The Seminoles' annual showdown against Miami used to represent the first mile marker on the road to a possible national championship.
Although the Seminoles and Hurricanes are both ranked coming into tonight's renewal of their rivalry for the first time since the 2006 season opener, they both have a loss to a more legitimate title contender, as does the state's most recent big-stage player, Florida. So the mythical state title isn't likely to lead to a spot in the BCS finale.
But if the No. 23 Seminoles (4-1, 2-0 ACC) were to beat No. 13 Miami (3-1, 1-0), it would be the first sign that the Seminoles were regaining relevance within their own borders and within the ACC, for that matter. And it would be the first encouraging sign that they're again driving toward national relevance.
"It's a huge game, and it does mean a lot," first-year FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "It can help us grow to where we want to grow and go to where we want to go, and that's one of the reasons you come to Florida State, to play in this game. We want to get back up there."
During their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive top-5 finishes from 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles were 19-11-1 against state opponents (Miami, UF and UCF). But since then, the Seminoles are 5-15 against their intrastate rivals.
That includes an 0-3 mark last season, with losses to the Hurricanes, Gators and Bulls. Those three results contributed to coach Bobby Bowden's career ending a year earlier than he wanted or expected.
"They define a coach, and they define players," ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit said of a rivalry game such as this one. "When Florida State-and-Miami week comes around, how many times do you hear the 'Wide Right' references? There are memories that we, as fans, have that last for generations."
Just ask Fisher.
While playing at Samford for Terry Bowden in 1987, he closely monitored FSU scores. Even during his own games. And especially when the Seminoles and 'Canes met that season in what he calls his "biggest least favorite" edition of the rivalry. To this day, he cringes a bit when he recalls Miami's dramatic 26-25 win. The 'Canes were down 19-3 but rallied and held on for the win when Bowden elected to go for two after FSU scored a last-minute touchdown.
Miami went on to win the second of its five national championships that season. Its fourth title came in 1991, thanks in large part to beating the Seminoles 17-16 in a matchup that lived up to its hype.
The game wasn't decided until Gerry Thomas missed a 34-yard field goal in the final minute, which made "Wide Right" part of the college football lexicon. Bowden later quipped that folks should chisel on his tombstone that "He played Miami," a reference to other powers such as Notre Dame, Penn State and, yes, Florida, dropping the 'Canes from their schedules while he continued to play them annually.
The games were that riveting, the implications that far-reaching. While the game hasn't shaped the national title picture in recent years, it has been as hard-fought as ever. The last nine games have been decided by an average of 4.1 points.
"When you have a chance to play that type of game and (a win) happens, it's always something special," said Miami coach Randy Shannon, who beat FSU in his first season (2007).
Make no mistake. Both teams are looking for a high point this year. FSU flopped in its first big game, losing at then-No. 10 Oklahoma 47-17 on Sept. 11. That was the same day Miami lost at No. 2 Ohio State 36-24. And although this won't be the Seminoles' last chance to show the world where they are, this is an opportunity to make in-roads in their backyard with their fans and possibly with high school stars.
"This is big for FSU," ESPN recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. "They don't want to be deemed as the No. 3 team in the state. They want to beat Miami. They want to be beat Florida. That goes a long way when you're in December and January and you can say (to prospects): 'Hey, we did this against our archrivals.' "
A major mile marker, indeed.
"Coaches want to be known for winning big games, (for) being able to beat your rivals," Fisher said. "That's a measuring stick. It should be. That's one of the reasons you want to be at Florida State, to be measured in those circumstances."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347. Follow his reports at seminoles.tampabay.com.