‘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 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.

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.

MIAMI HURRICANES SURVIVE ANOTHER GRIND-IT-OUT WIN OVER VIRGINIA


It wasn’t the game Miami Hurricanes faithful were looking for, but it’s the game everyone got—the Canes surviving the Virginia Cavaliers, 19-14 on Saturday night, under the lights at HardRock Stadium.

Even the bookies expected more out of this one—Miami a two-touchdown favorite—the Canes scoring over 30 points in every win this season, while even squeaking out 17 in a lopsided loss to Clemson.

All that to say, anyone who’s watched this rivalry over the years—especially since head coach Bronco Mendenhall found his footing in Charlottesville the past couple of seasons—they’re well aware the Cavaliers reinvent ways to play the Hurricanes tough.

Last year, a match-up similar to this most-recent showdown—Miami hanging on for a 17-9 win, fueled by several key red zone stops and holding the ‘Hoos to three field goals.

Back in 2018, a 16-13 road loss one week after a thrilling comeback win over Florida State—a backbreaking type of game that ended a five-game win-streak and saw the Canes dropping four in a row, embroiled in a quarterback controversy, before picking up two late season regular season wins to close out.

Miami almost went letdown-mode in the 2017 version of this game—9-0 after back-to-back primetime wins against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, yet twice falling behind—14-0 and 28-14—before pulling away big time in the second half, 44-28.

FAST START, SLOW MIDDLE, RESPECTABLE FINISH

This go-around looked like Vegas was right, early on—Miami on the board with a two-play touchdown drive less than a minute into the contest—a 32-yard strike to Will Mallory, followed by a deep ball to the wide open Mike Harley, who scampered 43 years for the touchdown.

High fives all around, as few expected the Hurricanes to only score 12 more points the rest of the evening—yet that’s precisely how this one shook out. Virginia answered with an 11-play, 64-yard drive—using three different quarterbacks employing a whatever-it-takes approach—which makes sense for a 1-3 team on the road against a 4-1 favorite.

By night’s end, Brennan Armstrong remained Mendenhall’s go-to under center—16-of-30 for 181 yards and two touchdowns—while also leaning on Armstrong’s legs for 15 carries and 91 yards.

Keytaon Thomspon and Iraken Armstead both saw a handful of snaps as well—but between the two of them, rushed nine times for 46 yards and only attempted one pass attempt, which fell incomplete. Even knowing these two were decoys, the Miami defense still defended against the pass, instead selling out and stuffing the run.

The Cavaliers threw for 181 yards on the night—35 of which came on a late touchdown from Armstrong to Ra’Shaun Henry with 5:27 remaining—Al Blades Jr. inexplicably out of place, allowing Henry to get wide open for what could’ve been a brutal scenario for Miami had Dee Wiggins not drawn a pass interference play on a 3rd-and-8 deep ball with 2:56 remaining.

The fresh set of downs allowed the Canes to bleed another two-and-a-half-minutes off the clock—the Cavaliers taking over at their own 20-yard line with :23 remaining and no timeouts—relying on a last ditch lateral, which resulted in the game’s lone turnover with Quincy Roche recovering the fumble.

No doubt many are growing wary of these survival-type games, as well as Miami finding ways to play down, instead of up. Truth be told, the offense hasn’t looked the same since Clemson exposed the Hurricanes porous offensive line—which resulted in D’Eriq King looking mortal, opposed to unstoppable—as he was against UAB, Louisville and Florida State.

King was an effective 21-of-30 for 322 yards and a touchdown against Virginia—but 14 carries for 28 yards kept him one-dimensions against the Cavaliers’ dense; similarly to the 11 attempts for 32 yards versus Pittsburgh last week.

King averaged 6.9 yards-per-carry in the opener against UAB—as well as 8.1 yards-per-carry in the rout of Florida State. That dropped to 2.1 against Clemson (if taking away the one 56-yarder), 2.9 against the Panthers and 2.0 this past Saturday night.

