A few University of Miami seniors who haven’t been allowed to go to a bowl game the past two years and haven’t celebrated a win over Florida State in the past three years were asked this week to put their finger on the biggest win they have been a part of.
“I don’t know — that’s a good question,” quarterback Stephen Morris said earlier this week. “I think with everything we’ve been through, I’d have to say [last year’s] Georgia Tech game when we came back to win in overtime.”
“That or the Ohio State game,” fullback Maurice Hagens said, referring to one of two Hurricanes wins in the 10 games they have played again ranked opponents since knocking off No. 8 Oklahoma in the middle of the 2009 season. That was the program’s last win over a top-10 opponent.
Beating the 12th-ranked Florida Gators (1-0) on Saturday in front of nearly 77,000 rabid fans — the biggest home crowd for UM since moving from the Orange Bowl in 2008 — might make its way up the big-win list for Al Golden’s players.
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Respect, bragging rights and recruiting inroads are all at stake in the final scheduled regular-season meeting between the old rivals. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has made it clear he’s not interested in renewing unless the game is played on a neutral site — code for it isn’t happening.
For the fans, who will arrive wearing orange and green and orange and blue well before the noon kickoff, that will be the topic of conversation amid brews and burgers when they begin tailgating before sunrise at Sun Life Stadium. Tickets have been sold out for a long time and are going on the secondary market for an average of $187, according to Connor Gregoire, an analyst for SeatGeek.com.
For Golden’s team, the rivalry and revelry of Canes-Gators doesn’t quite matter as much as proving they can beat a good team and continue an upward climb. Sure, Hurricanes players such as Hagens have said this week they hate the Gators just as much as they do the Seminoles.
This game, though, reaches deeper than pure hatred for that team from Gainesville. Beat Florida and Golden’s team can finally pound its chest for real, and more importantly keep itself in the national spotlight for something other than being the NCAA’s target.
“It’s obviously a big game, but the biggest thing for us is to focus on what we can control,” Golden said earlier this week. “Everything else that surrounds it, we have no impact on.”
MOVING ON UP
Before the Canes crept into a tie for 24th place in the USA Today/Coaches’ poll on Tuesday, UM (1-0) hadn’t been ranked in a Top 25 poll since the week before Randy Shannon’s last game as coach in 2010 — before anyone outside of South Florida had ever really heard of jailed former booster Nevin Shapiro.
That’s why Golden shook his head earlier this week when he was asked if he saw any parallels between he and Gators coach Will Muschamp, who arrived in Gainesville a day before Golden moved his family to Coral Gables.
“[Florida was] coming off national championships in  and  and didn’t have an NCAA thing,” Golden said. “I don’t think there are parallels at all.”
Florida, which won 11 games and lost to Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in the Sugar Bowl last January, had eight players — including two first-rounders — selected in April’s NFL Draft. Miami, which had two players selected on the final day of the same draft and hasn’t had a first-round pick since 2008, is finally beginning to close the talent gap, recruiting experts say.
Only two Gators — junior cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy (26th) and Marcus Roberson (60th) — rank among the Top 60 NFL Draft prospects for 2014, according to CBSSports.com. Miami also has two players in that Top 60 list: senior right tackle Seantrel Henderson (55th) and Morris (39th).
Vegas agrees. The Gators, who won the last meeting with the Canes 26-3 in Gainesville in 2008, are only listed as three-point favorites.
The eventual national champions were 22-point favorites five years ago. That team had Heisman winner Tim Tebow, receiver Percy Harvin, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Although the Gators return only three starters from last year’s defense, which ranked in the top five nationally in scoring, rushing, passing efficiency and total defense, UM offensive coordinator James Coley doesn’t see much of a drop-off in UF’s talent.
“A lot of five-star prospects,” Coley said when asked what he saw of the Florida’s defense after it held Toledo to 205 total yards, six points and only one third-down conversion in last week’s opener.
“They may have lost some players to the NFL, but they didn’t lose talent. I saw a lot of players that were heavily recruited by everybody.”
GROUND AND POUND
Offensively, the Gators are hardly the Fun ’N Gun passing attack they once were when Steve Spurrier wore a visor on their sideline. But Muschamp’s ground-and-pound, ball-control offense, paired with a stout defense, was more than effective last season.
Florida’s quartet of talented backs run behind an offensive line with 89 combined career starts — not too far off Miami’s 98 career combined starts on its offensive line.
Sophomore running back Matt Jones (6-2, 226) is one of a handful of players along with linebacker Antonio Morrison returning this week from either injury or suspension. Jones’ backfield mates ran for 262 yards against Toledo without him.
“If they can run the ball on us it’s going to be a long day,” Golden said.
UM, meanwhile, has a lot to prove. In its three games against ranked opponents last season, the Hurricanes gave up an average of 294 rushing yards and 13 combined touchdowns in blowout losses to Florida State, Kansas State and Notre Dame.
Offensively, Morris, star running back Duke Johnson and leading receiver Phillip Dorsett weren’t much better against those same ranked teams last year.
Morris completed 60 percent of his passes for 639 yards, one touchdown, one interception and was sacked nine times in the three games. He was sacked seven times in Miami’s other nine games.
Johnson, meanwhile, was held to a combined 68 yards on 23 attempts without a touchdown. Dorsett combined for six catches and 52 yards without a score.
But an opportunity to shine brighter than they have in a long time awaits the Canes on Saturday.
“I guess it would send the message that we’re not the same UM team as before,” Hagens said of beating Florida. “I don’t want to say it says we’re back. We’ve been here.
“We just haven’t been doing what we were supposed to be doing.”