September 3, 2021

CAN MANNY DIAZ AND MIAMI HURRICANES MAKE EARLY SEASON STATEMENT?

Year three of the Manny Diaz era is about to get under way with the Miami—and the ultimate challenge awaits the Hurricanes, who take on college football’s Goliath this weekend in Atlanta; the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

Historically year three is make-or-break for new head coaches, as their fingerprints are officially on the program—most having two full recruiting classes by this point, while wrapping up whatever class there predecessor had coming in and putting together pieces for what will be year four.

The program’s culture is either getting better or worse by this point, while upperclassmen are either becoming who they were supposed to be, or aren’t buying into what the new guy is selling and they check out.

Diaz’s first two seasons at “The U” have been a mixed bag on the field—a 14-10 run, with no real signature victory—outside a 52-10 pasting on a putrid Florida State program that went 3-6 during last year’s COVID-hijacked season.

However, there have been some signature losses—most-notably a disastrous loss to lowly Florida International in November 2019, where the Canes ended the year with a three-game losing stream, falling to Duke and getting shut out by Louisiana Tech in a no-name bowl.

Miami got out to an 8-1 start in 2020, by way of a few late rallies and comebacks—the one loss coming at Clemson, where the juggernaut Tigers took down the Hurricanes in an understandable men-versus-the-boys fashion.

What didn’t make sense; Miami’s home finale no-show against North Carolina, with an ACC Coastal Division title on the line. COVID ravaged the Canes’ coaching staff the week-of, and players were said to have been off-kilter as a result of the chaos—but neither forgives a 62-24 pasting, where North Carolina rang up UM for 778 total yards—554 on the ground, by way of two purpose-driven running backs.

To Diaz’s credit, both nationally embarrassing moments sparked much-needed change—which soon followed.

LEARNING ON THE JOB; MAKING MOVES

The anemic offense in 2019 resulted in the firing of offensive coordinator Dan Enos—while a sub-par defensive outing last fall saw defensive coordinator Blake Baker pushed out the door, as well.

Rhett Lashlee too the offensive reigns in Coral Gables last season and the impact was immediate—also sparked by a Transfer Portal game-changer when former Houston quarterback D’Eriq King chose Miami as his final collegiate stop.

In order to shore up the defense, Diaz decided to don the comfortable defensive coordinator cap again—a job he held at UM for three seasons under former head coach Mark Richt, as well as calling the shots at Texas, Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State in years passed.

Diaz made a few other off-season moves, since a close bowl loss to Oklahoma State last December—an outcome that came after King tore his ACL in the first half, and quarterback N’Kosi Perry was unable to bring it home, despite a valiant effort. (Perry has since transferred to nearby Florida Atlantic.)

A few other coaching changes took place—namely the addition of Travaris Robinson taking over defensive backs, with former coach Mike Rumph moved into a recruiting department role—while former recruiting staffer Demarcus Van Dyke stepped in to coach cornerbacks.

Todd Stroud was also moved into an advisory role, paving the way for Jess Simpson to return as defensive line coach—having spent the past two season in the same role for the Atlanta Falcons.

All coaches have had an immediate impact—in their position, as well as on the recruiting trail—but it’s all theory and one big dress rehearsal until the Hurricanes take the field at 3:30pm ET on Saturday afternoon.

‘THE U’ VS. BAMA—FIRST MEETING SINCE ’92 SUGAR

The Crimson Tide roll in on a 14-game win streak—last losing a rivalry game at Auburn in November 2019. Prior to that, a close call at home, where eventual national champion LSU got the better of Nick Saban, which doesn’t happen often in this current era of college football.

Over the past six seasons, Alabama is a combined 79-6 with three national titles, while Miami has gone 48-27—with three different head coaches, and one lone bowl win, over that same span.

The Crimson Tide was decimated in spring’s NFL Draft—losing quarterback Mac Jones, go-to receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith—as well as lockdown corner Patrick Surtain II, running back Najee Harris, long snapper Thomas Fletcher, offensive linemen Deonte Brown and Landon Dickerson, and defensive MVP of last year’s national championship game, lineman Christian Barmore.

All that to say, Alabama’s last five recruiting classes were ranked #1 (2021), #2 (2020), #1 (2019), #5 (2018) and #1 (2017)—the definition of reloading, not rebuilding. The Tide will plug-and-play some brand new talent this year, but there’s no denying the program-best 10 players who were drafted in spring will leave a short-term hole.

Season opening match-ups like this, in a sport where there is no preseason—is the biggest reason Miami at least has a chance of pulling off an upset this weekend, despite being a 19.5-point underdog. Not to mention the fact that this is the most sound the Hurricanes have looked across the board in years.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is a 5-Star talent and will undoubtedly be the next great gunslinger coming out of that football factory in Tuscaloosa, but there’s no fast-tracking experience and Young will be making his first start against the Diaz coached Hurricanes’ defense this weekend.

Conversely, King rolls in a 24-year old sixth-year senior with 32 starts and 9,570 passing yards under his belt.

CANES’ BEEFING UP ON BOTH SIDES; BIG IMPROVEMENT

The second-year Miami quarterback will also do it with the most-experienced offensive line the Hurricanes have boasted in years—the nation’s most-seasoned, with 190 combined starts between the five. UM returns it’s top eight offensive lineman from last year, as well as UNLV transfer Justice Oluwaseun.

Navaughan Donaldson returns, sitting out most of last year working his way back into playing shape after an ACL injury in 2019—while center Corey Gaynor rolls in with 25 starts under his belt. Zion Nelson and Jakai Clark are the young guns in their third season, each with 21 starts—while DJ Scaife has 31 starts and all compete with Houston transfer and seventh-year senior Jarrid Williams for playing time.

On the ground, it will be a tough-running, three-headed monster for the Canes—with Cam Harris returning for one final go-around, while freshmen Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton are back for their thunder and lighting attack.

Receivers were notorious for some key drops last fall—Dee Wiggins and Mark Pope the biggest culprits—but with more depth in 2021, there are more options to take their reps.

Saturday’s depth chart shows one familiar face—Mike Harley, said to have reinvented himself this off-season—but Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo is starting ahead of Wiggins, with Keyshawn Smith the third starter. Michael Redding III and Xavier Restrepo also cracked the two-deep, but Pope is nowhere to be found.

Tight end Will Mallory replaces the departed Brevin Jordan—which many see as an upgrade, with Mallory more of the prototypical tight end, to Jordan’s tweener size and style.

Defensively the Hurricanes also look sound—Bubba Bolden running it back one more time at safety and the de facto leader on that side of the ball. Miami also welcomes former Georgia corner Tyrique Stevenson back home—the former Southridge product wanting out on Athens and back in on what Diaz and the Canes are cooking. Stevenson will also handle punt return duties on Saturday.

DJ Ivey and Te’Cory Couch were named started, with Stevenson backing both—while Gurvan Hall holds down the safety spot aside Bolden.

Amari Carter returns as striker, Corey Flagg Jr. at middle linebacker and the aggressive Keontra Smith rounds out the middle of the defense at weak side—while former linebacker Zach McCloud has been moved to defensive end, where he and Jahfari Harvey will bookend a combination of Jonathan Ford, Nesta Jade Silvera and Jared Harrison-Hunte at tackle.

Brother of Jose, Andy Borregales takes over kicking duties, while Lou Hedley and his big leg are back at punter—with Harley and Restrepo will return kicks.

A STEP CLOSER TO BACK, OR ANOTHER FALSE START

While that depth chart breakdown was a bit egregious, it was done with reason—rattling off some of the names, depth, experience and additions to the roster—it feels like Miami is slowing undergoing a metamorphosis into contender again.

Lots of work remains; recruiting getting stronger—more 5-Star kids like Leonard Taylor and James Williams grabbing that Canes hat when time to commit—as well as cherry-picking the portal for one-year guys who can come in as difference-makers.

Culture has been a problem at Miami on an off for years—dating back to the Larry Coker declining years and the end of the Randy Shannon era—guys not buying in and upperclassmen having a negative impact on each new crop of kids, setting a bad precedent and kicking off a toxic cycle that wasn’t getting fixed.

Al Golden was a wrong-fit guy from day one, but the Richt era took some of that leftover talent and began shaping it into something special. The Canes took a step forward in 2017, but it really was a house of cards as the lack of stability and quality at quarterback was a massive problem.

Historically, Miami has always been as good as its quarterback—dominate throughout the 80’s and early 90’s with a slew of big names, four national titles and two Heisman winners—but as the position dropped off, so did the wins and competitiveness.

King’s bonus year by way of COVID; it might be the lucky break the Hurricanes have been searching for—an experienced leader and winner with one more chance to be around this program and to shine a light where there had once been darkness. It also allows the future—Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia—to sit behind and learned from a seasoned vet and total pro in King.

Miami literally has a quarterback who is older than second-year San Diego Chargers’ second-year starter Justin Herbert—and those four years at Houston, the well-thought out decision to transfer, his mother’s cancer diagnosis and loss of his father Eric King, in early 2020—how can everyone on this team not look up to and learn from the Hurricanes’ godsend quarterback.

Prior to King’s arrival, it was a two-man battle between Perry and Jarren Williams, whose since transferred to South Florida—the lack of competition leaving both Richt and Diaz in a lesser-of-two-evils situation; Perry unable to unseat Malik Rosier in 2017 and 2018, while Willams got a leg up in 2019—but played musical quarterback chairs with Perry throughout the year.

The Diaz Era kicked off with quarterback uncertainty, as Williams got his first start against Florida in the 2019 season opener—beating out both Perry, and Ohio State transfer / Instagram influencer Tate Martell, whose since taken his talents back home to UNLV.

BIG TIME STATEMENT GAME FALLS FLAT IN 2019

The Gators rolled in hot off a 10-3 season in year one under Dan Mullen, crushing No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl—while the Canes saw a coaching change on the heels of a 7-6 run that had Richt calling it a career; Miami dropping five of their final seven games, as well as a season-opener where the eight-ranked Canes took a healthy beating from No. 25 LSU.

No. 8 Florida was a 10-point favorite over Miami—the spread a show of respect to the long-running in-state rivalry—but most predicted the Gators to roll the Canes in Diaz’s first game.

Instead, Miami took a 13-7 lead into the locker room, fell behind 17-13 in the third quarter, jumped back out to a 20-17 lead and eventually fell 24-20—in a game where fragile kicker Bubba Baxa missed a chip-shot 27-yard field goal that would’ve pushed the lead to six with 9:48 remaining, not long after the erratic Jeff Thomas muffed a late third quarter punt, setting Florida up on the Miami 11-yard line, where the Gators punched it in three plays later.

Had Baxa hit the earlier kick, the Canes would’ve been in position for a makable game-winner in the final moments—but needed seven and were stifled, in a game the offensive line looked more like a turnstile—surrendering seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

Both teams played a sloppy game, but Florida survived and parlayed the outing into a successful 11-2 season—falling only to No. 5 LSU and No. 8 Georgia—but winning the Orange Bowl to close out year two under Mullen.

Conversely, Miami carried their hangover to Chapel Hill—in a quick hole, scrapping back, taking a lead, only to give up a 4th-and-17 to the Tar Heels and a late touchdown in a heartbreaking loss.

The Canes rolled Bethune-Cookman, struggled against Central Michigan, found themselves down 28-0 in an eventual loss to Virginia Tech, beat Virginia, lost in overtime to a 1-5 Georgia Tech squad, only to get big-headed after wins over Pittsburgh, Florida State and Louisville—setting up mortifying losses to FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech.

Diaz started the spring with a WWE-style throw-down at UM’s practice facility—players beating on dummies with “7-6” taped on to them—only to go 6-7 on the year, with arguably the program’s most-embarrassing loss on his resume.

Another rant about where things stood two seasons ago, but with purpose.

Miami and Florida both had their share of early-season jitters and the Canes almost parlayed it into the upset. Had these two teams met later in the year, a safe bet UF would’ve prevailed in stronger fashion—but for that one evening in late August 2019, a UM team that all but gave the game away, went toe-to-toe against an SEC power and was one play away from what would’ve been a season-defining win.

CANES’ EXPERIENCE VERSUS BAMA’S REBUILD

Florida 2019 is no Alabama 2021—but Miami 2021 is also no Canes of 2019—and with King under center, a winning attitude pumping within the program, an offensive line that is night and day from the first group Diaz fielded years back, a safe bet Miami will show up Saturday afternoon in Atlanta.

The pressure is squarely on Saban and Alabama to hit the ground running, as there is a bevy of inexperience across the board—albeit talented, and part of a methodical, dominating program built to to win, while rarely losing.

Can Miami take early advantage of Bama’s learn-on-the-fly ways in the first half? Does Lashlee’s Auburn experience against Saban have any impact (the Tide going 3-1 against the Tigers during the span)?

What about Alabama bringing in Bill O’Brien at offensive coordinator, on the heels of Steve Sarkisian taking the Texas head coaching job? The Tide also introduce Doug Marrone as their new offensive line coach—Kyle Flood heading to Austin with Sark—while plugging in handful of new players there, as well?