GROUND GAME RELATIVELY STIFLED SINCE CLEMSON LOSS

As a whole, the Hurricanes have been restrained on the ground as of late, considering the stable of running backs—Cam’Ron Harris, Jaylan Knighton and Don Chaney, Jr.—as well as the mobility at quarterback with an athlete of King’s caliber.

Three games into the season—against lesser defenses like the Blazers, Cardinals and Seminoles—some big runs padded the stats, to the point many were pushing a false narrative about the Hurricanes’ offensive line turning a corner.

Commentators in wins over Louisville and Florida State were fast to point out that Miami’s offensive line gave up a whopping 51 sacks in 2019, but looked to be a renewed unit in 2020 under first year coach Garin Justice—none making reference to the competition, or the fact that the college football world should reevaluate the Canes’ line at the halfway point of this quirky season, after showdowns against defensive-minded programs like Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia.

Much was made about Miami racking up 337 yards on the ground against UAB—including the 66-yard score by Harris, route to a 134 yard performance. Harris topped himself a week later with a 75-yard score at Louisville—while Knighton caught a quick screen and scampered 75 yards to pay dirt, as well–a reception, but still a running back going the distance on a play where the offensive line its job.

King led all rushers with 65 yards against the Noles, while Harris, Chaney Jr. and Knighton ran for a combined 99 yards and four touchdowns.

Two weeks later, Clemson’s front seven set up show in Miami’s backfield all night—the offensive line out-manned, out-matched and out-played—the Canes only rushing for 89 yards on the night (again 56 of which came from King on one play—Miami still settling for three on the possession; -3 rushing yards net on the next three plays.)

Pat Narduzzi and Pitt pounced on the exposed weakness and kept Miami’s ground attack in check all afternoon—109 yard combined between King and four different running backs—and it was obvious Mendenhall was content to do the same; make King one-dimensional and force him to beat you with his arm, which will be the modus operandi of all ACC defensive coordinators the rest of this season, barring the have the personnel to do so.

OFFENSIVE LINE STRUGGLES SINCE EXPOSED

Prior to the Clemson showdown, Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel offered up a detailed piece regarding Miami being “back” and questioning if the Canes could hang with the Tigers. A big part of his piece; some back-and-forth with unnamed ACC assistants and position coaches sharing their thoughts on Miami, circa 2020.

Regarding the offensive line—during a time when ESPN talking heads were hyping a better, more mature front five—the inarguable sentiment was shared:

“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.”

Miami has now played one great defense, two pretty good ones—and while there’s been some improvement, especially regarding tempo in this new spread offense—these Hurricanes are still fielding an offensive line that is a huge liability, and will be for the rest of this football season.

The million dollar question—to what degree with this level of exposure hurt Miami with five games remaining?

Going back to that 10-0 start in 2017, where the Canes managed to eke out their share of early wins—before utter dominance against the Hokies and Fighting Irish—quarterback Malik Rosier was exposed in a regular season loss to a four-win Pittsburgh team and Miami never recovered.

Clemson attacked the Canes in the ACC Championship, rolling 38-3 and snuffing out anything Miami’s offense tried to run—while Wisconsin forced Rosier into three interceptions in the Orange Bowl weeks later.

The Rosier hangover carried into a 7-6 run in 2018, as well—LSU aggressively getting after Rosier— the senior throwing two interceptions and struggling to move the ball all day behind an outmatched offensive line.

Fast-forwarding back to 2020—some upside, receiver play is starting to improve—which should get the running game on a better trajectory.

Harley’s career-high 10-reception, 170-yard outing against Virginia was the most yards for a Canes’ receiver since Phillip Dorsett posted a 201-yard outing against Arkansas State in 2014—and was the most against a conference foe since Allen Hurns put up 173 yards against Pittsburgh the season prior.

It was the type of breakout game many expected from Harley, prior to the midway point of his senior season—his slump seemly breaking with that acrobatic 38-yard touchdown haul-in early third quarter last week against Pittsburgh—and it carried over to the opening possession with the big score against Virginia.

Mark Pope had three grabs for 48 yards—38 coming on one acrobatic grab that was initially called incomplete, but reversed—thought had Miami not held on to win, two crucial back-to-back drops late in the game would’ve defined his evening.

