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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In recent weeks we have turned a critical eye toward the University of Miami. We have become preoccupied with discovering what the Hurricanes are not and, now, it seems abundantly clear.
They are not Oklahoma, for instance. Nor are they Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Georgia. Finally, it is safe to say, they are not even Bowling Green.
You see, the Hurricanes sputter but do not stall. They may stumble, but rarely fall. Nine days ago, there were eight unbeaten teams. Today, there are two. Now who, really, is surprised Miami is among them?
"There were people who were ready to write us off as maybe the third- or fourth-best team in the country," safety Maurice Sikes said. "Come on, let's be honest. Let's be real."
So, yes, nitpick if you wish. Complain about this and carp about that. When it comes to the Hurricanes, the spite is the limit.
But, eventually, a team's record has to be considered.
And you must admit perfection, as a concept, is a darned fine idea.
This is all the Hurricanes are saying. When it comes to losing, they have a zero tolerance policy. They proved it again Saturday by showing up for Tennessee's homecoming and dancing the night away with a 26-3 victory.
"These things don't surprise me," coach Larry Coker said of the incredible shrinking national championship picture.
"Ten days ago, there were numerous (unbeaten) teams and nowhere for all of them to go. Now we have two. It comes down to us taking care of business. I've always thought, if we do, we're going to be in Tempe (Ariz., for the Fiesta Bowl)."
It seems silly now. All this fuss about a lack of emotion against Rutgers. Or a mundane effort against West Virginia. The Hurricanes have been marching toward glory and we were chastising them for stepping on too many cracks.
Okay, so they are not always disciplined. And, it's true, they occasionally overlook details. The first, second and third quarters, for example.
But, in the past two seasons, no team has been better at closing the deal. Actually, no team in the past 30 seasons.
Miami's 31-game winning streak has moved beyond impressive and is flirting with historic. If you are prone to dismiss a 35-game winning steak by Toledo from 1969-71, and I am, then you must go back to Oklahoma's legendary 47 in a row in the 1950s before finding a more fitting ode to perfection.
A decade ago, we complained Miami was too flamboyant in victory. Now the 'Canes were being penalized for lacking pizzazz in victory.
Perhaps they have been less than overwhelming in recent victories, but you must step back and view the larger picture.
In their past three non-conference games, the Hurricanes have beaten Tennessee, Florida State and Florida. While admittedly having down seasons, those three teams combined to win four of the past 10 national championships.
"There's only one team that can beat us. And that's us," Sikes said. "If we keep our focus, no one else can do it."
That theme was familiar in the locker room. The Hurricanes have come to realize they are their own worst enemy.
They have come close to giving games away because they haven't taken them seriously enough. After so many wins in succession, the Canes were trying to take shortcuts to victory.
"I think we had a little bit of a cancer in here," said center Brett Romberg, who addressed the issue in a team meeting before Rutgers. "If somebody didn't step up and say something, our season would have been lost.
"It was just too much winning. Too many guys reading papers and watching TV. Players do that. It happens. That's probably what happened to Oklahoma. They just got too much smoke blown up their (rears)."
For Miami, Oklahoma's loss to Texas A&M Saturday was only slightly less critical than the victory against Tennessee. The Sooners are the one team Miami should approach with caution.
Or, to put it another way:
If Ohio State remains the only other unbeaten, Miami should start planning a spring trip to the White House.
Here, then, is the worst-case scenario for the Hurricanes, assuming they are not upset in their final three games:
Oklahoma, after Saturday's loss, does not fall behind Texas or Washington State in the polls. Michigan then beats Ohio State and Oklahoma comes back to win the Big 12 Championship Game.
That should put Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl opposite the Hurricanes and we would have the best national championship game possible.
In the meantime, the Miami Hurricanes will try to muddle by.
Maybe not always with precision. Perhaps with a scare or two on the way.
But always, it seems, with a victory.