it's gonna be fun again, for everybody."
That scenario applies for this Saturday's matchup in Tallahassee, though the roles are reversed: The Seminoles have won the past seven meetings but have started this season with a limp. After the losing star running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL after last season, highly touted quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against No. 1 Alabama. The Seminoles needed a last-minute touchdown last weekend at Wake Forest to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1976.
Even with Miami surging to a 3-0 start and the No. 13 ranking in the Associated Press poll, 'Canes vs. 'Noles won't be the must-see TV it once was for many viewers outside of Sunshine State.
Instead, the significance of Saturday's game hits closer to home. Both teams endured Hurricane Irma, which along with heartache and worry brought about a three-week hiatus from the sport, including each team canceling one game and postponing of their head-to-head meeting from Sept. 16 until Saturday. Instead of facing an onslaught of hype, both teams are embracing the chance to return to normalcy.
That was the theme of this past weekend, when both football teams, playing some 80 miles apart in North Carolina, sat in postgame news conferences and circled the subject.
The Hurricanes went first. After dispatching vastly improved and previously undefeated Duke, 31-6, on Friday night in Durham, N.C., sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman was asked if he was looking forward to returning to a typical football schedule.
He took a deep breath, then blew the air out of his mouth as he answered: "Oh, yeah."
The Seminoles came next, the following afternoon. For them, a return to normalcy meant something different. They had just earned their first victory, scraping past an unbeaten yet unranked Wake Forest, 26-19, when Francois's freshman fill-in, James Blackman, slung a 40-yard touchdown pass to Auden Tate with 53 seconds remaining. In the aftermath, Coach Jimbo Fisher said something abnormal coming from a man who entered this season with a 59-9 record over the past five years.
"It's just like, it's been so long since you felt it," Fisher said, describing the locker room celebration. "Since last year! Since December 31 since we had a win."
That last win, 33-32 over Michigan in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, set high expectations, including a preseason ranking of No. 3 for the Seminoles. Then came the bruising loss to Alabama, the 21-day layoff because of Irma and a 27-21 loss to resurgent North Carolina State in Blackman's first career start.
Florida State's defense, considered the team's stronger unit at the start of the season, allowed Wake Forest to rack up 367 yards on Saturday, 271 of which were in the air. The Seminoles have five sacks in three games after posting 51 in 2016. The run game without Cook is pallid, ranking 121st out of 129 major-college programs with 97.7 yards per game.
Fisher called the three games this season a learning experience for his team, part of a growing process that was going to have to accelerate considerably this week to get the Seminoles into good enough shape to beat Miami.
The Hurricanes emerged from September with a formidable defense that limited Duke to three trips to the red zone and six points, a fine quarterback in Malik Rosier and an electrifying running back in Mark Walton, who is expected to play Saturday despite aggravating a left ankle injury against the Blue Devils.
How much must Florida State improve by the time Miami rolls around?
"A buuuuunch," Fisher said Saturday.
Kinks still exist for the Hurricanes. After the Duke win, Richt took the blame for instances of what he termed "offensive confusion" — the Hurricanes couldn't line up in a certain play correctly without a timeout — that could just as easily be attributed to missing three weeks of practice in September.
"We took like two, three weeks off so we're still trying to get back in game mode," linebacker Michael Pinckney said. "A lot of teams have four, five games under their belt."
But, like Florida State, Miami is hoping to move forward Saturday after a fitful start to the season.
The rivalry game — which will be played with an eye on Tropical Storm Nate, which was approaching Central America on Thursday with a shifting path that could affect the Florida Panhandle — is another step toward normal.
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