All these Crimson Tide intangibles, coupled with the Hurricanes strengths—is it enough to be a tipping point Saturday afternoon? Time will tell, but a safe bet that if Miami is going to pull off a game like this—it’s here and now, before the national champion has time to gel and gets title contender-ready as fall rolls on.

Saban is arguably the best to ever do it—many rebuilds in his career and his teams always ready to go week one, despite the coaching or player personnel that takes place every off-season. The closest a team has come to taking Bama out in a recent opener; Florida State four years ago—in Atlanta, as well.

SELF-IMPLOSION BIGGEST HURDLE TO CLEAR

The Tide were the top dogs and the third-ranked Noles rolled in for what looked like a solid match-up on paper—Florida State a seven-point dog—and for a while, it was a game—until a disastrous seven-play sequence derailed everything for the Seminoles late in the third quarter.

Alabama took a 10-7 halftime lead—catching a break on a missed pass interference call, which would’ve put Florida State up by four. Instead, the Noles settled for a field goal attempt which was blocked. An uneventful third quarter played out, until the final minutes—when a blocked punt set up the Tide at the FSU six-yard line. The Noles clamped down, forcing a field goal and staying within striking distance at 13-7.

Florida State fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Alabama taking over at the 11-yard line, punching it in on the next play and taking a 21-7 lead after a successful two-point conversion.

Injury to insult in this case, when quarterback Deondre Francis—who coughed up two second half interceptions—was sacked from behind and tore his ACL in the process; derailing his and Florida State’s season as the Noles finished 7-6.

For three quarters, the Noles gave the Crimson Tide all it could handle—but gave it away by way of a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, a fumble recovery on a kickoff return, two second half interceptions, as as a football gods first half screw job that took seven points off the board.

Can Miami pull off the unthinkable? Maybe. Maybe not, but there’s zero chance with any type of Florida State implosion, circa 2017—or even the sloppy play in the almost takedown of Florida two years ago.

It’s going to take the Canes’ absolute best, the Tide’s second-best and a level of purpose, passion, belief and execution Miami hasn’t shown since the 41-8 beating laid on Notre Dame four years ago—the Canes as confident as they’ve looked this decade for that one magical night in 2017.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.


The release came across the wire this morning—BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc. (“BioSteel”) announced the signing of Division I quarterback D’Eriq King, making him the brand’s first collegiate name, image and likeness (NIL) deal and first college football ambassador.

A couple of quotes followed; King talking up why this product is imperative to his training—smart about what goes into his body and what not—while co-founder and co-CEO John Celenza praise the Miami Hurricanes’ quarterback as being an ideal brand fit, wishing him well on the season.

BioSteel also lists Patrick Mahomes, Luka Dončić, Ezekiel Elliott, DeAndre Hopkins and Jalen Ramsey as brand ambassadors—as well as some “smaller sport” athletes and the USA Hockey Team—but King is the first college athlete the hydration specialists have signed.

As of July 1st, King already landed sponsorship deals with College Hunks Moving Company, The Wharf (event venue in Miami), Murphy Auto Group and Dreamfield—as well as creating his own logo—a graffiti-like “D-King”, with an orange “1” representing the “i’ in his name; the mark itself emulating a king’s crown.

Six weeks later, King signed on with the Florida Panthers—where he’ll appear at some games, engage with fans on social media and produce digital content for the local NHL franchise.

Safe to say the whole NIL—name, image and likeness—NCAA ruling has played well in King’s favor; as did his decision to sit out his final season at Houston in 2019 (he played in the first four games, before sitting). The decision paved the way to his one-year transfer to Miami—a bonus season granted in 2021, by way of COVID and last fall’s quirky, quarantine-defined, socially distanced season—where the almost 24-year old King decided to return for a sixth season as a college quarterback.

NIL RULING; BLESSING, CURSE, BOTH, OR NEITHER?

There’s a deeper dive to be done on all things NIL—a long-overdue ruling in the eyes of many, though one that still has its detractors.

Terence Moore, a sports journalist and contributor at Forbes admits the NCAA had no choice to comply—but was quick to follow up with the claim it will damage both football and basketball on the collegiate level.

Moore states that the Transfer Portal “is about to go nuts”—the NCAA announcing that players can now transfer once before graduating, without having to sit out a year.

By mid-May a record 1,500+ basketball players declared for the NCAA’s version of free agency—with football expected to see their own version of a mass exodus; playing time no longer the only key query—where can players go to maximize their financial portfolio, which school, city and fan base will result in more followers than another.

On the surface, it all sounds harmless, but Moore believes the modern athlete with the individual mindset is about to go next-level, with winning becoming secondary.

Moore also pointed out the fine print with some schools, versus others—the University of Georgia now allowing their athletes to use the school’s iconic “Power G” logo for endorsements deals—while the University of Tennessee has zero problem with their players displaying the Volunteers’ logo, or brand. Rocky Top for the win with this advantage-giving decision.

The rest of the argument falls rather flimsy—Moore’s mention that athletes will struggle to figure out how to pay taxes (while stating that universities don’t have the bandwidth to help players figure it out), as well as perceived dissension between teammates—that haves, versus the have-nots who aren’t earning, potentially causing locker room drama.

As for that sea of players transferring—he never explains how this is necessarily an issue—just that it’s happening in larger numbers than before.

What Moore completely ignores, outside of the small competitive advantage Tennessee might’ve given itself over Georgia—or other schools overly-protective of their mark—the different sales pitch universities can give based on their strengths against other’s weaknesses.

KING UNLOCKED CHEAT CODE WHEN CHOOSING MIAMI

As mentioned earlier, King’s transfer from Houston to Miami in spring 2020 is the ultimate reason the quarterback is seeing the type of attention he’s garnering from brands who want to align with him. If he were suiting up for his final season in the AAC with the Cougars, instead of the ACC with the Canes—he’d be prepping for Texas Tech this weekend, instead of a highly-touted showdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta.

The Cougars will also face Rice, Grambling, Navy, Tulsa, Tulane, Temple and a handful of other scrubs—outside of Memphis and South Florida in September.

Post-Alabama, Miami hosts the Big Ten’s Michigan State mid-September and a standard conference schedule—including what should be a prime-time showdown against a Top 10 North Carolina squad, the in-state annual battle against Florida State and other quality match-ups against Virginia, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke—all pumped out via ESPN, ABC and the ACC Network.

Conference and opponents aside, what about the city of Miami versus Houston—or the likes of Tuscaloosa, Clemson, Columbus, Gainesville, Tallahassee or Baton Rouge, for that matter?

The University of Miami has long been at a disadvantage for decades as a private university in large, diverse metropolitan city.

THE MAGIC CITY; REBIRTH DUE TO NIL SHIFT

Where the typical college town revolves around a successful football program, Miami remains an events-driven environment—as there is tremendous competition for the entertainment dollar and a slew of ways to spend one’s time, other than a stadium on a Saturday afternoon watching a non-championship caliber football team.

Miami’s ascension to the top of the college football world in the early 1980’s was the result of being a cutting-edge, outlier program who tapped into the nation’s best hotbed of athletic talent well before anyone else. Howard Schnellenberger kept local legends home—Melvin Bratton, Alonzo Highsmith and others who changed the game—and the Hurricanes were living proof that speed killed; defenses that smashed the wishbone and option, while Miami’s offense left slow and pasty Big Ten defenders choking on their dust.

Over time, other programs made their in-roads to South Florida’s treasure trove of talent—while these public universities who built football factories tapped into big alumni dollars to fuel their rise to glory—something the Hurricanes couldn’t use to their advantage, as the majority of UM supporters are local non-alum who pull for the program as they would the Dolphins, Heat, Marlins or Panthers.

All this to say, the pendulum could swing back in the Hurricanes’ favor as this NIL shift in thinking helps level the playing field. What Miami can’t offer in college town undying support, packed stadiums and big-fish-in-a-little pond adoration—it’s a legitimate paradise with sand, beaches, beautiful people, diverse culture, celebrity and entertainment. Miami Hurricanes players and coaches live in a place other folks pay to experience for a few days on vacation.

There’s a reason celebrities have flocked to the area for years—multi-million dollar homes on Fisher or Star Island, Coconut Grove or Key Biscayne. There’s a reason so many free agent athletes find their way to Miami at some point in their career—knowing it will create a season in life like no other.

Here I am in the place where I come let go—Miami the bass and the sun set low. Everyday like a mardi gras, everybody party all day. No work all play, okay. So we sip a little something, lay to rest the spill. Me an Charlie at the bar runnin’ up a high bill—nothin’ less than ill, when we dress to kill. Every time the ladies pass, they be like “Hi, Will”.

Can y’all feel me, all ages and races, real sweet faces. Every different nation—Spanish, Hatian, Indian, Jamaican, Black, White, Cuban, and Asian. I only came for two days of playing—but every time I come I always wind up stayin’—this the type of town I could spend a few days in. Miami the city that keeps the roof blazin’.

Party in the city where the heat is on. All night, on the beach till the break of dawn. Welcome to Miami…

The old whack-track by Will Smith is a bit dated decades later, but the lyrics and sentiments still hit hard. There isn’t any place in this country like Miami—especially for high-profile athletes looking to live the good life.

THE U: TRANSFER PORTAL DREAM DESTINATION

There’s a reason “The U” has become the hottest transfer destination for college football’s best over the past few seasons. Before King.

Tate Martell didn’t ultimately pan out, but the former Ohio State quarterback and start of Netflix’s QB1 series was considered a crown jewel-type grab in January  2019—and Martell’s decision sparked the transfer of former high school teammate and 5-Start USC safety Bubba Bolden to UM.

Prior to that duo, Miami also reeled in former 5-Star defensive end Jaelan Phillips from UCLA—the oft-injured, underdeveloped talent ultimately playing his way into a first round NFL Draft pick this spring; reeled in by the Dolphins and thrilled to remain in his adopted city.

Wide receiver K.J. Osborn found his way to UM in this cycle, as well—followed by Miami nabbing defensive end Quincy Roche, kicker Jose Borregales—as well as two key offensive line pick-ups in Issiah Walker Jr. and Jarrid Williams.

In this most-recent off-season, the bounty continued with defensive end Deandre Johnson—a Southridge product who opted for Tennessee out of high school—returning to the hometown program to run it back, as well as offensive lineman Justice Oluwaseun of UNLV. The Canes also nabbed veteran Oklahoma wide receivers Charleston Rambo, who is expected to start against the Crimson Tide this weekend—as well former Georgia cornerback and Southridge grad, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson.

All the aforementioned players took their talents to Coral Gables to play for Miami—simply for the football and the city and prior-to the NIL rule was put into place.

If this was the type of damage third-year head coach Manny Diaz and staff could do on the portal recruiting trail—just imagine the sales pitch when the city of Miami is now also part of the package as a money-making playground for college football players who moonlight as influencers?

The King Effect showed on the field last year, as Miami worked its way to 8-3 in the shortened season—as well as the locker room, where the transfer quarterback’s charisma, winning attitude and leadership skills helped cut through a long-time toxic culture at “The U”.

Next up, for the Texas native—laying and providing a blueprint for current and future teammates to follow in regards to image creation. pitching product, social media strategizing and laying the first building block in a personal-brand empire—with Miami the perfect backdrop for the journey.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his band Company Jones, who just released their debut album “The Glow”. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

September 2, 2021

MIAMI’S D’ERIQ KING—CROWN JEWEL OF NIL & NEWEST FACE OF BIOSTEEL

The release came across the wire this morning—BioSteel Sports Nutrition Inc. (“BioSteel”) announced the signing of Division I quarterback D’Eriq King, making him the brand’s first collegiate name, image and likeness (NIL) deal and first college football ambassador. A couple of quotes followed; King talking up why this product is imperative to his training—smart about […]

I started a North Carolina recap weeks back and scrapped it, quickly realizing how pointless an effort it would be. A week later, a similar approach when it came to an Oklahoma State bowl game preview.

Why bother regurgitating the same post-game assessments or pre-game keys to victory when nothing has changed regarding Hurricanes football over the past 15 seasons?

When I covered Miami athletics to earn a living years back, the job was literally writing all those standard pieces. These days, after an overdue career change—sportswriting downgraded to a hobby—it all seems like such a waste. After a quarter century covering the Canes, I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles.

If Miami was still playing championship-caliber football, yes, this would be a different animal. Same to be said if I honestly felt the Canes were legitimately close to competing again.

Writing about this program win the late nineties, where tangible progress was made as Butch Davis guided the Canes through probation, back to the pinnacle of college football—a golden era for up-and-coming writers and message board early adopters.

Miami fans could feel change in the air, while ESPN pundits kept throwing dirt on UM’s casket—so using words and a deep knowledge of this program, to prove those clowns wrong—I felt like Canestradamus. It was exhilarating.

