CORAL GABLES (AP) — Here's how Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder gets through 110-yard sprints in Tallahassee's searing heat: He thinks of Sept. 7.
Here's how Miami running back Graig Cooper rises for early morning workouts without needing an alarm: He thinks of Sept. 7.
Sure enough, the countdown to Labor Day – and the season-opening, prime-time, nationally televised showdown, Miami at Florida State – is already under way on the Sunshine State's northern and southern tips. So when the Hurricanes and Seminoles start training camp this week, it'll be no secret about which game will weigh heaviest on their collective minds.
“We love that the first game is Miami,” Ponder said. “It definitely helps to use as motivation through the summer. Summer can be long, but when you have a first game like that it really helps, and during two-a-days when camp starts having them right off the bat really keeps guys focused on what they need to do. It's a great rivalry game.”
No, these teams aren't exactly locks to be in the national championship picture any more: Florida State's last title was in 1999, Miami's in 2001, and both programs have watched the other member of the state's so-called “Big 3'' – the Florida Gators – win two of the past three crowns and seem like a shoo-in for the role of preseason No. 1 this season.
That doesn't minimize the matchup's importance.
Quite the contrary, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.
“If you want to win a national championship,” Bowden said, winking his right eye for emphasis, “you better win this game.”
A year ago, there was no true sense of urgency for either club to be razor-sharp at the start of the season.
Florida State's 2008 campaign opened with Western Carolina, a predictably easy matchup where the Seminoles won 69-0, the most lopsided margin in the program's history. Miami enjoyed a cakewalk as well, topping Charleston Southern 52-7.
Chances are, Sept. 7 will give both teams a bit of a truer test.
“It's an opportunity to see where we're at as a football team,” Miami coach Randy Shannon said. “We accept that challenge.''
His team has a slew of challenges to open this season. Cupcakes need not apply.
Perhaps the most brutal opening four-game stretch in the nation awaits Miami this fall. After Florida State, the Hurricanes play, in order, Georgia Tech, defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Virginia Tech, and last season's BCS runner-up Oklahoma.
“Yes, we need to be ready for the first game,” Miami left tackle Jason Fox said. “And we need to be ready for all of them.”
Florida State and Miami met to open the season in 2004, 2005 and 2006 – all of those games dominated by defense. The Hurricanes got a touchdown in the final minute of regulation before winning the '04 game 16-10 in overtime; Florida State answered with a 10-7 win in 2005 and a 13-10 victory in 2006.
If those are any indication, don't look for a reprise of last year's wild, 41-39 shootout Florida State win this time around.
“They're always tough games, they're always close games, people are going to be there, it's going to be crazy,” Miami defensive back Chavez Grant said. “We know everybody's going to be watching, so that does a lot more for your psyche.”
None of the last eight Miami-Florida State meetings have been decided by more than eight points, a stretch starting with the Hurricanes' 28-27 win in the 2002 season – a game where Xavier Beitia's 43-yard field goal at the end of regulation went wide left, the fourth time since 1991 that a missed kick cost the Seminoles a chance to beat their rival.
It's a series oozing with that kind of drama.
“There's something about Florida football that just brings out the beast in everybody,” Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson said. “I'm talking about from the coaches to the fans to the people who don't even watch football. When Florida State and Miami are playing, it's just a big-time game.”