What qualifies as normal in 2020? To get a brief idea, there might not be a better example than the latest installment of the heated rivalry between Florida State and Miami, set for Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App) in South Florida.
Let’s check in first with Florida State. In Tallahassee, head coach Mike Norvell is in isolation at home because he has the coronavirus. He watches practice through live video feeds and talks to his team through speakers strategically placed around the field, oftentimes startling his players because they know he’s not there, yet (cue “The Twilight Zone” theme music) … he’s there.
“Normal? No,” Seminoles tight end Camren McDonald said via Zoom. “2020 normal? Yes.”
Let’s move on to Miami. After the No. 12 Hurricanes posted its third-highest point total in a road game against an AP-ranked opponent in the AP poll era this past Saturday, pundits across the country used the dreaded “B word” to ask whether the Miami was finally … BACK. Checks box score to see who Miami beat to get such discussion going … and … oh … Louisville. Last season, Miami beat Louisville 52-27 in one of its only highlights from a dreadful 6-7 season.
But alas, such is the desperation to get back to any sort of normal. Norvell desperately wanting to be with his team in the biggest week of the year gets him a little closer to normal. Banter about Miami being back — an annual rite of passage following any big win, no matter the opponent — gets us a little closer to normal.
“You know how silly that is, but we do know we live in that world,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “We’re the worst or the best and there’s usually not much in between. What we talk about is what’s real. We have another game; we have to go beat Florida State.
“We’re 120 minutes into this deal, and I’m not going to run up a hill and put a flag in the ground saying this is who we are now. That is all still to be determined.”
If we are being honest here, there really has been nothing normal about this series in recent years, and that is saying something for a rivalry that has featured:
1. The near arrest of the Miami Ibis mascot before a game in Tallahassee.
2. The sheer inconceivability that Florida State could miss a field goal not once, not twice, but three times — all wide right — to cost them a victory in three different games (not to mention their national championship hopes twice).
In rivalry games, we all embrace the unexpected and inexplicable; it is what makes them so fun. But over the past few years, this once front-and-center rivalry has become even stranger. There have been no championship implications, either conference or national; just two average teams playing average football.
Last season, Miami beat the Seminoles so badly in Tallahassee, Florida State fired coach Willie Taggart the following day after 21 games — deciding a $17 million buyout and further financial distress was worth it to try to save the program from future embarrassment.
Then this season, Florida State lost its opener against Georgia Tech, at home, as a double-digit favorite. New coach? Check. But the same old issues have plagued this program since Jimbo Fisher walked out in 2017.
With Norvell watching from home on Saturday, Florida State will have its fourth head coach in seven games along the sidelines — Taggart; interim coach Odell Haggins to finish off 2019; Norvell in the opener; and now acting head coach Chris Thomsen, who normally coaches the tight ends and said repeatedly all week that practices and meetings have been “as close to normal as possible.” Tell that to the seniors who are now on their sixth head coach since 2017, if you count Haggins taking over for the final two games after Fisher left. This is a program, by the way, that had Bobby Bowden at the helm for 34 seasons.
Miami is in Year 2 under Diaz following its own bizarre coaching situation. After Mark Richt unexpectedly announced his retirement following the 2018 season, Miami hired Diaz — 18 days after Diaz left to become head coach at Temple. Aside from the Florida State and Louisville wins, Year 1 was a disaster, and humiliating losses to Florida International and Louisiana Tech (not normal!) drew the ire of Miami fans.
The Hurricanes do appear better than they were a year ago, but as Diaz says, proclamations are foolhardy right now. Sure, Miami enters the contest ranked, but this game has lost so much luster that the headlines going into the weekend all focus on the return of the SEC. Florida State-Miami feels like an afterthought, and that is just sad for college football at large.
What happens Saturday night is going to feel even more abnormal with the coronavirus as the backdrop. College GameDay will be in town (sorta normal!) without raucous fans as a backdrop (definitely not normal). Miami tailgates before Florida State games are epic affairs, where the No. 1 piece of advice is to watch where you step as you walk from the parking lot into the stadium. But tailgating won’t be permitted, and only 13,000 fans — and no students — will be allowed in the stands, taking away the one game every two years where Miami has an absolute home-field advantage.
Not many are giving Florida State a chance to win, but given the strange times we are in, stranger things have happened. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Florida State and Miami have played an FBS-high 16 games decided by one score since 2000, and three were decided by a single point.
When you stop and think about it, a Florida State upset win would certainly fit the narrative that has followed this series into 2020.
“Hearing what Coach Norvell had to say, I just changed my mindset and thought about it as an opportunity for us go down there with even more cards stacked against us and go down there and shock the world,” McDonald said. “I feel like we have a big opportunity this week.”
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