By 2000 Miami was officially back and for those along for the ride, it was four consecutive BCS games, two title game berths, a championship, a 34-game win-streak and a 46-4 run we all assumed would be the new-new—until it wasn’t.

Within a few years, the Hurricanes entered this Groundhog Day-negative time loop that like the Bill Murray weatherman character in the 1993 fantasy-comedy—and for several reasons, Miami hasn’t been able to shake it.

Murray’s character Phil Connors finally gets back to normal, after realizing the err in his ways and correcting the flawed behavior. It’s said he dwelled in that self-imposed purgatory for somewhere between 10 and 10,000 years—which is pretty much what Miami’s state of irrelevance feels like to anyone who bleeds for this program.

Like Connors, the University of Miami continues making the same mistakes over and over—while expecting different results. It’s Einstein’s definition of insanity—played out year after year in Coral Gables, with no end in sight as the powers that be simply aren’t football-driven at the level modern day powerhouses have adapted and accepted.

DAWGS’ ALUM-DRIVEN DOLLARS—A GAME-CHANGER

Last fall, I deep-dove the University of Georgia’s expensive revamping of their athletics department.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach had recently written a piece which discussed the finances of the Bulldogs “do more” pledge—intended to help head coach Kirby Smart get closer to what Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.

“As Kirby has mentioned a number of times, the difference in a lot of these games is a matter of inches,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “With his goal of doing more, we’re trying to make up whatever that little difference could be.”

That “little” difference; a $200M+ investment into Georgia’s football program.

The article went on to talk about Georgia’s alumni-fueled Magill Society and the $121M raised through donations—full of members that have pledged a minimum of $25,000 over a five-year period. McGarity mentioned over 1,000 donors had been added between 2018 and 2019.

Outside of facilities upgrades, these donations allowed Georgia to spend more money on recruiting than any other FBS program—$7M+ over three years; topping Alabama’s $6M+ and Tennessee’s $5M. It also allowed Smart to pay his assistant coaches more than $13M per season.

Each time I re-read Schlabach’s article, all I could envision was a half-empty HardRock stadium—sparsely packed full of Miami fans yet to upgrade from Nike to adidas gear—while a handful paid to fly a banner at high noon, voicing their displeasure regarding the current state of affairs.

In the big money world of college sports, it appears Georgia is playing chess—while Miami has an old Chutes & Ladders board game, chewed up by the dog and missing half its pieces.

It’s a top-down problem at Miami, it’s been this way for decades and whatever the process—it isn’t working.

Donna Shalala was too hands-on as a president—solely focused on the medical department of her university, but wanting to keep football—a necessary evil—on a short leash. Low-rent head coaches, guaranteed ACC money, Nike dollars and 8-4 seasons were more than fine, barring the Hurricanes stayed out of trouble.

Dr. Julio Frenk is the opposite; a hands-off president who puts all his trust into what his board of trustees suggests athletic director-wise—and Miami’s board seems content with Blake James as a fundraiser, despite Hurricanes football, basketball and baseball all underachieving as of late.

James’ hire of Mark Richt in 2016 was seen as a good grab, even though it proved to be the right guy at the wrong time—the long-time Bulldogs’ head coach ready to call it a career before his alma mater called. All that to say, the lack of a proper search for a head coach at the beginning of 2019 when Richt stepped down—unforgivable.

Even if Diaz turns out to be “the guy” for the Hurricanes, both James and the board failed in the process.

In one way or another, Miami struck out on every head coaching hire since Davis. For Manny Diaz to have UM over a barrel—after he’d just accepted the Temple opportunity—one would be a fool to believe he wouldn’t have come running to his dream job weeks later, if Miami landed back on him after interviewing others.

The rushed process was amateur hour—and indicative of Miami’s flawed hiring technique over the past decade-plus.

In stark contrast to Miami’s approach to building a powerhouse, UGA president Jere Morehead realizes the importance of football, empowers McGarity to run athletics—McGarity bringing on Smart and giving him the resources to build a powerhouse.

Toss in a football-focused board of trustees and a massive alumni base willing to write checks to fund a winner—Georgia has the infrastructure in place to be a national power. Whether they get there or not; it’ll be up to Smart, his staff and the football gods—but it couldn’t be more teed up for them.

To date, the Bulldogs are four decades removed from their last national championship (1980) but it’s not for lack of a proper foundation—so expect the poaching of top-quality recruits from Miami’s backyard to keep taking their talents to Athens, and other big money SEC powers.

SMOKE & MIRRORS SEASON EXPOSED

Miami fans have voiced their frustration with Diaz—the 6-7 run last year and some poorly managed games, as well as the way the Hurricanes stumbled to 8-3 this season—dropping their final two in ugly fashion for yet another late-season collapse, which has been the norm for way too long.

The loss to North Carolina was abysmal—Miami falling 62-26 at home on senior day, while surrendering a program-worst 778 yards, and an NCAA record 554 rushing yards to a pair of running back teammates.

For the sake of laying everything on the table, it should be noted what the Hurricanes were dealing with personnel-wise as this season wound down.

The college football world saw Miami put its season on hold days after a November 14th comeback at Virginia Tech—riding a four-game win-streak after getting dismantled at Clemson a month prior. The Canes were 7-1 at the time, but wouldn’t see the field again until a December 5th makeshift showdown at Duke—due to a massive COVID outbreak within UM’s walls, as well as issues at Wake Forest which had the Blue Devils replacing the Demon Deacons.

While it was known that the program was in a tailspin, it didn’t come out until days after the the Tar Heels showdown just what was happening with the defensive coaching staff.

Utah State-bound safeties coach Ephraim Banda and recently “reassigned” defensive line coach Todd Stroud were both knocked down hard by the virus this season; to the point where neither were in the building for the home finale.

Maligned defensive coordinator Blake Baker was also said to be out for two weeks with COVID. In fact the only defensive coaches to not fall in this season were strikers coach Jonathan Patke and recently-departed cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph.

For those interested in more, CaneSport did a deeper dive on how the Hurricanes were rocked by this disease late 2020.

Does all that internal strife forgive a 36-point loss with an Orange Bowl berth on the line—as well as some career-worst, record-setting defensive failures? On some level, sure—but it doesn’t account for almost two decades of mistakes and a broken process that must be addressed if Miami will ever become a championship-caliber program again.

COVID ISSUES ASIDE; UNC BUILT TOUGHER THAN UM

Even at full steam, it’s hard to argue that Miami would’ve played at the same physical level North Carolina rolls under second-year coach Mack Brown.

The Tar Heels seemed to out-tough, out-work and out-play the Canes much in the same manner Clemson did earlier in the year. There remains a lacking backbone regarding Diaz-lead teams—starting last fall before COVID had made its way onto the scene.

Based on the chaos of this pandemic-defined season, a lot of coaches and programs will get a mulligan—but that doesn’t mean bad traits, characteristics or repetitive flawed behavior can go ignored.

If the third-year head coach is going to find success at Miami—which feels less likely after the way this season ended—Diaz is going to have to take that long, hard look in the mirror and start addressing what-is, versus the filtered, coach speak-fueled version he’s been delivering since taking over in the wake of Mark Richt.

Certain stigmas have defined Diaz’s program after two seasons.

There is the much-discussed inability for teams to get up after bye weeks—a trend that started last season against North Carolina (bye week after Florida loss), continued against Virginia Tech (bye after Central Michigan scare) and popped up when Miami was embarrassed by Florida International two weeks after routing Louisville at home.

Diaz called the FIU loss “one of the lowest points ever in this proud program’s history” that November—stating that he took “full ownership and responsibility” for the loss, challenging his guys to respond—only to see Miami stumble at Duke the following week.

This season wasn’t much better. Miami rolled Florida State, but got crushed two weeks later at Clemson—and for the second year in a row under Diaz, the Canes weren’t bowl ready—falling into a 21-0 hole against Oklahoma State, before waking up in the second quarter.

COACH-SPEAK BIG PART OF BROKEN CULTURE

Equally as scary, the message sent to the team when backs are up against the wall.

In the bowels of the old Orange Bowl after a commuter school delivered one of the most-embarrassing upsets in Miami football history, Diaz’s words spoke of desperation, fluff and delusion.

“What I did tell the guys in there, is two years ago, Troy went to Baton Rouge and beat LSU, who right now is the number one team in the country. Things can change, but it needs to change. It has to start with myself and the coaching. We have to do a better job of coaching our guys.”

Comparing LSU’s loss to Troy with Miami’s to FIU is meaningless—as it failed to point out all the work the Tigers’ program put into growing back into a championship caliber program it became two years later.

A week after being upset by Troy, LSU bounced back to beat No. 21 Florida in Gainesville. The following week, they took out No. 10 Auburn in Baton Rouge. The week after Miami was embarrassed by Florida International, it lost by double digits at Duke. The following game it was shutout by Louisiana Tech in a bowl game.

Diaz stated after that FIU debacle, that his player got big-headed after convincing wins over Florida State and Louisville that had them ill-prepared mentally and emotionally for the energy and passion the Davis-led Golden Panthers would bring in that program-defining match-up.

A program that struggles to handle prosperity and the up and down nature that comes with wins and losses—you’re going to fill these kids’ heads to what a loaded program like LSU was accomplishing—with an eventual Heisman-winning quarterback under center, future national champion and first pick of the NFL Draft?

Putting Diaz’s words through today’s entitled, teenage student athlete’s filter—who wouldn’t be hard-pressed to hear, “LSU got upset by a scrub team and two years later they were in the driver’s seat for a title!”—as if the transformation was that nonchalant.

Fans of the long-running animated comedy South Park might recall the vintage “Underwear Gnomes” episode—where the gnomes’ three phase business model was to collect underpants in phase one and to turn a profit in phase three—while their flow chart showed a giant question mark in phase two.

That second phase is obviously the actual doing and the only step of the business plan that means everything—and Diaz’s example is no different. Lose to FIU in phase one, but be championship caliber by phrase three—while phase two and the actual process of ascending to greatness has no defined plan.

For Diaz, the clock is ticking a little harder and faster than it might for other coaches or programs. Miami’s fall from grace the past 15 years gets harder to swallow as the years roll on—championship-caliber football feeling eons away.

Diaz now the Canes’ fifth head coach since the 2006 season. UM is now also 111-80 since the 2005 Peach Bowl blowout at the hands of LSU—numbers no one ever expected to see when Miami was such a dominant force at the turn of the century.

REVAMP DEFENSE; ADAPT OR DIE

One of the key’s to the Hurricanes success over the year has been a stalwart defense, which hasn’t been the case since Diaz appointed Baker in 2019. Diaz’s defense made national headlines under Richt in 2017; a season the Turnover Chain was more than a prop—Miami playing well above its 2016 level.

Back to the earlier point regarding Diaz accepting what-is, opposed to his filtered version of reality—an honest look at UM’s current defense and what it will take to have that side of the ball look like it did in the era he grew up watching.

One sign of being a true leader; knowing how to let go of control in favor of being in charge. Diaz used to be in control of the Miami defense, while Richt was in charge of the program—Manny proving to be a successful manager of that one aspect of Hurricanes football.

Two years into this head coaching role, Diaz appears to have a hard time letting go of his defensive responsibilities—empowering a way-over-his-skis coordinator like Baker, who remains reliant upon Diaz to both help him game plan and to carry the slack.

When the Canes found themselves sitting at 2-3 in mid-October a year ago—fresh off a 42-35 loss to Virginia Tech—Diaz reinserted himself in coaching-up the defense as Baker was reeling. The short-term result was positive, as Miami clamped down in the red zone the following week in a dogfight with Virginia—but the writing was on the wall that the Hurricanes had a problem.

Fast forward a year and the Canes’ defense gave up 516 yards and 34 week two at Louisville—a game Miami most-certainly would’ve lost without transfer D’Eriq King under center, as well as the Cardinals’ defensive woes of their own.

Winning shootouts was never a staple of great Hurricanes teams—yet that’s precisely what needed to be done on a few occasions this year with Baker’s soft, poor-tackling, out-of-position and lost-way-too-often squad.

King’s heroic performance at North Carolina State saved Miami in a 44-41 high-scoring affair; the Canes racking up 620 yards—but on an afternoon where the offense sputtered against North Carolina, it was the Tar Heels who put up video game numbers against Baker’s bunch.

Much was made of the relationship with Brown and Diaz during the loss to the Heels; the teacher firing the student back in 2013 when Texas’ defense was rolled by BYU on Diaz’s watch.

The Longhorns gave up 679 total yards—550 on the ground—including 259 rushing yards to Taysom Hill, who also threw for three touchdowns on the 40-21 blowout; numbers that seem pedestrian compared to what Baker allowed on senior day.

Yes, it was a COVID-driven year and Miami’s defensive personnel was a hot mess—but will Diaz sell that in effort to buy his coordinator more time, or will be look at the larger body of work and realize that two years of Baker’s defense is enough of a litmus test to prove a change is in order?

