Posted: 3:05 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
This interminable week we are spending waiting for Florida to dispense with Miami once and for all has taught me a few things. Among them:
But, as I noted in that piece from yesterday, one of the things this week has reinforced for me is the fervor with which Miami fans bandy about their team's five rings and 28-26 overall edge on Florida in the series between the Gators and Hurricanes. That advantage was actually won over the last five meetings between the two teams, all since the cessation of the annual rivalry, in which Miami went 4-1 and took the lead from Florida, which had owned a 25-24 lead over the first 49 games of the series.
That lead notwithstanding, Miami fans, perhaps because of a supposed Howard Schnellenberger quote about Florida being scared to play Miami, have asserted for three decades that Florida's fright was the impetus for ending the annual series.
Ironically, it's the ending of the annual series that probably helped Miami take the lead. Had the Gators and 'Canes met throughout the '90s and 2000s, Miami would probably be in a deeper hole than the one Florida sits in now.
Here's a year-by-year accounting of what I think — and I tried to be as objective as possible with this — might have happened had Florida and Miami played every year from 1988 to the present day. For the purposes of this experiment, I'm assuming the series would have continued being a home-and-home annual series, with games happening early in the year, and that the bowl games matching Florida and Miami wouldn't have happened.
A great Miami team went 11-1 in Jimmy Johnson's final season in 1988, losing only to Notre Dame by a single point and handing Florida State, the only common opponent between the 'Canes and Gators, its only loss of the season in a 31-0 rout. Florida started the year 5-0, outscoring its first five foes (two of them I-AA schools) 190-21, but then lost four straight games by a combined 83-23 score, and lost to Florida State by a 52-17 count, finishing 7-5. Had Florida kept the 'Canes on the schedule, the Gators would've absorbed a beatdown.
Miami went 11-1 again in 1989, this time under Dennis Erickson, suffering its only loss to Florida State, which also beat Florida. The Gators went 7-5 for the second straight year, and were under .500 for the most recent time in its history after their season-opening loss to Mississippi. Miami would've won easily.
In Steve Spurrier's first year, Florida went 9-2, getting rocked by Tennessee (45-3!) and losing to Florida State. But Miami lost two games for the first time since 1985, and lost its season opener (albeit to a good BYU team, and on the road), while Florida came out of the gate with a 50-7 win over Spurrier. An upset in The Swamp, before it was The Swamp? It might've happened.
Florida went 10-2 in 1991, losing its last non-conference game outside of the state of Florida to Syracuse and falling to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Miami went 12-0, and won its fourth national championship. Miami would've won.
Florida went 9-4, and lost road games to Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Florida State, then lost the last SEC Championship in Birmingham to Alabama. But Florida wasn't that much better at home, and Miami went 11-1, despite a three-week streak of wins by a field goal or less. Miami wins, and takes back the advantage in the series for the first time since 1971. It won't last very long.
Miami fans will survive Danny Wuerffel this year, but not again. Wuerffel was good enough to get the Gators an SEC title in 1993, and in the 'Canes' first three-loss year since 1984, he would've been just good enough to get Florida a close road win. But he would've been on the sideline for a September game, and so Miami would have come away with the win. (Of note: Florida State beat Miami 28-10 in Tallahassee, and beat Florida 33-21 in Gainesville.)
Things start swinging fully toward Florida in '94. Wuerffel triggers an incredible offense that fails to break 30 points just three times, and Florida scores 70 in both of its first two games. Miami clobbers Georgia Southern and Arizona State early, but gets whacked by Washington at home in September. Florida would've gotten a win here.
There are Florida fans who think the 1995 team that won its first 12 games by a 534-201 margin was the best in Gators history. No 'Cane thinks that about the 1995 Miami team, which went 8-3 after starting 1-3 losing its first three games against I-A competition, and was banned from postseason play. All three of those losses were on the road, sure, and this game would've been in South Florida, but Florida was still a much better team.
There's a better case for Florida's 1996 team as the Gators' best ever than the 1995 team, to my mind, even putting aside the national title: Florida scored 611 points and allowed 221 in 1996, knocking off four 10-win teams to 1995's two. And while Miami started 1996 hot, Wuerffel in his Heisman season and the rest of a loaded '96 roster would have been far too much for the 'Canes.
Florida went 10-2 in 1997, despite Spurrier not having one quarterback he really and truly loved. Miami went 5-6 as the Butch Davis era bottomed out, losing to Syracuse at home with a bowl berth on the line at season's end, and that was after rallying out of a 1-4 hole. Florida wins, easy.
Miami rebounded from its awful 1997 to go 9-3, but Florida went 10-2 with a team that is mostly forgotten in the annals of Florida football (its only losses were to national champion Tennessee and runner-up Florida State), and it beat Syracuse 31-10 in the Orange Bowl ... after that same Syracuse team obliterated Miami, 66-13.
