No one young enough to be a college player could well remember the days when Miami’s teams stalked the landscape breathing fire and exuding intimidation, when the program won five national titles between 1983 and 2002.
Since the Hurricanes won the national title after the 2001 season — featuring a roster so crammed with N.F.L. prospects that it eventually produced 17 first-round picks — and endured a devastating overtime loss to Ohio State in the national title game a year later, the Hurricanes have been in the wilderness, mired in coaching changes and mediocre records.
“I had an older brother and he talked to me about when he first got here, The U was back on the rise,” said left tackle K.C. McDermott, a senior and the younger brother of Miami’s center from 2012 through 2014.
“This wasn’t just a one-year thing,” he added. “This has taken years, and taken blood, sweat and tears out of a lot of recruits.”
When Mark Richt was fired in 2015 after a long and successful tenure at Georgia, the Miami job pulled at the former quarterback who had backed up Jim Kelly at The U.
“When I decided to continue to coach, I really did want to enjoy it — I wanted to have fun,” Richt said. “And what better place than Miami can you have some fun?”
With the arrival this week of a showcase game against Notre Dame — not only a significant obstacle this season, but one of Miami’s most bitter rivals — former Miami players appeared like the ghosts of championships past. Ed Reed, the former safety for the Baltimore Ravens, attended practice every day last week, and on Saturday night he joined ex-Hurricanes-turned-N.F.L. stars Warren Sapp and Clinton Portis on the sideline pregame as living monuments to better times, trying to show current players the way to a similar future.
“Those guys actually did it,” said linebacker Shaq Quarterman, a sophomore, “so how could you not take heed in what they’re saying?”
And now, The U is back.
Ranked No. 7 entering Saturday by the committee that determines the four-team College Football Playoff, Miami improved to 9-0 by handing the Irish their second defeat. Miami is set to face defending champion Clemson (9-1), ranked 4th, in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Dec. 2, with the winner all but certain to be invited to the national semifinals.
The postseason picture came into firmer relief Saturday even before Miami’s victory over Notre Dame. No. 1 Georgia (9-1) lost at No. 10 Auburn (8-2) earlier Saturday, a serious blow to the Bulldogs’ aspirations and a lift for the Tigers, who face Alabama in two weeks. Stanford’s upset of No. 9 Washington (8-2) on Friday night most likely ended the Pacific-12’s chance at the playoff.
The clearing of the field most conspicuously aided No. 7 Wisconsin (10-0), partially neutralizing its soft schedule. But it also set up the annual game between Auburn and Alabama (10-0) as the most consequential Iron Bowl since the 2013 iteration, of Kick-Six fame.
The Fighting Irish dropped to 8-2, with their No. 3 seed in The Associated Press poll and the playoff rankings due for a serious readjustment. While frequently derided as (to quote Miami’s crowd during the second half) “overrated,” Notre Dame entered Saturday with wins over two ranked teams and a loss to a third, Georgia, by a single point, and it arrived with the country’s seventh-best scoring offense, averaging more than 41 points per game.
For a game with clear and severe playoff implications, much of the pregame chatter tended in the direction of mythology.
Notre Dame and Miami were once yearly rivals, and in the late 1980s played several games that defined the entire season nationally. Their ostensibly divergent identities — the Irish as pious Midwestern schoolboys; the Hurricanes as bold, athletic and steeped in hip-hop culture — were crystallized in a Notre Dame fan-made T-shirt that summarized the rivalry as “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
The dynamic was exaggerated even then (and also loaded with ugly racial subtext). College football has deracinated since those days, with teams’ ties to place and culture evaporating in a fog of national broadcast deals and coast-to-coast recruiting. Such extratextual contrivances are now mainly ways for teams and fans to imagine communities.
This year, for instance, Miami brought out the turnover chain, a heavy hunk of Cuban link chain that goes to defensive players who steal the ball from the offense. It harks back not only to past defensive Hurricanes standouts like Sapp, Reed and Sean Taylor, but to Miami’s culture of unsubtle audacity.
The turnover chain changed hands several times Saturday night, beginning in the first quarter, when the junior safety Jaquan Johnson picked off Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, and peaking when cornerback Trajan Bandy, a true freshman who like so many Miami stars past is a South Florida native, jumped a route just before the end of the first half, caught a Notre Dame pass in stride and returned it 65 yards to give Miami a 27-0 halftime lead.
He happily slipped on the chain for his turn with it, but The U aspires to a different piece of jewelry this season.
“We’re not back,” said quarterback Malik Rosier, a redshirt junior, “‘til there’s a ring on my finger.”