DIAZ MUST TAKE A PAGE FROM DAVIS’ BOOK

Year four was the one that brought change during the Davis era—as a two-year sampling wasn’t enough during the probation-marred mid-nineties. Those first couple seasons were a throwaway as Miami’s roster was gutted and wasn’t fielding enough bodies to compete.

By 1998, the tide was starting to turn—Miami losing a close one in overtime to Virginia Tech, while narrowing the gap against Florida State; a 26-14 loss light years more competitive than 47-0 the previous season.

7-2 going into the unofficial Big East championship game—an Orange Bowl berth against Florida on the line as conference champs—and the Hurricanes are demolished at Syracuse, 66-13.

A week later, a rescheduled game against the second-ranked Bruins—where the Canes held on for the 49-45 comeback win. Miami’s defense surrendered 670 yards, but survived—amassing 689 yards on the afternoon.

North Carolina State dinged Miami for 498 yards, but the Canes rolled up 594 in a 46-23 victory and Davis had seen enough. Fourth-year coordinator Bill Miller was relieved of his duties—as a three-game stretch where 134 points and 1,566 yards were given up, was not going to make Miami contender again.

Davis tapped a then-relatively unknown defensive mind in Greg Schiano, whose mantra was, “attack, attack, attack”—bringing a more aggressive scheme, with tighter pass coverage and linemen whose mission it was to penetrate.

Schiano’s opening challenge; slowing the ninth-ranked Buckeyes in the Kickoff Classic—which Miami did, in a 23-12 upset.

Interviewed weeks before the 1999 season opener, Schiano shared the following.

“Kids have to believe what they’re doing is the right thing,” he said. “You can have a one-man rush, and if they believe it’s the right thing, they’ll do it well.

“They need to see how you can help them get better. It’s more prevalent in the NFL, but if a guy sees you as someone who can help them get better, they’ll listen to every word you say. If they see you as someone who’s full of it, they’re not going to listen to you and they’re not going to respect you.”

Prophetic words all those years ago which are still applicable today—players not respecting coaches who are full of it.

While an 8-3 run was nice enough on the heels of 6-7—Diaz is at that Davis-like crossroad when he must made the hard decisions to turn this program from pretender to contender.

Chest-thumping over eked-out wins against sub-par ACC talent and relying on grad transfer quarterbacks to mask defensive inefficiencies is not a long-term solution for Miami.

Winds of change must blow for Diaz this off-season—both in a defensive revamp, as well as his own personal approach to running this program. Two years being the liked and accepted guy—it’s not going to cut it.

There were understandable question marks in early 2019, when Diaz cruised into a booster event on an 88-foot yacht.

A few months earlier, the new head coach’s first team meeting not only featured a WWE-like spectacle—but tackling dummies featured “7-6” on their chests as some sort of motivation regarding how “The New Miami” would respond the following fall. (Spoiler alert; the Canes managed to backslide to 6-7—while the ridiculed TNM moniker disappeared for year two.)

Amongst the fracas, a then 44-year old Diaz mixing it up with his players and getting in on the body-slamming action in a sea of college student athletes.

Davis was a seasoned 42 years old when taking over the University of Miami’s football program in 1995—some hard miles on the odometer.

Davis did five years under Jimmy Johnson coaching-up the defensive line for the Canes in their heyday (1984-1988) before following the legend to Dallas for a seven-year stint as defensive line coach and defensive coordinator–picking up a national champion and two Super Bowls along the way.

The healthy dose of fear and respect the players of that era had for Davis—which was still on display all those years later when FIU looked more like “The U” than Miami in the upset of 2019—such a stark contrast to the the liked and accepted approach Diaz has taken his first two years as a head coach.

While the past can’t be rewritten, the future remains wide open—and after epic fails to end back-to-back season, the clock is ticking for Diaz.

Time to make some tough short-term decisions this off-season, that can result in long-term success—or accept the fact it’s the beginning of the end; a ceiling reached and a dream job over before it ever really got underway.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

January 5, 2021

‘THE U’ DEEP-DIVE; WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE MIAMI HURRICANES IN 2021?

I started a North Carolina recap weeks back and scrapped it, quickly realizing how pointless an effort it would be. A week later, a similar approach when it came to an Oklahoma State bowl game preview. Why bother regurgitating the same post-game assessments or pre-game keys to victory when nothing has changed regarding Hurricanes football […]

November 15, 2020

FIND-A-WAY MIAMI HURRICANES DELIVER IN RALEIGH & BLACKSBURG


If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that perspective really is everything.

In the face of a global pandemic and forced quarantine—does one have the ability to find some positives, where others will only focus on the negative?

The inconveniences are obvious—social lives limited, masking-up whenever venturing out into public—but what about the bonus time with family that wouldn’t have existed under normal circumstances; this forced-slow down giving us all the ability to reevaluate and to plan for a new-new when the time comes.

Relating that to football—and the Miami Hurricanes, specifically—some are overly critical of the way in which this squad is underperforming, while others are simply appreciating the wins that keep racking up. Truth be told, the answer probably lies somewhere in between the two polar opposites.

Miami survived at Virginia Tech this past weekend—eight days after eking out a come-from-behind win at North Carolina State. Four combined points were the difference in these eight quarters of football and both games saw the Hurricanes rallying late on offense, while getting necessary stops on defense, in order to get out alive.

Even more impressive, Miami did it with one quarantined arm behind its back—13 players out for COVID-related matters. The Hurricanes were without a handful of starters, a well as some key reserves. At one point, the game itself was almost called off—but Miami pushed to play, showed up, hung tough and prevailed—which is a real footnote to this season and testament to how the Hurricanes have handled a very odd 2020 campaign.

Virginia Tech jumped out to a 14-3 lead on Saturday afternoon, as a sparse Lane Stadium. Miami moved the ball early, but missed a scoring opportunity by way of an oddly-timed and strangely-execute fake field goal on a 4th-and-3 from the Hokies’ 30-yard line. In what would’ve been a makable 47-yard attempt by Jose Borregales, Miami instead had holder Lou Hedley flip the ball to the immobile 205-pound kicker, who was stuffed after scrambling for a year.

It was one of those plays that had it worked, no one would’ve batted an eye—but regardless of it’s success, there’s no debating that the Hurricanes would’ve been better suited keeping the ball in the hands of the immovable D’Eriq King, or one of three bruising running backs, a both Cam’Ron Harris and Jaylan Knighton took a few handoffs on the previous eight plays of the drive.

The early aggressiveness on the opening drive wasn’t even the game’s biggest head-scratching moment. Save that for an ill-timed and poorly-executed two-point conversion attempt late third quarter, which could’ve cost Miami the win, had Hendon Hooker and Virginia Tech’s offense not self-imploded on their final few possessions.

MIAMI OFFENSE COMES ALIVE LATE; DEFENSE CLOSES STRONG

Trailing 24-13 halfway through the third quarter, the Canes offense finally came to life on a 13-play, 75 yard drive—Harris punching in the six-yard run on a possession where Miami executed on 4th-and-1 and 3rd-and-3 to stay alive—the fourth down conversion coming on the heels of 2nd-and-17 after King was sacked on first down.

With a chance to pull within four, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee chose overthinking over common sense, calling for a throwback to left tackle Zion Nelson, which was doomed from the start—ending with Nelson not just getting stuffed, but the Canes penalized for an ineligible receiver on the boneheaded call, as well.

Had Miami logically kicked the point after, it’s a 24-20 ball game, and the ensuing 10-play, 82-yard drive—stamped by a 36-yard strike to Mark Pope, where King avoided the blitz and signaled to Pope to be ready—would’ve seen the Hurricanes take a 27-24 lead with just under six minutes reaming, barring Borregales made his kick.

Instead, another failed two-point attempt—a better call, but poor execution as Don Chaney Jr. wasn’t able to haul the pass in—and a 25-24 lead that was not only too close for comfort, but one that would’ve left Diaz and staff lambasted had Virginia Tech been able to kick a game-winning field goal late, opposed to one that would’ve tied the game and sent things to overtime.

Thankfully the Hurricanes defense stepped up while Hooker and the Hokies stalled out.

On the first play from scrimmage after Miami took the lead, Hooker air mailed a deep ball in the diving arms of Te’Cory Couch—the first time the Hurricanes picked off the Hokies since the final minute of a 38-14 route in Blacksburg in 2018.

Miami took possession with 5:48 remaining, only to go three-and-out—punting the ball back to Virginia Tech in just over a 90 seconds, as another sack of King left the Hurricanes in an undesirable 3rd-and-15.

The Hokies rattled off 19 yards in back-to-back plays—getting out of the danger zone after Hedley bombed a 52-yard punt downed at the nine-yard line, but a timely sack by Jaelan Phillips retuned the favor, leaving Virginia Tech to try and fight out of a late and-long situation. An incompletion by Hooker was made worse when the quarterback lost his footing on 3rd-and-15, his knee hitting the ground for a nine-yard loss.

Miami again took possession with an opportunity to close—Gurvan Hall with the fair catch at the UM 43-yard line—only to see Lashlee predictably and conservatively running back-to-back with Harris and Chaney Jr., before King was run down on a 3rd-and-5 attempt that lost three yards. The Hurricanes forced the Hokies to burn all three timeouts on the possession, but only took 13 seconds off the clock—Virginia Tech with the ball back and 1:45 on the clock with a chance to kick a game-winning field goal.

A first down would’ve put Miami in kneel-out mode—while an incomplete pass would’ve saved the Hokies a timeout—so running the ball wasn’t the crime; it was the vanilla manner in which Lashlee went with back-t0-back handoffs into the teeth of a front seven most of the afternoon.

By the time a designed run was called for King on third down, Virginia Tech knew with 100-percent certainty was was on deck and snuffed it out immediately—Lashlee whiffing on an opportunity to call a safe pass to a running back, or calling a designed run for King earlier, when the expectation was to pound the rock with Chaney Jr. or Harris.

Hedley’s leg again saved Miami, as his punt was downed at the four-yard line—the Hokies taking over with 1:37 remaining and zero timeouts.

Hooker found Tre Turner for a 19-yard pick-up, getting out from the shadow of his goalpost—using both his arm and legs in an attempt to pull off the comeback. The Hokies picked up three first downs over the next minute-plus, stopping the clock momentarily—though time was still the enemy.

Facing a 4th-and-10 from the VT 43-yard line with :05 remaining—the Hokies chose miracle mode, over a Hail Mary—dumping it off to Tayvion Robinson, who played hot potato with three others on offense before being dumped for a six-yard loss that ended the game.

BACK-TO-BACK COMEBACKS DEFINE LATTER HALF OF SEASON

The rally against the Hokies—where the Canes didn’t see their first lead until the 5:59 mark in the fourth quarter—was the opposite of what took place at North Carolina State the Friday night prior, outside of trailing by double digits and rallying to victory.

A bonafide shoot out, the Canes and Wolfpack traded blows all evening—North Carolina State striking first, Miami responding and eventually taking a 21-14 lead before UM’s offense cooled and the home team went on a 10-0 run to close out the first half, 24-21.

The Hurricanes tied things up early third quarter with a field goal—only to allow the Wolfpack to drive 75 yards on the ensuing drive; Bailey Hockman hooking up with Emeka Emezie for a 34-yard haul-in on 3rd-and-4, followed by a big 14-yard tear-off by Hockman, setting up Zonovan Knight on back-to-back runs and a one-yard score.

Miami responded with an 85-yard drive of their own; back-to-back plays to Pope for 39 yards and a game-tying 17-yard score to knot things up, 31-31 late in the third quarter. Momentum immediately went out the window one play later, as Knight returned the kickoff 100 yards for the score. The Canes next possession stalled out; Miami settling for a 38-yard field goal from Borregales—the deficit cut to seven.

The Hurricanes defense flexed-up and forced a much-needed three-and-out—the offense back in action and looking to tie things back up–which looked to be the case when Harris punched it in on 4th-and-Goal from the one-yard line, though the play was blown dead as replay took a second look on a third down run by King that came up a half-yard short. Harris go the call again on fourth down, again scampered in but Miami was hit with a false start and moved back to the five-yard line.

Much to the chagrin of some, Diaz and Lashlee correctly took the three points—trotting out the automatic Borregales for a 22-yard put-through that made it a 41-37 ball game; putting the onus on the defense to get a stop. Tying the game up was obviously the preference, but Miami could ill afford to not score on that possession, with just over six minutes remaining.

It would take two scores to win—the safe choice on this drive simply meaning the Canes would need a game-winning touchdown, opposed to a field goal on their next possession—whereas getting stuffed on fourth down would’ve put Miami in position where a touchdown would at-best tie the game and force overtime.

The defense bowed up—Couch with a monster sack on 3rd-and-9—giving Miami the ball back and their own eight-yard line with 3:50 remaining and 92 yards between a comeback victory, or an agonizing defeat. King found Mike Harley for a 35-yard pick-up on 2nd-and-8, getting the Canes near midfield and after a 3-yard run by Harris and incompletion to Dee Wiggins—went back to the well and caught a streaking Harley for a 54-yard touchdown.