Florida went 9-4, failing to top 10 wins for the first time since 1992, but finished the season on a three-game skid thanks to national champion Florida State, Shaun Alexander, and friggin' Plaxico Burress. Florida was just fine at the beginning of the year, when Miami scuffled to a 2-3 start with wins over a 6-6 Ohio State team and Florida A&M.;
We know Florida lost to Miami pretty convincingly in the 2001 Sugar Bowl, but the Gators could've delivered the 34-29 loss Washington did in Miami's second game of the year, especially in Gainesville, where every visitor lost by 20-plus to the Gators. A September game in The Swamp feels essentially like a toss-up to me, so I flipped a coin: It came up heads, for Florida.
Okay, yes, Miami was the best team in college football in 2001, and 2001 Miami is one of the better college football teams in recent memory. Florida was one of the five best teams in the country, though, and lost a game to Tennessee in the waning minutes because it didn't have Earnest Graham and lost a game to Auburn because of Auburn's voodoo. Miami would've been a favorite, especially at home, but Florida would've been the best team on the 'Canes' schedule.
Here we have the first regular season game between the teams that actually happened in this experiment, and we saw what a good Miami team would do to a Ron Zook-coached Florida team.
Florida should have won this game. It didn't. I hate Brock Berlin.
Florida lost to Miami in the 2004 Peach Bowl, with Charlie Strong outfoxed in his first game as the head man on the sideline, and it just doesn't seem right to predict that a Zook team would've beaten Miami. Florida was in every game that season except for that get-it-over-with bowl loss, though, and 9-3 Miami was far from dominant. The 'Canes would've gotten a close W in an early-season game.
Here's a tough one: Would Urban Meyer have been able to get the Florida team that didn't really gel until late October to get up for an early showdown with Miami? Would the Miami team that got smithereened by an LSU squad Florida almost beat on the road in a bowl and lost to the FSU team Florida crushed have been significantly better than Florida while Meyer was getting his bearings? If a Zook-era game makes me think Florida loses, a Meyer-era game makes me think Florida wins.
And after coming within one game of tying the series back up, here's where it gets away from Miami again. Florida won its second national title in 2006; Miami went 7-6, losing at home to a Florida State team Florida beat on the road and putting together a four-game skid against ACC foes late in the year.
Florida took a step back in 2007 thanks to a leaky defense, but Miami wouldn't have been able to take advantage: The 'Canes went 5-7, and scored just 247 points on the year.
I still can't believe this wasn't more lopsided, but Florida had a lot of trouble moving the ball. Miami was held to 140 yards of total offense. It was bad.
Jacory Harris's heroics got Miami a dramatic win over Florida State on Labor Day to open the 2009 season. Florida would have picked off Harris a few more times, though the beginning of the Addazio era coming against Miami would have been exquisitely painful.
Who knows? Meyer's final year was marked by blowouts and puzzling losses (as soon as you figure out the Mississippi State loss, lemme know), but Harris regressed, and Miami went 7-6 with a home loss to USF and a road loss to Virginia. No one would've enjoyed this game, so I flipped a coin again: Tails, for Miami.
Florida's 6-6 regular season had three close games and three blowout losses; Miami's 6-6 regular season had six close losses. I want to think that the relatively good and confident Florida team that ripped through September would've been able to beat Miami, which opened the year with a loss to 2-10 Maryland, but this is another coinflip, and it also came up tails.
Miami's horrific 2012 defense gave up 498 yards to Kansas State in a 52-17 road loss. Florida's 2012 offense would've needed six quarters to get 498 yards in a September game, but the defense was good from the jump, and Mike Gillislee would've been just as good as he was against Texas A&M; early in the year.
I don't feel totally confident about all of these predictions — 1990 could probably go either way, 2001 could well have been a Florida win, 2010 and 2011 are really toss-ups — but I do think Florida would have at least a slight edge on Miami in the overall series, even if the bowl games between the two teams had happened as they did.
Florida would never have been able to deny Miami a bowl game, as the mediocre and bad 'Canes teams did that on their own, but the Gators might have wrecked the Hurricanes' national title plans in 2001; Miami would certainly have stopped Florida's streak of season-opening wins at some point, and might have kept the mediocre 2011 Gators out of a bowl, but it got lucky to see Florida sans Spurrier in 2002 and duck Spurrier's last great team in 2001, and wasn't really in national title contention when Florida was good apart from the span from 2000 to 2003.
Overall, Florida's been a better team for more of the last 25 years since the first fall without a Florida-Miami game, and Florida would've been just fine with a series with the 'Canes from a football standpoint, as the Gators' biggest successes wouldn't have been threatened by replacing Middle Tennessee State or Western Michigan with Miami. The Florida-Miami series may be ending for reasons that give 'Canes fans room to crow about the Gators' fear, but it seems to me like Florida would've been able to do a lot more taunting over the last 25 years had the series continued.