The buildup for this showdown was five years in the making, and now that it's finally in the rear-view mirror, it's time to make some sense of Miami's recent 21-16 win over rival Florida.
While the Hurricanes' win doesn't signify any official changing of the guard in the Sunshine State, it does prove that third-year head coach Al Golden has been building something out of nothing and is turning UM into a contender again, despite hovering NCAA sanctions and depth woes that have come from thinning out his roster by getting rid of the wrong kind of players.
The outcome was a simple reminder that things are again wide open for all three in-state powers, with no one truly having a leg up, as evidenced by the current AP poll.
When Miami and Florida last met five years ago, the Gators were on their way to a second national championship in three years. Urban Meyer was at the helm in Gainesville, while Randy Shannon was trying to make sense of a Miami program that began to unravel soon after UM's 2001 title and Larry Coker's eventual 2006 firing.
The Hurricanes fell 26-3 that September evening at The Swamp. It was a 9-3 game until the Gators put up a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns and a rub-it-in field goal with less than two minutes remaining.
The Miami and Florida programs felt worlds apart back in 2008. But five years later, UM has narrowed the gap and is reassuming its familiar place among "The Big Three."
The Hurricanes, Gators and Seminoles have won a combined 10 national championships the past three decades. UM leads with five, UF has three and FSU trails with two, but none of the proud programs have won the Big One in half a decade.
Florida State won't face its first real challenge until a late-October trip to Clemson. Florida has a difficult SEC schedule ahead and can reassert itself in the hunt with a few big wins. Its next big opportunity comes October 12 at LSU.
Meanwhile, Miami remains a polarizing program. Either loved or hated, there doesn't seem to be any in between. The nation tunes in when the Hurricanes play—some to see UM win, others seeking a Miami loss.
Days after beating Florida, both sides want to know the same thing: Is Miami officially "back"?
Each program defines "back" differently. But for Miami, after racking up four national championships in a nine-year span and leaving a few others on the field, that's where the bar has been set—fair or unfair as that may be to Golden and his squad.
In an effort to end that premature debate, the official answer to the question is no—Miami is not yet back, but the win over Florida was a huge step in the right direction.
Next up for Golden: keeping his kids focused on the bigger picture. Celebrate this monumental step forward, but realize it's all for naught if the Hurricanes don't keep moving and taking care of business. Golden made that clear in his Saturday postgame press conference, as reported by InsideTheU.com.
We have such a long way to go. I can't say that enough. We have such a long way to go to be that kind of program. Big win? Yes. Program, yet? No. We gotta get back to work and get better and be mature and go about our business every day.
This marks UM's 10th season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Miami still hasn't won a title. A shot was earned last year, but the Hurricanes chose to sit out the postseason, which included a trip to Charlotte to take on Florida State and a chance to earn an Orange Bowl berth with a win.
Prior to that, Miami has been in the running for an Atlantic Division title a handful of times but reinvented ways to come up short.
In 2004, there was no official conference championship matchup, but the ACC came down to the final game of the season, and Miami fell 16-10 to Virginia Tech, which went on to represent the conference by taking on undefeated Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
A year later, the Hurricanes won eight straight after a season-opening loss at Florida State. As part of that streak, No. 5 Miami rolled into Blacksburg in early November and smacked No. 3 Virginia Tech 27-7. But after taking over that third spot behind Southern Cal and Texas, Miami came up short in a home showdown against Georgia Tech, losing 14-10.
In 2009, Miami started out 3-1, having knocked off Florida State, Georgia Tech and then Oklahoma just a week after losing to Virginia Tech. Sitting at 5-1 in late October, the Hurricanes were in the driver's seat for a Coastal Division berth but fell to Clemson at home in overtime. Two weeks later, North Carolina tripped up Miami in Chapel Hill, officially ending another ACC title-berth dream.
Miami has been a program that, as of late, loses focus and gets way ahead of itself. One glance at the schedule over the past few years reveals fall lineups littered with games the Hurricanes should've won easily, on paper at least.
Golden's biggest challenge to date was one-upping Florida, which Miami did—behind a hard-hitting, takeaway defense, of all things.
Where the Hurricanes offense was supposed to be the focal point of this season, last year's maligned defense stepped up big, forcing six Gators turnovers: two Jeff Driskel interceptions, three fumbles and a big defensive stand early in the second quarter, shutting down Florida on a 4th-and-1 just inside the red zone.
Aside from beating the Gators on the field, the Hurricanes needed this victory for recruiting's sake. Recruits with both Florida and Miami on the short list were in attendance on Saturday, and Corey Long, editor-in-chief at Fuel Recruiting, told the Miami Herald what a win over the Gators would mean for the Hurricanes.
This is truly a ‘Is Miami back?’ football game. A close loss doesn’t hurt them at all. I think it shows them they’re close. But a victory in the mind of people is ‘They’re back’ at least temporarily, especially nationally. If Miami wins, I think everything opens up for them—the whole Southeast, national recruits. Miami still has that brand name. But proving they can play with an elite SEC team goes a long way.
Miami got the win, and Golden has to hope an NCAA decision is coming soon as the on-the-field losses and negative recruiting have hurt his Hurricanes program more than he cared to admit on Saturday.
"It's just been such a hard road. We've just been battling this thing, and obviously they're one of the team's we've been battling during this thing. I don't have to...," Golden said, as his voice trailed off during his postgame interview. "I think you guys can figure this out"—an obvious implication of negative recruiting that has come out of UF against UM the past few seasons.
The Canes got it done on the field against the Gators, which will help on the recruiting front as wins and losses are the best sales pitch coaches can give recruits. That said, the wind will quickly go out of this program's sails should Miami stumble against the likes of a South Florida, Georgia Tech or North Carolina in the next few weeks.
Florida was a great stepping-stone, so build on it—don't backslide.