For a receiving corps that slept-walked for a few weeks, starting in Clemson—Harley, Pope and Wiggins began coming alive and haven’t let up—starting with Harley’s 170-yard outing against Virginia and rolling into a 153-yard outing in Raleigh—all of which obviously make King’s job easier; the transfer quarterback finally finding the deep ball again at North Carolina State.

LATE RALLY IN RALIEGH; SHOT IN THE ARM CANES NEEDED

Hockman and the Wolfpack took possession from their own 25-yard line with 2:43 remaining—where much like Hooker with his late first-down gaffe—Hockman put too much heat on the ball, which was deflected into the arms of DJ Ivey for a game-sealing win. King’s wheels got Miami 12 yards on a 3rd-and-6, putting the Canes in victory formation with 1:40 remaining.

The late turnover marked the second straight game where Miami forced a late turnover to close out—Virginia down 19-14 with the ball: 23 on the clock and no timeouts, relying on some end-of-game trickery, resulting in a fumble that Quincy Roche recovered. The Canes escaped, after giving up a 32-yard run by Brennan Armstrong, followed by 35-yard touchdown strike to Ra’Shaun Henry on the next play—cutting Miami’s lead to 19-14 with 5:27 remaining.

Much like this weekend’s win over Virginia Tech, Miami was in position to close out against Virginia with a couple of first downs—but looked to have stalled out on 3rd-and-8, before Wiggins drew a pass interference call at the 2:56 mark. With new life, the Canes and Lashlee ran a series similar to the 13-second possession in Blacksburg; fourth-string back Robert Burns up the middle for one, Knighton up the middle no gain and a King run on third down the lost a yard.

With the Cavaliers already out of time outs, the Canes shaved over two minute off the clock—setting up the need for a miracle finish if Virginia was to drive 80 yards in :23—securing a victory that ultimately staved off any critique, which winning often does.

Nitpicking after a win is always better than the same effort after a loss. Taking shots at fake field goals, poorly-timed two-point conversion attempts and conservative late play-calling; the type that allows team to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory—it’s done with the desire to see the mistakes corrected moving forward, opposed to with the understandable venom that would’ve come had these decisions led to losses.

WINNING CLOSE BATTLES; FIRST STEP IN CONTENDING AGAIN

Much like the 2017 season, these Hurricanes are winning the type of close games that they blew in 2018 and 2019—which in this season of transition, ultimately was the biggest goal. Prior to the COVID-fueled reshuffle, Miami was gunning to with the Coastal Division, en route to a ACC Championship game berth.

Instead, teams like Temple, Wagner and Michigan State were dumped from the schedule—with Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina State all added. The Canes also saw Duke removed, when those three Atlantic foes were added. Notre Dame was also welcomed into the ACC temporarily this fall and with the top two conference foes facing off in December—opposed to the best from the Coastal and Atlantic—Miami will most-likely be on the outside looking in, even if it takes out Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the regular season.

Getting to Charlotte this December; Miami wanted to see how it matched up with Clemson in the Trevor Lawrence era—as these two different division foes weren’t set to meet in the regular season again until 2022, when the heralded quarterback will be long gone.

The Canes got that crack at the Tigers during the regular season, weren’t ready for primetime and we’re outplayed, 42-17—all questions answered—and in a rematch with Clemson one win away from reaching the College Football Playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, does anyone really believe this overachieving Miami team is going to lay down a roadblock?

With Notre Dame beating a Lawrence-less Clemson in double overtime weeks back, Miami’s hope of a rematch took a massive hit—as the Irish seem on pace—as both teams seem destined to win out; Clemson facing Florida State, Pitt and Virginia Tech, while Notre Dame closes with North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest.

Even if one of the two stumble, no doubt that these are are the most-balanced and deep team in conference this year. If Miami fans are rooting for anything, it should be the combination of winning out—with Clemson falling to either Pitt or Virginia Tech—which would set up a showdown with Notre Dame for a conference title.

All that to say, Plan B isn’t too shabby, either. Should Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson all win out—with the Tigers topping the Irish in Charlotte—both will most-likely reach the Playoffs, leaving Miami to represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl, most-likely against hated rival, Florida.

Of course all of this is moot, should the Canes shit the bed against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest or North Carolina—just the type of games Miami seems to drop down the stretch in the ACC, when looking ahead and trying to do conference title game math.

LATE SEASON ACC STRUGGLES HAVE PLAGUED UM FOR YEARS

Back in 2005, an eight-game win-streak after dropping the opener at Florida State—Miami was hyper-focused on winning out and getting another crack at the Noles. Then two weeks after upsetting No. 3 Virginia Tech in Blackburg, the Canes lost at home to a three-loss Georgia Tech team, 14-10—sending the Hokies to Jacksonville, instead of two-loss Miami. It was the season that proved to be the beginning of the end for Larry Coker, whose Canes got wrecked 40-3 in the Peach Bowl and stumbled to 7-6 the following fall, resulting in his termination.

Come 2009—the third year of the Randy Shannon era— Miami started strong with conference wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech—and an out-of-conference upset of Oklahoma—before falling at Virginia Tech. A month later, an overtime loss at home against Clemson served as the knockout punch—as the Yellow Jackets won the rest of their ACC games and topped Clemson in the conference title game, before losing to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

Year three under Al Golden, the 2013 Hurricanes jumped out to 7-0 and No. 7 in the nation, before getting wrecked at No. 3 Florida State—and then sleepwalking through losses against Virginia Tech and at Duke. The road loss in Durham proved the deciding factor for the Coastal that fall, as the Blue Devils survived road games at Wake Forest and North Carolina down the stretch, hanging on with two ACC losses to Miami’s three.

Mark Richt and crew blew it in 2016, as well—4-0 out the gate, before a missed point-after kept Miami from upsetting No. 10 Florida State, 20-19. The hangover continued with a lifeless 20-13 home loss to North Carolina the following week. Virginia Tech routed the Canes, 37-16 a week later—only to see Miami choke away a comeback at Notre Dame, 30-27, capping off a four-game losing streak.

Those back-to-back-to-back conference losses against the Noles, Tar Heels and Hokies were the difference-maker as a Virginia Tech earned a trip to Orlando with only two conference losses, where Clemson held on for the win.

Water is wet, fire is hot, grass is green—and anytime the Hurricanes are looking too far down the road, or doing funky math when dreaming big about the ACC title game—you can bet the house that getting-ahead-of-itself Miami will choke.

While a win isn’t always a win—as the way, the why and the how that victory was secured are always worth analyzing—in this 2020 season, prevailing in any way, shape or form is truly the ultimate goal.

ON PAR TO EXCEED ORIGINAL 2020 GOALS

Miami was never set to be true contender this year; not national and not even in conference. Winning the Coastal—for the second time in 17 seasons—and getting a measuring-stick match-up with Clemson; that was the ceiling for year two under Diaz. Doing that meant Miami would have to win the close games it gave away last year, to the likes of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida International and Duke.

The wins haven’t been pretty this fall, since losing at Clemson. A shootout at Louisville and rout of Florida State gave reasons for optimism early, but that loss to the Tigers was definitely the type of moment that can take the wind out of a team’s sails.

In years passed, Miami would’ve arguably gotten tripped up by a defensive team like Pitt the ensuing week—showing up flat and not ready to deal with the adversity. Instead, the Hurricanes’ defense clamped down in the red zone—which proved to be the difference-maker in a 31-19 victory.

Miami jumped all over Virginia a week later, by way of a two-play, :28 scoring drive—only to manufacture 12 points the rest of the evening. It what turned out to be a gritty, low-scoring affair—the Canes with only two field goals, until Chaney punched in a touchdown early fourth quarter—the home team took the Cavaliers’ best punch and hung on for the win.

Folding on a Friday night in Raleigh after a bye week; not far-fetched for modern-day Miami. Two years ago, the Canes did just that at Boston College—shut out in the second half and falling 27-14, still smarting from a 16-13 loss in Charlottesville two weeks prior. This time around, Miami outscored North Carolina State 23-17 in the second half and closed strong with a 13-3 fourth quarter run.

Riding high off that comeback against the Wolfpack, a danger game on-paper at Virginia Tech loomed. The Hokies were reeling from Liberty upsetting them at home a week prior—a game Virginia Tech looked to have in the bag, after returning a blocked field goal for what looked like the game winner.

Instead, the Flames got a do-over by way of an icing-the-kicker time out going wrong—and after an eight-yard pick-up on 4th-and-6, drilled a 51-yard game-winner as time expired.

Virginia Tech showed up looking to prove a point on Saturday—but so did Miami, who even after a slow start, never mailed it in—which is ultimately the biggest growth opportunity for this 2020 season. Before the Canes can start winning the big games again, it must take care of business week-in and week-out against average conference foes.

That mid-September win at No. 18 Louisville? Miami’s first victory on the road against a ranked team since a the eight-lateral, last second comeback at Duke in 2015. This most-recent win against the Hokies? The Canes’ first road victory as a Top 10 team since hanging on at North Carolina in October 2017.

Is this 7-1 bunch a truly legit Top 10 team? The pollsters don’t seem to think so—the Canes dropping from No. 9 to No. 12 in the latest AP poll (though the Coaches Poll kept Miami at No. 9.) despite hanging on to win. That said, do the polls even really matter at this point? Not really. Winning football games matter—and if the last three showdown were decided by a combined nine points, or nine touchdowns—fact remains the Canes are 4-0 since stumbling at Clemson.

Baby steps. It’s not what a frustrated fan base necessarily wants to hear—but one’s desire to be a contender again doesn’t change the timeline it will take to get back on top. Not after a 13-16 run from the end of 2017 to the beginning of this season, not when this program has looked like a mid-tier ACC team for a decade and a half and not when losing the types of close games it’s re-learned how to win this fall.

Another shot at revenge against Georgia Tech next weekend, followed by what look to be two shootouts against the likes of Wake Forest and North Carolina—who combined for 112 this weekend, with the Tar Heels hanging on for the 59-52 victory.

Should King and these Canes hang on for an 10-1 regular season, it will be Miami’s best since 2017. Prior to that, one has to go all the way back to 2002 to match the output.

Stay the course, appreciate what’s taking place and know that closing strong is the perfect remedy to success both on the recruiting trail and the Transfer Portal—both of which are the Canes’ key to again becoming a true contender, in due time.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

The Miami Hurricanes took out the Pittsburgh Panthers, 31-19 on Saturday afternoon at HardRock—three key red-zone stops literally the difference in a 12-point victory. Equally as important—the Canes did this on the heels of a disappointing, undisciplined, out-coached and out-talented, 42-17 setback at Clemson last weekend.

The Tigers continued on their mission towards The Playoffs with a 73-3 rout at Georgia Tech, while Miami slugged it out with Pitt—unnecessary conformation that the Hurricanes lost to a true contender; one with only five combined losses dating back to 2016.

No one of sound mind expected these Hurricanes to bring home any hardware in 2020; not in year two of the Manny Diaz era and not on the heels of Miami’s 7-9 fade under Mark Richt after that 10-0 start in 2017—resulting in UM’s fifth different head coach in 14 seasons; the turnover impacting the 2019 recruiting class, as well—yet another setback in a long line of setbacks.

BOUNCING BACK FROM A LOSS; HUGE STEP FOWARD

History lesson aside, fact remains this is where the Hurricanes have landed after a tumultuous decade-and-a-half—the present and immediate future all that really matter as Diaz looks to right the ship in a way his three predecessors could not.

Knocking off Pittsburgh isn’t a world-beater move that validates Miami, nor does the victory itself cover up some glaring weaknesses with this roster and team overall—but the Hurricanes showed up against a defense-minded conference opponent and did enough to bounce back after a disappointing loss, so let’s dive into that, first and foremost.

If this is 2018 or 2019, Miami loses this game—especially with the anemic offense the Hurricanes ran with Dan Enos last fall, and Team Richt the year prior. Look no further than the 13-13 record over that span, as well as the types of games UM pissed away for proof.

Miami lost a heartbreaker to Florida in the opener last August, only to show up ill-prepared in Chapel Hill a week later—down 17-3 after the first quarter. The slow-starting Hurricanes scrapped back to take a 25-20 lead in the final minutes of the final period, only to fall 28-25 after a defensive breakdown kept North Carolina alive on what should’ve been a 4th-and-17 game-ending close out.

Weeks later Miami eked out an embarrassing 17-12 win over Central Michigan, only to no-show against Virginia Tech—falling into a 28-0 second quarter hole, before a rally fell short.

The Canes also struggled with any modicum of prosperity last year; seemingly turning a corner, only to collapse by way of some pointless big-headedness. A defensive-fueled win over a pretty good Virginia team was preceded by a a low-scoring overtime loss to a Georgia Tech team that rolled in 1-5—including an overtime loss to The Citadel and 22-point road loss to Temple.

