So after 3 weeks of flying decidedly under-the-radar, Florida State will be reacquainted with the spotlight of big-time football. Since emphatically failing their first big test in a drubbing at Oklahoma, the 'Noles have licked their wounds and taken out their frustrations on three inferior teams. BYU, Wake Forest, and Virginia essentially served as appetizers. Saturday night, the upstart Seminoles will sit down to a more substantial and familiar main course against Miami.
I don't have to tell you that every game against Miami is a big one for FSU. But this one carries implications beyond the standard bragging rights and even beyond another key conference win on the line. After the flop at Oklahoma, the 'Noles were dropped from the polls and the public's general attention; the same pundits who were slowly but surely starting to hype Florida State declared them the same old Seminoles, perennially overrated and unable to win a big game. This week, fair or not (it's not, really), Florida State will judged in the same way.
A win against Miami would leave FSU at 3-0 in the ACC, give Jimbo Fisher his first signature win as a head coach, and be a big step towards establishing the program as one on the rise.
A loss against Miami would have FSU falling out of the polls immediately once again, appearing overmatched against a quality opponent, and would diminish the program's chance to make a splash on the national scene this season.
Jimbo Fisher would tell you it's about the process, not immediate results. And he's right. Florida State was a program in serious disarray the past few seasons, and the road back to ACC championships and national title contention won't be traveled overnight. This season, realistically, would be successful if the team adjusts to the coaching staff and the new culture they have brought to the program, and if the team can compete for the ACC championship.
But this is the world of big-time college football, and restless Florida State fans who have left thousands of seats empty in Doak Campbell Stadium seem uninterested in baby steps or incremental improvements. Florida State needs a big win, and soon. But there's reason for optimism this weekend with the defense appearing to have come a long way from their humbling performance in Norman, even leading the nation in sacks. (For perspective on the improvement, one only needs to see that through the first five games, FSU has 25 sacks. Last year's team sack total? 26.)
Also, while he hasn't quite lived up to the preseason Heisman hype, Christian Ponder still provides a steady hand at the helm for the 'Noles, and he has saved some of his very best performances for Miami—he ran for over 100 yards in his first start against the Hurricanes. It will be imperative that Ponder holds his own in the quarterback duel with Miami's Jacory Harris, or it will likely be a long night in South Florida for FSU. However, as always, the smart money remains on another classic between FSU and Miami. 6 of the last 9 matchups were decided by one touchdown or less.
The new-look 'Noles under Jimbo Fisher have made some important strides already, showing they can handle inferior competition like a good team ought to, but FSU is in need of a statement; something more tangible to show a downtrodden fanbase that they are back. Another extended period of hibernation among the unranked masses is the last thing the program needs.
But as the saying goes, great moments are born from great opportunities, and a prime-time test against an old nemesis provides Florida State an opportunity to make that much-needed statement.
Saturday night, we'll see what the 'Noles have to say for themselves.