Today, at noon, or a few minutes after, Florida will play what is likely to be its final regular season game against Miami for the forseeable future on ESPN.
And it will feel like an end and a beginning.
Florida and Miami had a rivalry that burned hottest before I was born in 1990. 49 of the lifetime matchups between the two teams happened before then, before an almost-annual series (World War II pre-empted a 1943 contest) was ended, mostly to permit the Gators to go on to the work of winning the SEC and aiming for a national title. Miami was the little brother then, and, as Howard Schnellenberger noted, was something of an upstart when it beat Florida and Florida State to claiming the Sunshine State's first national championship.
'Miami's lack of resources was ameliorated in part by big games against Florida and FSU every year that filled the Orange Bowl and helped stake the 'Canes' claim to primacy in Florida. It wasn't and isn't the same as having Florida's alumni base or powerful boosters, but Miami ruled South Florida recruiting for a long time by making itself the "cool" team in college sports, as arrogant as a team could be, and Miami fans will forever regard the '80s as a golden era.
Many of those same Miami fans have spent a week telling me of Florida's arrogance and nefariousness, as if every mirror in South Florida and all of the far-flung places that non-alumni 'Canes hail from broke last Sunday. Miami, the institution, played fast and loose with the rules on the field and off in the '80s and under Butch Davis, and has been burned twice because of it; Florida, the institution, has cultivated a reputation as one of the NCAA's model programs in the time since Jeremy Foley rose to the athletic director's chair, though its players have been less law-abiding off the field, and some of its coaches more tolerant of that recklessness.
Florida, over the last seven years, became the closest thing to what Miami fans loved most in their formative years, winning titles and inspiring a nation's polarized love and hate, while Miami became a knockoff Wake Forest, churning out 7-6 seasons in the ACC.
Today, the 'Canes have a chance to change their image, and the Gators a chance to leave Miami in the hole it has rolled over in for years now.
Florida comes in as the better team, having recovered from a two-year slide in 2012 and established an identity it hopes will be a blueprint for success going forward. The Gators run it, and run it, and run it, and throw it when necessary, and grind offenses to gristle with a defense that leans on its foes.
Miami comes in as the upstart, with question marks surrounding how its talented quarterback and running back play in big games, how well its highly-regarded offensive line will hold up against an SEC defense, and how much its recently porous defense (377 points allowed in 2012!) has improved. Rare among elite teams, Miami must also worry about how much of its home-field advantage is siphoned off by enemy fans buying tickets at any price to see their team take a win from at least the shadow of a great program.
And the game is at noon, in South Florida, in September. It not might be the hottest ticket in college football this week, or the hottest property in college football broadcasting — Michigan and Notre Dame play the spotlight game of the day, the one that shunted Florida-Miami to noon, while Georgia and South Carolina play at 4:30 in the most consequential game of the early season so far — but it might be hotter than hell, especially in the upper-deck seats where so many exiled Gators will be, or rainy like a summer day, given the storm clouds gathering in South Florida this morning.
I think Florida will win this game, whether pretty or ugly, by either using the elements of its improved and more balanced offense to gut Miami's improved but not nearly impenetrable defense, or by sticking to its defensive, ball control-based blueprint and leaving the Hurricanes to starve without air. If Miami wins, I'll bet Florida will have been more than a little complicit in losing, making the sorts of mistakes that run counter to what this team has become under Will Muschamp in the last 18 months.
This is where Florida is, and where Miami is, right now: The Gators sit among the top two or three rungs of the college football hierarchy, and Miami a couple rungs down. This is not hating, or trolling; it's an honest assessment of two teams with different national perceptions.
Miami fans, Miami coaches, and Miami players all know that today is the opportunity to climb a rung by grabbing the ankle of a team they see when they look up. They will be ready, roaring, relentless.
Florida knows all that. It would have been impossible for the Gators to miss that this week, as Miami fans attempted to reassert their relevance with varying results. And the Gators have remained remarkably unimpressed by the hubbub, with Ronald Powell delivering the line that may as well be a mantra in the locker room after last week's game against Toledo: "It's a big game 'cause we in it."
That attitude was not the one Florida's 2012 team, for all its virtues, lived by: Those Gators played up to knock off Texas A&M and LSU and Florida State, and played down to Louisiana and Missouri. Many of those Gators are still around. Many of them have learned from last year.
And that's important, because today is an opportunity for Florida, too. The Gators looked like paper tigers against a Louisville ambush in the Sugar Bowl, and while the hangover hasn't lasted for the players or coaches, the national perception of Florida has held fast to the skepticism engendered by that night. From Kirk Herbstreit picking Toledo to upset Florida last week and selecting the Gators to end the season unranked to Lou Holtz and Mark May taking Miami this week, pundits got a second chance to doubt Florida after a 2012 season spent doing it and being proven wrong.
Florida's been here before, in other words. And it's dispersed the dark clouds almost every time, clearing them to make the sunshine its own.
In heat or rain, and in all kinds of weather, we all stick together, and I will cheer for this team. But I believe in this team deeply, too. And today, at game's end, I believe we'll be saying the thing that feels great every time, but best after a Florida win:
It's great to be a Florida Gator.