Miami bounced back with a win over Pitt and seemed to turn an offensive corner with routes of Florida State and Louisville—by a combined score of 79-37—only to bottom out with a “road” loss to Florida International, a home loss to Duke and a bowl shutout at the hands of Louisiana Tech, all of which were (thankfully) enough to get Enos fired and for Diaz to bring in Rhett Lashlee to run a spread offense.

Richt’s swan song saw Miami stomped out by LSU in the opener, before racking up wins over Savannah State, Toledo and FIU to get back on track. The Canes shone bright in a Thursday night route of North Carolina, before staging a thrilling home comeback of Florida State—Miami’s first home win against the Seminoles dating back to 2004.

From there, a second four-game losing streak in three seasons under Richt—Miami falling to Virginia, Boston College (after a bye week), Duke and Georgia Tech—before a win at Virginia Tech (to get bowl eligible) and home win over Pitt. Wisconsin rolled in the Pinstripe Bowl, prompting Richt to call it a career.

Knowing all this to be the new norm in Coral Gables these past couple of seasons, there was understandable doubt with Pittsburgh on the schedule a week after the Clemson debacle—especially given the Canes’ recent muscle memory in games like these as of late.

PERPAREDNESS & PASSION AGAINST PITT WERE DIFFERENCE

On paper, this match-up with Pitt seemed troublesome—Clemson and defensive coordinator Brent Venables exposing Miami’s very-real offensive line issues, while laying out a blueprint where ratting and pressuring D’Eriq King made the Houston grad transfer look much less heroic than he did in match-ups with UAB, Louisville and Florida State.

Instead, Miami dug in for a grind-it-out type game and managed to be in control from the get-go—the Panthers making it a five-point game midway through the third quarter, before the Canes pulled away.

Pitt starting quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t make the trip, due to an ankle injury—which was initially a sign of relief, until recalling that Pickett was a true freshman when upending Miami in 2017—so who was to say a Panthers’ back-up wasn’t capable of coming in for a career day?

Another red flag against the Canes in their decade-plus of disastrous play—making sub-par or second string quarterback look like superstars. Hendon Hooker got his first start last fall in Virginia Tech’s visit to Miami—and had one career completion under his belt, before that 184-yard, three touchdown, turnover-free performance as the Hokies upset the Canes.

Knowing this to be the case with Miami, there was little confidence in Joey Yellen getting the nod over the injured Pickett—Yellen hitting the ground running for the Panthers on the ensuing possession, driving 44 yards and picking up two key first downs, before the Hurricanes’ defense made a drive-haltering stop.

Facing a 1st-and-10 from the UM 31-yard line, Jordan Miller and Jahfari Harvey busted through the Panthers’ line and drove Yellen back 12 yards with a monster sack—resulting in back-to-back incompletions before forcing a punt what felt like an open possession set to result in some type of a score.

An offensive line holding penalty shut down Miami’s first drive—putting the Canes in a 1st-and-2o they couldn’t bounce back from, facing an all too familiar third-and-long that set up a monster 60-yard punt from Lou Hedley, who had a masterful day flipping the field for the home team.

Pittsburgh lost 11 yards on three consecutive running plays—and coupled with a kick catching interference call—set the Canes up on the Panthers’ 45-yard line. Two quick King runs led to a first down, before selling the fake on a draw and a quick pass to Cam’Ron Harris—wide open in the middle of the field, where the running back rumbled for a 35-yard score.

Both sides exchanged a pair of punts before Pitt ran a fake punt that Miami sniffed out—Isaiah Dunson tripping up Brandon Hill on what would’ve been a sure-first down if not. The big stop set the Canes up at the Pitt 45-yard line, where King and the Canes got moving—a few quick passes to Mark Pope and solid runs by Harris highlighting the possession.

Where Miami did it’s best defensive work in the red zone, Pittsburgh imploded—this time with a facemask penalty on third down, setting the Canes up with a fresh set of downs from the four-yard line. Facing 2nd-and-Goal, King dumped off to Will Mallory—getting more reps by way of an injured Brevin Jordan—and the tight end barreled ahead for the six-yard score, giving UM a somewhat comfortable 14-0 lead.

Yellen and the Panthers responded with a a 60-yard drive—a few big strikes to Jordan Addison and Daniel Moraga—getting Pittsburgh into Miami’s red zone, where Jalean Phillips helped the cause with a roughing the passer penalty. Still, the Canes remained unfazed and a 10-yard sack by Jared Harrison-Hunte on 3rd-and-3 again kept the Panthers out of the end zone; a defeating stop after moving the ball with relative ease minutes before.

MIAMI OVERCOME ADVERSITY; HUNG IN HERE LATE

The Canes looked to respond, but King was intercepted four plays into the ensuing drive—returned 34 yards by Paris Ford, setting the Panthers up at the Miami 12-yard line. Facing a 3rd-and-1 from the three-yard line—the Canes’ defense flexed again and stuffed A.J. Davis for a three-yard loss; on the heels of consecutive competitions to the back. Alex Kessman trotted on for another field goal attempt and Miami trotted into the locker room with a 14-6 lead, ready to receive.

Lashlee dialed up a run for King to start the second half, which the quarterback took 13 yards—but Miami was quick in another third-and-long, where a Pittsburgh miscue bailed them out; this time a hold, resulting in a new set of downs at midfield. After an incompletion to Keyshawn Smith and a 12-yard hook-up with Pope, King found a wide open Mike Harley streaking down the left sideline—the inconsistent receiver readjusting his body for an acrobatic grab, before sprinting to the end zone and a 38-yard score.

Yellen found Addison for a 55-yard hook-up a few moments later—but again, the red zone proved to be Pitt’s biggest enemy. The Canes stuffed DJ Turner for a five-yard loss on second down and an incomplete pass to Addison on third-and-long had Kessman rolling out for his third kick of the day.

King tossed his second pick of the day—retuned 34 yards by Marquis Williams to the Miami one-yard line—where Yellen dumped to a wide open Moraga, while the defense sold out on the run. Pitt finally found the end zone at the 9:30 mark in the third quarter, cutting the Canes’ lead to 21-16.

Miami responded with a three-and-out—and for those who have suffered through the past decade-and-a-half of Hurricanes football, a realization that this could be where things went off the rails. Theoretically, Pittsburgh was due—and despite all the solid defense to this point, the Panthers were getting the ball and had a legit shot to take the lead.

Instead, the Canes defense lined up for a game-defining 3rd-and-2 where Phillips and Quincy Roche unloaded on Yellen—Roche recovering the fumble, giving Miami a shot to deliver a knockout-style blow. King was sacked on first down, but on 2nd-and-17 Lashlee went back to his bag of tricks—exploiting the middle of the field and setting Mallory loose, much like Harris was on the game’s first score.

King hit the big tight end in stride and with 5:40 left in the third quarter—Mallory ran for the 45-yard score, while the Canes took a 28-16 lead.

Pitt didn’t go down without a fight; overcoming a 1st-and-20 on the ensuing drive and rolling 74 yards on 10 plays—but three incompletions just outside the red zone set up a 4th-and-3 and a field goal attempt, cutting Miami’s lead to eight and keeping it a one-score game.

The Canes bled 7:11 off the clock on a 14-play, 65-yard drive—culminating with a 37-yard field goal from Jose Borregales—pushing the lead on 12 with just over four minutes remaining. A touchdown would’ve been more fulfilling—but the kick proved to be a nice little way to close out considering Miami’s kicking woes the past two seasons—a universal reaction from Hurricanes’ nation and a collective, “No way we make that kick last year”.

Miami racked up 331 yards on the day—to Pittsburgh’s 300-yard outing—and the Canes rushed for 109 yards against a Panthers’ defense that is usually stout against the run. The 31 points scored were the most in regulation against Pitt’s defense dating back to the 34 that Central Florida scored against Pittsburgh in a loss last September.

The Canes turned it over twice—two King interceptions—to the Panthers’ one costly fumble and Miami was penalized five times for 55 yards, while Pitt self-imploded at costly moments and were dinged 10 times for 89 yards.

Still, it was a win the week after a lopsided loss and the type of game Miami has lost in in the past—a disturbing trend as recent as 2019—and in the second year of the Diaz era, these are the incremental steps forward this program needs to take as it works to become a contender again.

NEED A CRACK AT THE BEST TO BECOME A CONTENDER

Same for the loss at Clemson itself; better Miami got a shot at No. 1 this fall and lost, than getting a win up at an average Michigan State or against Wagner—both of which were on the schedule before the COVID reshuffle.

The Canes should also be rooting for another shot at the Tigers in the ACC title game—which remains in reach of Miami can win out. With no divisions this fall, the conference program with the best two records will face off in Charlotte—and with Notre Dame in the mix, as well as a revamped North Carolina (who took a hit with their loss to Florida State), the margin for error this fall is slimmer than usual.

Getting to the big stage and taking lumps—it’s part of becoming a contender and it’s precisely what Clemson went through on their way to the top.

The Tigers reached the ACC title game in 2009—the first full season under Dabo Swinney—where they lost to Georgia Tech for the second time that season, finishing 9-5 on the year. In 2010, some backsliding as Clemson went 6-7.

The Tigers won the ACC in 2011—only to get demolished in their first BCS visit—West Virginia running them over, 70-33.

The margin of error was thin in 2012—a loss to No. 4 Florida State keeping Clemson from the conference title game—but a one-point win over LSU in the Peach Bowl closed out an 11-2 season; another step forward.

Clemson’s next prime-time, big time match-up game mid-October the following year—a battled of undefeateds when the third-ranked Tigers welcomed No. 5 Florida State. This was the Tigers’ moment to show they belonged.

Instead, a 51-14 loss as the Noles rolled their way to a national championship—Clemson again, 11-2 and close—but not yet there.

2014 got off to a rough start when No. 12 Georgia topped No. 16 Clemson, 45-21—proof that the ACC’s second-best couldn’t hang with a quality SEC team. Three weeks later, an overtime loss in Tallahassee—the Tigers fifth loss to the Noles in seven tries and third in a row.

Clemson laid a late-season egg at Georgia Tech—28-6—but rolled Oklahoma, 40-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl for a 10-3 finish and strong close to Dabo’s sixth full season at the helm. Come 2015, an undefeated regular season, ACC title and a Playoff win over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, before falling 45-40 to Alabama for a national title.

A year later, Clemson picked up their first national championship since 1981. Two years later, another—while losing two other title games and falling in the Playoffs, to the eventual champs.

Learning how to be a winner, unfortunately starts with learning how to overcome big stage losses.

How do coaches grow in these moments?  How do outgoing upperclassmen pass down that sense of urgency to the next crop of greats—“We didn’t get it done, but you guys need to earn another shot and take care of business”. What is the sales pitch for recruits as programs take these small steps forward?

Regarding the latter, it’s not just hanging tough in the big games—it’s showing and winning the games that are supposed to be won, like Pittsburgh last week and Virginia this Saturday night.

CANES MUST WIN ALL WINNABLE GAMES AND CLOSE STRONG

The Canes got a break with the schedule reshuffle as Miami heads to Charlottesville in even-numbered years—but instead gets the Cavaliers in South Florida this weekend.

Last’s season’s win was a defensive slugfest with dominant red zone defense that had the Canes escaping with an improbably 17-9 on a Friday night. Miami was coming off the wrong side of a shootout with Virginia Tech, rallying late after falling into a 28-0 hole but losing 42-35.

A change at quarterback and a few key plays—including a late score in the final couple of minutes—sealed the low-scoring victory against the 4-1, No. 20 team in the nation. A week later, Miami no-showed against 1-5 Georgia Tech—falling in overtime to a Yellow Jackets’ team that finished 3-9 under a first-year head coach.

Inconsistency and no sense of urgency—it did the Hurricanes in often last year, as well as countless times this past decade-plus.

While the loss to Clemson was a setback, a spirited effort against Pittsburgh got Miami back to winning ways—and they must continue.

This 1-3 Virginia squad is not the same bunch that reached the Orange Bowl last season, giving Florida a run for their money in a big bowl game. The Cavs are a double-digit underdog to the Canes and this is must-win territory for Miami if the Canes are to maximize this 2020 season with the experienced Kind under center.

Bronco Mendenhall is as defensive-minded as Pat Narduzzi last week, so it’s a given the Cavs will look to rattle Miami’s quarterback play—forcing mistakes in effort to steal one.

How will Lashlee and King respond? Will receivers create some separation and find ways to help out their quarterback and a porous offensive line that can only buy so much time? Will the defense tighten up—giving up less big plays and making those key third-down and red zone stops—the difference last week, as well as last year’s showdown with Virginia?

A win will get Miami to 5-1 and most-likely in the Top 10 before a bye week and Friday (11/6) showdown at North Carolina State. From there, a road trip to Virginia Tech, a home showdown against Georgia Tech, one final away game at Wake Forest and a regular season finale against North Carolina—the biggest remaining challenge.

