Miami awoke from its midseason slumber on Saturday, in the less than hospitable confines of Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., against the hometown Volunteers. The Vols are suffering through a season of underachievement, but with a crowd of nearly 108,000 on hand they had a shot at dealing the ‘Canes their first loss of the season.

Didn’t happen.

In perhaps its finest game of the season, Miami got its groove back. Limiting Tennessee to 218 total yards of offense (102 of which came on two plays, the other 116 over the course of 56 others), Miami’s suspect rushing defense restored its legitimacy, took the crowd out of the game and vaulted the Hurricanes back into a familiar role — BCS championship favorites.

But one week ago it seemed that the ‘Canes were on their way out of the national championship race.

Coming off “Missed Kick IV” against Florida State and a more difficult than expected tussle with feisty West Virginia (a game that was tied through three quarters), the world of college football was beginning to wonder just how much gas was left in the Miami Hurricanes’ tank.

Undefeated? Yes. College football’s best? Questionable. What better remedy for such a sickness than to take a little road trip to New Brunswick, N.J. and play perennial Big East doormat, Rutgers?

On paper, the smaller, slower, greener Rutgers team (1-7, with their lone win against lowly Army) really had no business being on the same field with the defending national champions. Staying within 40 points of the vaunted Hurricanes would likely have been a moral victory. Here was Miami’s perfect chance to get its rush defense — torched for more than 300 yards by both Florida State and West Virginia — on track, to re-activate its offense, and to re-affix its stamp as college football’s best.

Someone forgot to tell Rutgers. For three quarters, delineating champ from chump would have been difficult, for the Scarlet Knights, riding on emotion and adrenaline-infused waves of momentum, were in front as the fourth quarter began. A 28-point fourth quarter by the ‘Canes silenced the Knights 42-17, but not the critics.

For the third week in a row, Miami looked like just another average college football team. And because of that, the Associated Press removed Miami from the top spot in its poll for the first time in 20 weeks, Ohio State leapfrogged the ‘Canes in the BCS, and Miami’s ever-growing community of naysayers turned the volume of their rant up another notch — awfully harsh treatment for a defending national championship squad that was riding a 30-game winning streak.

Amidst all the media negativity, even Miami players were questioning each other. “The guys last year knew what it took to win football games and knew what it took to be national champions. This year, if we don’t fix what we need to fix, we’ll find ourselves talking about it come Jan. 3, while we’re watching the [national championship] game,” ‘Canes center Brett Romberg said in an Associated Press interview.

Such harsh words coming from a fellow Hurricane? That had to be a wake-up call for at least a few people on Miami’s bench.

Let’s keep some things in perspective, though. Not all was wrong in south Florida.

Inevitably, at some point along its path toward the BCS title game, a national championship team will stumble. An entire fall — 12 or 13 weeks — is an eternity for a group of 18- to 22-year-old young men to maintain focus, desire and anticipation, not to mention perfection on the field. The key is whether they find their feet after stumbling or come crashing to the ground.

Here’s why the Hurricanes’ win against Rutgers was a temporary stumble and their subsequent win against Tennessee could very well be their first step in the final stretch run for a second consecutive national championship:

1. In 1998, Clint Stoerner’s fumble in the waning moments gift-wrapped a Tennessee win over Arkansas and saved the Vols’ season.

2. In 1999, Michael Vick’s incredible fourth down scramble, punctuated by his hurdle-step out of bounds put Virginia Tech into fieldgoal range for a dramatic come-from-behind win at West Virginia.

3. In 2000, Oklahoma’s defense clamped down in the final minute to deny rival Oklahoma State the endzone on four successive plays.

4. And, in 2001, a well-timed interception against Boston College and a dropped Virginia Tech two-point conversion preserved Miami’s undefeated campaign.

Top to bottom, there is too much talent in college football to reasonably expect a team to simply slice through its schedule like a sharp knife through butter. There will be hiccups.

Nine days ago, eight major college football teams remained undefeated, looking for BCS glory. In Shakedown Saturday last week, Notre Dame, Georgia, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State bowed under the pressure. This past Saturday, two more dropped from the mix — including Oklahoma, everyone’s favorite. Not present on that list? The Miami Hurricanes.

An estimated 50 Hurricanes have never tasted defeat while wearing the Miami orange and green and another 20 have not felt it since early in the 2000 season. Some of the wins over that 26-month time span have been ugly, while others just were downright lucky. Nevertheless, the bottom line remains the same — they keep coming, to the tune of 31 in a row — the seventh longest streak in Division I-A history.

With tough tests at home against upstart Pittsburgh and struggling Virginia Tech — incomprehensibly on a two-game losing skid — and away at Syracuse, Miami has far from punched its ticket to the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. However, after this past weekend, it appears the sleeping giant has awakened — in time to serve notice that at least right now, all roads to Tempe, Ariz., site of the Fiesta Bowl, run through south Florida.