Dressed head-to-toe in green and orange, Miami lawyer George Koonce, 37, boarded a flight to Jacksonville Friday and sat directly across from a Florida State fan.
They exchanged smiles, not dirty looks — happy to be heading toward their first big showdown in years.
“It’s not that you feel confident or cocky, but you feel good wearing these colors again,” said Koonce, about to drive to Tallahassee to meet his parents for Saturday night’s 8 p.m. nationally televised kickoff at FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium.
“It’s been a little bit different since the Florida game for us Canes fans,” Koonce said. “We’re feeling like we’re back on the right track.”
Seventh-ranked Miami (7-0) and third-ranked FSU (7-0) are back in business and back in the top 10. The last time they played in a game unbeaten this late in the year — with stakes this high — was 2003, when second-ranked Miami beat fifth-ranked Florida State 22-14 in the rain in Tallahassee.
Koonce said that remains his favorite all-time Florida State-Miami game, but he’s hoping the resurgence of both programs — neither of which has played for a national championship since Miami lost to Ohio State at the end of the 2002 season — will lead to many more fond memories.
Saturday’s game is a sellout, with more than 82,300 fans expected to be in attendance. ESPN’s College GameDay is on campus, the Goodyear Blimp will be overhead and excitement is at a fever pitch.
The average ticket selling on the secondary market is going for $177, according to SeatGeek. The Seminoles’ other six home games have collectively drawn an average resale price of just $49 per ticket.
The game is certainly valuable.
FSU, a 22-point favorite led by Heisman Trophy candidate and fabulous freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, has hopes of playing for its first national title since the 2000 season. UM is the toughest regular season opponent left on the Seminoles’ schedule outside of regular-season finale foe Florida.
Miami, which hasn’t played in a major bowl game since it beat FSU in the Orange Bowl to end the 2003 season, is off to its first 7-0 start since then. The Canes, led by star tailback Duke Johnson, have been rebuilding under third-year coach Al Golden and hope to leap another step forward now that the NCAA scandal is finally behind them.
“Nobody seems to want to give the Canes much chance of going to Tallahassee and competing,” said ESPN color analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will be calling the game for ABC alongside Brent Musburger.
“I think they can, but there are a few things they have to do in order to be competitive.”
Among them: fewer mistakes by quarterback Stephen Morris and no turnovers.
What also could help the Canes close the gap? Fueling themselves with emotion. “These guys grew up playing little league together, high school football together,” Herbstreit said. “So the Canes will come in with a big chip on their shoulder anxious to show they can compete with Florida State. This should be a great showdown and could be a lot closer than maybe people expect.”
From 1981 through 2005, UM and FSU met 25 times. In 21 of those games both teams were ranked and in 11 of those games both were ranked in the top 10. During that time span, FSU had 26 first round picks and Miami had 43. UM won five national titles (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001); FSU won two (1993, 1999). Both schools had two Heisman winners.
Miami has had five first-round picks since that stellar run, none since 2008. Florida State has had 10, and is closer to regaining its footing as a national power under coach Jimbo Fisher.
Not everyone believes Miami and Florida State are on their way back to prominence.
“The No. 7 ranking is a mirage,” ESPN analyst and former Gators quarterback Jesse Palmer said last Sunday shortly after the latest Bowl Championship Series standings were announced. “In my opinion they’re not even a Top 10 team.”
While many aren’t picking the Canes to win, former players and even the man who used to dress as mascot Sebastian the Ibis, UM Sports Hall of Fame Executive Director John Routh, remembers a time when UM would go into hostile environments and win tough games.
The last time Miami won a road game against a team ranked in the top five? Virginia Tech in 2005.
“You always want to go into hostile environments, especially Tallahassee,” said former Hurricane receiver Randal ‘Thrill’ Hill, who does the UM pregame show on WQAM, and recalls running pass patterns through FSU’s warmup exercises to irritate the Seminoles.
“[FSU mascot] Chief Osceola came out one time and we stood in the way so he couldn’t throw his spear down,” Hill said. “Even the Ibis got into the craziness with us. He had a fire extinguisher and was going to put the flame out.”
The Hurricanes hope to do the same to Florida State’s title hopes Saturday while igniting their own.