A shot at 9-1 going into that Coastal clash with the Tar Heels—it’s within reach and should be the goal of every coach and player on this squad—but it starts with simply showing up this week and delivering the good against Virginia.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

October 22, 2020

MIAMI RESPONDS FROM CLEMSON LOSS WITH HARD-FOUGHT WIN OVER PITT


Miami at top-ranked Clemson—primetime, under the lights at Death Valley, with all of college football fixated on this showdown.

Win, lose, or draw—these are the type of match-ups those who play the game absolutely live for.

The seventh-ranked Hurricanes roll in as one of the most-exciting storylines of this quirky season; bouncing back from a disastrous inaugural campaign for Manny Diaz last fall—though the second-year head coach deserves credit for some swift and effective off-season moves that have Miami 3-0 and playing some electrified football months after getting shut out in a third-tier bowl game.

Moving to a spread offense and reeling in SMU’s Rhett Lashlee to run it was half the battle—but the addition of 23-year old grad transfer D’Eriq King has proven to be the special sauce that has taking things next-level so quickly for Miami.

The lone downside for the Hurricanes; King will most-likely take his talents to the NFL next spring—despite the NCAA granting players an extra year of eligibility in this COVID-defined season—meaning Miami is set to backslide on some level in year three under Diaz, but none of that matters right now.

SAY WHAT, SAY WHAT—ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN

Something magical is happening—and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to live in the moment and to count our blessings. Tomorrow isn’t promised and being consumed with down-the-road pitfalls is wasted energy. All we can deal with is what is currently starting us in the face—the next obstacle we must overcome—and for Miami, it’s a championship caliber Clemson team that hasn’t lost a game at home since 2016.

Miami’s lackluster offense of the past few years is no more. King’s arm, legs, maturity and decision-making—coupled with Lashlee’s up-tempo play calling—has the Hurricanes finally looking modern age—opposed to the stuck-in-molasses, slow-moving antiquated machine they’ve unforgivably been for too long.

All that to say, Miami hasn’t faced anything Clemson-caliber over the first three games of the season—which makes it hard to know where the ceiling is for the Hurricanes, as well as how exposed UM could look against a true contender with a two-deep that could hang with a lot of program’s first-stringers.

The Tigers finally hit the big time in 2015, in what was year seven for Dabo Swinney, after taking over halfway through the 2008 season for long-time Clemson coach Tommy Bowden. Getting promoted from within as a wide receivers coach that was part of an underachieving regime—not sure what was more impressive; the fact Swinney rose to the top of the sport—or the fact that CU’s top brass gave him enough time to build a dynasty.

FROM ZERO TO HERO; DABO’S STORY

Swinney got off to a decent start; a 9-5 run in 2009 where the Tigers managed to win a watered-down Atlantic division—but immediately backslid to 6-7 year two. In 2011, a 10-4 run and ACC title were marred by a 70-33 beatdown by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl—the type of game that could truthfully get a coached fired, but Clemson remained all in with the unproven Swinney.

11-2 and another Atlantic crown in 2012 seemed to right the ship—the Tigers eking out a win over LSU in the Peach Bowl—which led to a pre-season No. 8 ranking in to kick off the 2013. Clemson wound up taking out No. 5 Georgia in the opener and getting to No. 3 and 6-0 by mid-October, setting up a game-of-the-season showdown against No. 5 Florida State—who’d hit the ground running behind Jameis Winston.

For those who recall this one on ABC in primetime—camera on the Tigers’ busses, which were a raucous, animated site before Clemson ran down the hill, slapped the rock and planned to roll in one of those program-defining game that had eluded them for so long. Instead, Winston and the Noles dismantled the Tigers. 51-14.

Clemson remained a step behind Florida State for one more season—falling in Tallahassee in overtime—while getting wrecked by Georgia Tech, 28-6 in Atlanta late in the year, before the start of a five-year run where the Tigers went 69-5, reaching the national championship game four times and winning it twice in three seasons.

Some deeper math; Clemson’s five losses since 2015—a national championship nail-biter against Alabama, a one-point home loss to Pittsburgh (in a national championship year), a three-point road loss at Syracuse (losing a starting quarterback before halftime),  a Playoff loss to a Crimson Tide team that won it all and getting smacked around by LSU in last year’s title game.

Despite this body of work—as well as an inability to admit some of Miami’s glaring flaws, Hurricanes message boards remain loaded with overconfident fans who believe a big win is on the horizon.

In defense of this contingent, this Clemson team in 2020 is not the juggernaut that went 15-0 in 2018. The Tigers are still a top program—especially with an experienced Trevor Lawrence under center, who with running back Travis Etienne, are primed to give Miami’s defense fits all night; especially with exploitable, slow linebackers and an interior line that’s struggled to stop the run.

OUTSIDER SCOOP ON CANES’ INSIDE PROBLEMS

Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel offered up a detailed piece regarding the Canes being “back”, as well as key factors in the weekend’s marquee showdown. Even better, Thamel dug deep with some “unnamed ACC assistant” chatter—where these coaches were quick to point out some of Miami’s weaknesses in a way any head-in-the-sand fan refuses to acknowledge.

“They look like ‘The U’ across the board,” one coach shared. “They have just two linebackers who are stiff and aren’t great tacklers (Bradley Jennings Jr. and Zach McCloud) and their interior defensive linemen are average. When your interior and your linebackers are both weaknesses, that’s a problem if a team can run the ball.”

Spoiler alert; Clemson can run the ball. Hell, even Louisville ran the ball effectively against Miami weeks back—averaging 4.3 yards-per-carry and rushing for 209 yards in the loss. For the Hurricanes to pull off an upset against the Tigers, Miami will need to get up on Clemson early, a la the 14-3 lead at Louisville and an ability to answer any score.

Thamel also points out that the Canes’ offensive line was one of the worst in college football last fall—giving up a whopping 51 sacks of Jarren Williams, N’Kosi Perry and even Tate Martell, who played eight snaps in the bowl game and was still sacked twice behind a porous line.

Credit to Garin Justice for shoring up the o-line on the off-season and getting it spread-ready in his first season with new look-Miami—but the line’s MVP remains King, whose elusiveness and overall play has kept the Canes front five out of trouble, or at minimum, under heavier scrutiny. Still, other ACC coaches are quick to point out what the naked eye, or super-fan doesn’t see.

“They are still a below-average offensive line,” said another opposing assistant. “Their quarterbacks slipperiness allows them not to take sacks and make plays. They haven’t played a good defense and they haven’t played a good defensive line.”

Inarguable points, tough as that may be to swallow. That said, this 2020 version of Clemson hasn’t played anyone of Miami’s athletic caliber this season, either—beating Wake Forest and The Citadel out the gate, before “only” beating Virginia by 18 points last weekend, surrendering 23 points and 417 yards to a good-not-great Cavaliers squad.

Thamel asks, “Is this the Clemson we remember”, in regards to past success and another ACC assistant who’s “studied” the Tigers, feels they’re not.

“This is not the same Clemson team of the last three years,” shared that assistant. “I don’t know if anyone is. Just look at what they lost. But are they the best team in the ACC? Yes.”

Despite what the Tigers aren’t, they’re still the cream of the conference crop and are deeper than anyone else in the ACC. Their veteran coaching staff—especially the wise old Brent Venables on the defensive side of the ball—know that Miami goes as far as King takes them on Saturday night.

“I think he’ll struggle with these guys.” another assistant coach said of King. “They’ll mix it up enough to make him sit in the picket. I’d be shocked if he can get to the edge … He’s 5-9. he’s not going to sit there and beat you in the pocket. That’s not what he does best. He’s not going to sit back there and read you Make him read the defense.”

In Thamel’s back and forth with these coaches, most felt that even a Clemson that isn’t what it was is still enough to beat Miami, as-is—though some expected the Canes to hang for at least a half.

STEP ONE; MIAMI MUST SHOW UP—PROVE IT BELONGS

While there are no moral victories and Miami is certainly playing to win—as this is undoubtably a winnable game in the quirkiest of seasons—the Canes simply can’t get blown out by the Tigers. UM simply can’t afford a repeat of what was experienced in Tallahassee in 2013 when No. 7 Miami was throttled by No. 3 Florida State, 41-14 in an  undefeated match-up that sent the Canes spiraling, losing three of their final five games after that setback.

The hangover even carried over to 2014, where Miami went 6-7 in year four for Al Golden—who was relieved of his duties the following October after a sixth-ranked Clemson squad slaughtered the Canes at home, 58-0; a beating fans actually stomached as they knew it’d be the end of the schlub in the tie.

Golden was understandably shit-canned the next morning.

Should Miami be unable to spar four quarters with Clemson, the Hurricanes need to put together a gutty performance like they did in Tallahassee back in 1999 against the top-ranked, eventual champs.

The game was knotted 21-21 at the half—though an 80-yard hook-up between Kenny Kelly and Santana Moss in the waining moments of the first quarter showed that the canes weren’t backing down. The two hooked up again early in the second for Miami’s first and only lead of the day—before Florida State responded and knotted things up at intermission.

The second half was all Seminoles as their defense shut the Canes out and their offense chipped away—a third quarter field goal and early fourth quarter touchdown, putting the game away. Florida State won out, topping No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl en route to the program’s second national title—while Miami unwittingly took the moral victory of the season—falling short in a comeback to take out second-ranked Penn State at home weeks prior.

Hard fought losses to the Nittany Lions and Seminoles were building blocks that set the stage for a monster run over the next four years, where Miami hit for the BCS cycle—Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Orange—played in two national title games, won one, had one stolen and deserved to play in a third, going 46-4 over that span

Miami’s current Football Chief of Staff, and former safety great Ed Reed was unquestionably the leader of the 2001 squad—but in 1999 he was merely a sophomore that wasn’t able to help Mike Rumph on an 80-yard hook up between Kevin Thompson and Chafie Fields, allowing Penn State to escape, 27-23.

Reed and Rumph have both shared how the adversity of that loss and busted play fueled them for years as Hurricanes, and beyond—while getting that shot against top program and highly-ranked teams is a measuring stick every potential contender must endure.

QUIRKY SEASON JUST KEEPS GETTING QUIRKIER

Clemson wasn’t on Miami’s radar this fall, pre-COVID. The Canes would’ve taken on Wake Forest this Friday night, coming off games against Pitt, Michigan State, UAB, Wagner and Temple. Instead, the Canes wound up with a measuring stick showdown against the Tigers and come in in slightly more battle-tested with King at the helm,  a road win at Louisville and a home rout of rival Florida State.

This is also taking place in an odd-ball year, where home field advantage is gone and a upsets are springing up on a weekly basis.

Kansas State falls to Arkansas State week one, but rebounds a week later to upset Oklahoma?

The Sooners fall to 1-2, failing to rebound against Iowa State—their lone win against Missouri State as they limp into a Red River Rivalry—that by 2020 standards, they’ll probably win.

Mississippi State shocks defending champion LSU in the debut of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense?

TCU goes 5-7 last fall, drops one at Iowa State but responds with an upset of No. 9 Texas?

This might not be the season anyone was expecting, but it’s the one we wound up with—and the college football world is quickly learning that nothing is as seems and everything is up for grabs any given week.

On paper, Clemson win this football game—maybe by three-plus touchdowns if in front of a packed house, too. But this isn’t on paper. there is no packed house and in this alternate reality, how it plays out is anyone’s guess.

No, Miami doesn’t have the horses to go toe-to-toe with Clemson’s two-deep. Yes, there are holes at linebackers and in the interior of the line—and yes, there’s little depth at corner, while a lack of focus at wide receiver is resulting in inconsistent play that one could handle against the Seminoles or Cardinals, but missed opportunities against the Tigers could be the difference in this ball game.

In a season where the fifth-seeded Miami HEAT hid out in the Orlando bubble and knocked off #4, #1 and #3 en route to an 12-3 and NBA Finals berth—it begs the question, why not this Miami team on this given night?

It’s hard to predict the Hurricanes upset a Tigers squad that’s only lost five games in five seasons—and hasn’t lost at home since 2016—but it’s no easier to say this talented-enough Miami team doesn’t have enough in the take to go four quarters against a Clemson squad that by all accounts isn’t the true juggernaut they were years passed.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

October 9, 2020

MIAMI GET ITS ‘TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN’ MOMENT AT CLEMSON


This one was over before it even started—a dream scenario-type evening for the Miami Hurricanes—who dismantled the Florida State Seminoles, 52-10 in primetime at HardRock last Saturday night. It was the biggest beating the Canes laid on the Noles since 1976 (47-0) and was the first time 50+ points were scored in the series. Definitely the kind of history one wants to be on in this storied rivalry.

On a grander scale, it was just the type of evening the doctor ordered in regards to the trajectory both programs are headed. Miami appears to be turning a corner year two in the Manny Diaz era—the adaption of the spread offense under first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, as well as much-needed stability at quarterback with grad transfer D’Eriq King—the Hurricanes are college football’s most-invigorated bunch.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles continue a free fall into oblivion. A program that once was the beacon of head coaching stability with Bobby Bowden at the helm for decades, first-year head coach Mike Norvell is Florida State’s third different leader during Miami’s four-game win-streak in the series. Insult to injury came in the form of Norvell missing his first game in this rivalry due to COVID-19, laid up in Tallahassee while his team took a colossal beating.

