MIAMI -- Scott Covington came to Miami with the belief he could win a national title. Five years later, he leaves with no ring but secure in the knowledge that he helped lay the path for future years of excellence.
The 24th-ranked Hurricanes, aiming to rejoin college football's elite after three years of NCAA sanctions, can take another step in that direction by beating North Carolina State in Tuesday night's Micron PC Bowl.
Regardless of the outcome, the 1998 season is likely to go down as a pivotal one in Miami annals.
"The guys in this program have been through a lot," said Covington, Miami's senior quarterback. "We should be proud of the way we've brought this place back."
Beating N.C. State would give Miami nine wins this season, equaling the mark of two years ago and signifying a nearly complete recovery from scholarship reductions that raided the Hurricanes of their depth.
Things bottomed out last year when Miami went 5-6, its first losing record since 1979. Few of the current Hurricanes were out of diapers back then.
"Coming off last year was tough, but we came back," cornerback Delvin Brown said. "The UCLA game gave us some national respect. Now we don't want to lose it."
The Hurricanes (8-3) thrust themselves back into the nation's awareness by stunning previously unbeaten UCLA 49-45 to end the regular season. Now they face an N.C. State team which owns wins over two of the three teams that beat them.
The Wolfpack (7-4) is the only team to knock off No. 2 Florida State, a 24-7 upset in September. They also beat Big East champion Syracuse 38-17.
"They beat two teams that we've got a great deal of respect for," Miami coach Butch Davis said.
Miami must find a way to slow down All-America wide receiver Torry Holt, whose 145.8 yards per game ranks second nationally. He has eight 100-yard games this season, including a 255-yard effort against Baylor and 225 yards with four touchdowns against Clemson.
By contrast, the Hurricanes have given up 100-yard games to eight opposing receivers this season. That includes two games in which two receivers each reached triple digits.
"Hopefully we can get the same kind of thing," said Holt, whose 1,604 yards on 88 catches is 47 percent of the Wolfpack's total passing output.
Miami will be without its top cornerback; Leonard Myers still isn't fully healed from a torn meniscus in his left knee. The starting secondary is likely to consist of one first-year freshman, two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore.
"We look upon it as a challenge for us," said cornerback Markese Fitzgerald, a redshirt freshman. "You can't expect to keep (Holt) from having any catches. That's impossible. But it'll be a good game if we can go out and not give up 300 yards passing."
The Hurricanes can produce their own fireworks on offense, their 402 points the most of any Miami team this decade. Tailback Edgerrin James set a school record with 1,416 yards rushing, his average of 128.7 yards per game good for eighth in the nation.
Covington ranks 14th in passing efficiency, throwing for 2,301 yards with 19 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. The Hurricanes are unbeaten this year when amassing more than 400 yards total offense.
"I see the best offense I've seen all year, and that includes Florida State," N.C. State linebacker Clayton White said. "They come out and have the mindset that they're going to do what they want to do."