Sixteen games into the Mark Richt era, No. 13 Miami looks on its way back.
The Hurricanes' eight-game win streak is the fourth longest active run in the country. An offense putting up 41 points per game isn't even the most impressive unit on the team; the defensive front is as relentless as any outside of Clemson and Alabama.
But for The U to truly be back — back in the championship hunt, back in the national conversation, back swaggering among the sport's biggest brands — it must take the next step Saturday.
Beat Florida State.
Stop the seven-year losing skid to the Seminoles. Top Jimbo Fisher for the first time. Prove that UM is the best team in the state.
If the 'Canes are going to end the streak anytime soon, this is the year to do it. The struggles in Tallahassee won't last forever.
FSU quarterback James Blackman might be Fisher's next NFL-bound passer, but for now he's a skinny-as-a-goal post true freshman making his third career start. The Seminoles' offensive line is bruised in more ways than one after allowing 17 tackles for a loss last week. No team in the country has forced fewer turnovers than FSU (two).
And while Miami doesn't get moral victories in a rivalry this heated, UM knows it has been close each of the past three years. Brad Kaaya outplayed Jameis Winston in 2014. The 'Canes led with 10 minutes left in Tallahassee in 2015. Miami was a blocked extra point away from forcing overtime last year.
But each time, the 'Canes faded late. Since Fisher took over FSU in 2010, the Seminoles have outscored UM 108-84 in the first half and 113-55 in the second.
"They've been good for about every year we've played them," Fisher said.
But not this good.
Running back Mark Walton is an all-ACC talent two weeks removed from the seventh 200-yard game in school history. Receiver Ahmmon Richards had 106 yards last week in his first game back from a hamstring injury. Seven players have at least one sack on a defense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss (9 per game) and sacks (3.3 per game).
And those second-half stumbles might be disappearing. Miami has outscored its last two opponents (Toledo and Duke) 56-14 over the final two quarters.
Although Richt knows all about the importance of this rivalry — he played at UM and started his coaching career at FSU — he is downplaying its significance.
"The bottom line is, we're trying to win the Coastal (Division)," Richt told reporters Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
He's right. Before the 'Canes can again challenge for conference or national titles, they must first win the Coastal — something they have (incredibly) still never done.
But Richt should also know that finally beating FSU would mean more than blowing out Duke.
FSU's depth chart features nine south Florida natives UM recruited but couldn't land, including blue-chip defensive end Brian Burns, five-star linebacker Matthew Thomas and preseason All-America cornerback Tarvarus McFadden. How will the 'Canes keep up with the 'Noles on the recruiting trail if they continue to stay behind them on the scoreboard?
How can Miami expect to compete for championships if it's the second-best ACC team in its own state? How can it return to national relevance if it keeps losing its biggest game of the year?
"Rivalry games are important," Richt said. "They're better rivalries when there's some winning and losing on both sides. And that hasn't happened lately."
If Miami is going to get back to being The U, that has to change.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.