Before this recent streak. the Canes had lost seven in a row in the series—and one One doesn’t have to look far in the rearview to drudge up some painful memories; especially at HardRock, where the Noles had won five in a row between 2008 and 2016. Visions of ones-that-got-away—local talent like Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook, playing for an in-state rival and making mincemeat of the Canes; at times felt like the bleeding would never stop—both on the field, a well as the recruiting trail.

The Hurricanes are thankfully getting back to keeping those next-level running backs at home, too—as the coming out party for both Don Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton continues. Knighton, a former FSU commit flipped to UM after Chaney Jr. had committed, welcoming the competition—while Chaney Jr. is one of those throwback talents who was all about ‘The U’ from day one. Both freshmen hit the ground running this fall and are proving to be ideal compliments to the hard-nosed Cam’Ron Harris, who already matched last year’s five touchdowns three games into 2020.

Miami put up 517 yards against Florida State, going into cruise control-mode at the half, sitting on a 35-3 lead. The Noles finished with 330 total yards against a Hurricanes defense that held them in check all evening. The iconic Turnover Chain made three appearances, while players like Harris declined the Touchdown Rings after his two scores, giving them to his offensive linemen instead—the culture seemingly changing one play at time.

LONG-AWAITED CULTURE SHIFT FINALLY UNDERWAY

A small gesture, but one that certainly confirms a culture shift is underway at Miami and should have fans excited about the future. First-year football Chief of Staff, Ed Reed is also already having a cultural impact—as every facet of this program top to bottom will instantly be better by way of an all-time Miami great—and NFL Hall of Famer—so closely tied to UM’s day-to-day.

Miami moved up to No. 8 in both polls and will go into a bye week 3-0 before a road trip to take on No. 1 Clemson in Death Valley—again, in primetime. It’s the ultimate litmus test in a quirky season where the Canes and Tigers weren’t set to meet, until out-of-conference games got the boot in favor of a few more in-conference match-ups—and should be welcomed by all, as getting a crack at top programs is the only way to tell where one truly stands.

Critics continue asking if the Hurricanes are “back”—the annual premature build-up of Miami, only to tear the program down if or when it gets tagged in the mouth at some point this season. Understandable as it’s good business for the media to over-hype the polarizing program that is nationally loathed, but locally loved.

As the legend Jimmy Johnson stated after the Canes’ 10-0 start in 2017—Miami won’t be “back” until that sixth national championship is claimed—but on a weekend college football went so haywire for many, UM getting to 3-0 in dominating fashion over a bitter rival; it was a hell of a way to close out September.

Those paying attention saw No. 3 Oklahoma blow a 21-point third quarter lead against a Kansas State team who fell to Arkansas State in their opener—the unranked Wildcats tearing off 24 unanswered in the upset. Meanwhile, down in Baton Rouge, No. 6 LSU was the first SEC victim of Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense—the Bulldogs hanging 623 yards and 44 points on the defending champs.

There was also No. 8 Texas barely surviving a road test at Texas Tech—down 15 with 3:13 remaining, before tying things up and surviving in overtime, despite giving up 56 points in regulation.

Meanwhile, Miami continues shocking the nation with a best-case-scenario turnaround after a dismal 6-7 run last fall—on the heels of a 7-9 under Mark Richt, after his squad’s 10-0 start in 2017.

The hiring of Lashlee, the reeling-in of King—as well as poaching a crosstown kicker in FIU’s Jose Borregales—it gave Hurricanes supporters off-seasonhope, though it was somewhat tempered based on Miami’s over-hype the past 15 seasons. Even when everything looks like it’s lining up the correct way, all hell has had a way of breaking loose for UM—dating back to that late Fiesta Bowl flag in the wee hours of 2003.

FAST START DOESN’T ABSOLVE LAST YEAR’S FLOP

Just like the Hurricanes aren’t officially “back”, Diaz also isn’t yet out of the woods after a brutal inaugural season—one that won’t soon be forgotten after the year ended with a three-game losing streak to lowly FIU, Duke and Louisiana Tech, who shut the Canes out in a third-tier in the bowl game.

Toss in the fact Miami faithful have bought into fool’s gold the past decade, by way of wrong-fit head coaches, or seasons that started strong, but ended with a thud—it’s going to take more than wins over UAB, Louisville and a bad Florida State team to crown Diaz “the one”. Keeping this team level-headed after any modicum of prosperity; it was a killer in 2019, as well as recent years passed.

Again, that mortifying three-game losing streak last fall—it came on the heels of big wins over the Noles and Cardinals, when Miami got big-headed and dropped its guard. Learning from those mistakes, these Canes must be mentally prepped for the meat of the schedule with Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia on deck—some thorn-in-the-side ACC programs that have all caught Miami slipping.

The rout of Florida State was a definite step forward for Miami, but it also must be taken in context. The Seminoles aren’t a good football team—haven’t been in a few years now—and the Hurricanes are riding high due to a level of maturity and experience at quarterback that the program has been void of for almost two decades. Despite most knowing this to be the case, it hasn’t stopped a lot of premature and overconfident, “We want Clemson!” chatter as Miami rolls through a bye week.

In a season where the fifth-seeded Miami Heat defied bubble odds with a 12-3 playoff run that had them toppling #4 Indiana, #1 Milwaukee and #3 Boston, en route to the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 2014—it’d be foolish to not give the Canes a fighting chance against the Tigers. This 2020 sports calendar has been as quirky and unpredictable as any in recent memory—and where a neutral court and no fans put the Heat in a mano y mano competitive situation—Miami playing in a sparsely packed Death Valley is not the same as full-throttle Clemson.

Still, that is a far cry from a belief that the Hurricanes belong on the same player-to-player, competitive field as the Tigers, program-wise right now—and Miami fans failing to acknowledge this are setting themselves up for a lot of misguided frustration this season, as well as 2021 when King is (most-likely) gone and a fresh new, inexperienced face is under center.

Those needing proof, just look at the past decade-plus of Miami football and all the program’s false starts that supporters have over-bought into.

CANES LOOKED “BACK” IN RECENT YEARS, BUT WERE FAR OFF

The Canes landed on the right side of a season-opening shootout at No. 18 Florida State in 2009 and went from unranked to No. 9 in the country after taking out No. 14 Georgia Tech at home a week later. Cue the standard “we back” chatter going into No. 11 Virginia Tech, where Miami was slaughtered, 31-7. From there, eked out a one-point win over No. 8 Oklahoma in a bounce-back game—the Sooners without veteran starter Sam Bradford—and picked up wins over Florida A&M and Central Florida, before blowing an overtime loss to Clemson late October.

Miami then beat Wake Forest, Virginia, Duke and South Florida—but sandwiched between those, another loss to the Butch Davis-led Tar Heels for a 9-3 regular season that ended with a Citrus Bowl loss to Wisconsin. A year later, Randy Shannon stumbled to 7-5 in his fifth season as head coach and was fired weeks before the Canes got crushed in the Sun Bowl by Notre Dame.

In 2013—year three of the Al Golden era—Miami rolled out to a 7-0 start, hyped by a defensive-fueled win over a No. 12 Florida squad that went on to finish the season 4-8, with a bottom-out home loss to Georgia Southern. The Canes crept all the way up to No. 7 for a road showdown against No. 3 Florida State and left on the wrong end of a 41-14 beatdown.

An unranked Virginia Tech squad gave the No. 14 Hurricanes an even worse beating a week later—42-14—before Miami surrendered 18 unanswered in the final quarter at Duke the following week, knocking them out of the Top 25. Wins over Virginia and Pittsburgh followed, before getting embarrassed by homegrown Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in the Citrus Bowl.

The 2017 season felt different talent-wise. Malik Rosier was a question mark at quarterback, but he managed to overachieve in what should’ve been a strong senior campaign from Brad Kaaya.

Coming into the new season fresh off the program’s first bowl win in a decade, a gutsy Miami squad finally broke that seven-game losing streak Florida State, with a last second win in Tallahassee. UM seemed to gain momentum each week in “Cardiac Canes” fashion—while late game heroics against Georgia Tech, Syracuse and North Carolina kept Miami’s dream season alive and an undefeated record resulted back-to-back November primetime showdowns at home.

No. 9 Miami pulled away late against No. 13 Virginia Tech, 28-10—setting up the perfect scenario with No. 3 Notre Dame looming. ESPN’s GameDay made for an electric atmosphere, the Irish were swamped early and the Canes experienced one of those rare perfect evenings where everything just works, in game-of-the-season, 41-8 rout.

Miami survived two 14-point deficits to Virginia the following week, before the offense was exposed by a four-win Pittsburgh team in the regular season finale. Clemson rolled big in the Canes’ first-ever ACC Championship Game appearance, 38-3—before Wisconsin out-gutted Miami in the Orange Bowl; an early 14-3 lead gone by half in a 34-24 loss and three-game losing streak that took all the piss out of that 10-0 start.

Three cautionary tale seasons in recent memory—yet few seem to have learned their lesson about what it takes for Miami to be back to true contender status.

TWO-DEEP STILL WAY OFF FROM TRUE CONTENDER STATUS

Even with a win over Clemson and a would-be, socially distanced miracle season—Miami still lacks a two-deep that could hang with the likes of bigs like Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia or Alabama—and is literally one or two injuries away from a fully derailed season. Contrast that to legit contenders who reload across the board the way the Canes used to in the dominant 80’s.

Come 2021, Miami is not only set to see King headed to the NFL—a slew of would-be seniors will most-likely forego their final year of eligibility to chase NFL paychecks.

Tight-end Brevin Jordan is playing his way into a first or second round pick, while there’s no reason for Harris to keep taking that uncompensated running back abuse. Those highly-touted, former 5-Star transfers from the Pac-12—Bubba Bolden and Jalean Phillips—are both also having the type of seasons that will send them packing a year early, while Temple transfer Quincy Roche is another who will probably decline the NCAA’s bonus year—content with a solid one-year showing at UM.

Longtime Canes like Jon Ford, Amari Carter, Zach McCloud and Mike Harley all graduate—not to mention other yet to be named, would-be seniors who follow current Canes’ culture by leaving prematurely; feeling they’re ready, despite experts and scouts telling them otherwise.

All the news isn’t bad, as the future is certainly bright for Miami—the 2020 class already yielding positive results by way of what Chaney Jr. and Knighton are showing in early season toughness and work ethics as true freshmen. Quarterback of the future Tyler Van Dyke was also part of this most-recent haul, as well as quality kids like Avantae Williams, Jalen Rivers, Elijah Roberts and Chantz Williams.

The drops and inconsistency at wide receiver, by anyone not named Dee Wiggins—Miami is prepping for guys like Michael Redding, Dazalin Worsham, Xavier Restrepo and late addition Keyshawn Smith to take over; all of which seem to have the tools and toughness needed at the position.

The Canes finally landed a their first 5-Star crown jewel type player since running back Duke Johnson in defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, of Palmetto—as well as American Heritage athlete James Williams. Miami currently has the ninth-ranked class—second best in the ACC—with 22 “hard commits” and that number can grow based on how the Hurricanes look against Clemson, as well as the rest of this season.

MAXIMIZE POTENTIAL DREAM SEASON; STAY LEVEL-HEADED

In a year when up is down, left is right and little adds up—the processing and summing up of these Hurricanes remains one more thing to try and make sense of. Who are these Hurricanes right now, what will they grow into this season—and how does one temper the excitement of this season, while properly assessing where the team will be year three in the Diaz era, without this season’s key components?

In most cases, the modus operandi would be to soak up 2020 for all it’s worth and to deal with next year, next year—but the Hurricanes’ experience is always a different animal in comparison to other more traditional programs. Miami’s rich championship history, coupled with a decade and an half of irrelevance—and the embarrassment associated with that level of failure—it’s the catalyst for overbuying into false starts over the years, instead of looking at things through a more logical and reasonable lens.

While Miami continues its preparation for Clemson and looks to shock the world once again—Hurricanes faithful might want to use that time wrapping their arms around what is, what could be and what lies ahead. A special year is underway, by way of a game-changing veteran quarterback and high-octane offense—which should have all Miami fans optimistic for all things 2020.

The trick lies in accepting this season at face value, while not prematurely getting caught up in the being “back” route—or fast-tracking the timeline regarding being a bonafide contender again.

Make 2020 all it can be, close strong recruiting-wise for 2021 and identify that next crop of team leaders ready to fill the void of the mature group that is captaining the ship this fall.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint with BleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.com where he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello earns a living helping icon Bill Murray build a lifestyle apparel brand. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.

October 1, 2020

MIAMI HURRICANES DEMOLISH FLORIDA STATE IN QUEST TO AGAIN BE CONTENDERS

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