Despite all receivers putting in extra work this past week at Greentree, Harley was truly the only one who looked significantly improved and much more consistent—challenge both Pope and Dee Wiggins to up their game, or Manny Diaz and first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to start looking towards younger players to show if they’re up for the challenge.

DIAZ; CREDIT—AND KNOCKS—WHERE DUE

As for Diaz, the second-year head coach deserves credit for guiding these Hurricanes to a 5-1 start—after a 6-7 run last fall, including a three-game losing streak to end the season.

In years passed, a Clemson-like loss would’ve carried over and destroyed morale—much like last year’s unforgivable loss to Florida International; Miami dropping the regular season finale to Duke and getting shut out by Louisiana Tech in a third-tier bowl in the following weeks.

Flaws and setbacks aside these past two weeks, the Hurricanes showed-up against the Panthers and Cavaliers—which sounds like a gimme, but for whatever reason hasn’t been in recent memory—lest anyone forget falling into 28-0 hole against the Hokies last October, or sleepwalking in an overtime loss to a 1-5 Yellow Jackets team that finished 3-9, with an early loss to The Citadel.

Diaz has been masterful in robbing the Transfer Portal—reeling in Bubba Bolden and Jaelan Phillips two years ago and Roche this off-season; all three of which are currently the Canes’ best defenders—not to mention King; Miami’s most mature and capable quarterback in 15 seasons, which is more of and indictment on the state of the program, than over-the-top praise for the Houston grad transfer.

Diaz also addressed special teams woes the past two seasons, landing Lou Hedley at punter and the game-changing Jose Borregales at kicker—who has been almost flawless this season—a year after the Canes were relying on two walk-ons and a head case that cost Miami at least 2-3 games last fall.

Salvaging the 2019 recruiting class wasn’t doable, due to the timing of Richt’s late December departure in 2018—but the 2020 class brought in instant-impact guys like Chaney Jr. and Knighton—as well as several others who will be the building block for the future.

The 2021 class is currently sitting just outside the Top 10 and second-best in the ACC with 22 “hard commits” and hopefully more to come if Miami can close this season strong.

Recruiting aside, the development, attitude and overall mindset of these players is what will define both Diaz and the program moving forward. Richt, Al Golden and even Randy Shannon all had some National Signing Day wins notched under their belts—but never a next-level program did those wins make.

The Hurricanes had scattered talent across the board, but never a team that morphed into a balanced competitor—while all these units ultimate took on the personality and demeanor of their respective leaders.

FEARED & RESPECTED, VERSUS LIKED & ACCEPTED

If there’s one big knock on Diaz at this point—it would be in his overall 46-year old approach to be relatable to his team and a players’ coach. Diaz comes off in year two as a guy who would prefer to be liked and deemed cool, opposed to having the type of separation that results in a healthy fear and respect  via his players.

When looking back at the Butch Davis era in Miami—those Hurricanes feared Davis in the way a Private would a Master Sergeant. There was nothing overly-friendly about the relationship; everyone understood the hierarchy and properly fell into line—no mistaking Davis at the general and adult in the room.

Davis was a wise-beyond his years 42 years old when he took over the Hurricanes program in 1995 and 47 when he left for the NFL in 2001—Diaz was 44 when he became Miami’s 25 head coach at the end of 2018.

Zero doubt that spending 14 seasons under Jimmy Johnson—winning a national title at ‘The U’ and two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys—definitely puts some mileage on the odometer and takes some tread off the tires.

Granted the world has changed over the past quarter century—look at the national championship caliber head coaches who have won and dominated at the highest level; a list mostly made up of hard-asses who were feared and respected, opposed to coaches who overtly tried to relate to their players and get on their level—guys like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer—all cutthroat, no bullshit and all business.

All that to say, Saban, Swinney and Meyer didn’t just wake up one day—pissing excellence, with the profession completely figured out. All eventually morphed and experienced growing pains when becoming great.

Go back and watch Swinney aw-shucksing his way through halftime of the 2012 Orange Bowl—down 40-29 to West Virginia in an eventual 70-33 ass-kicking. Relive a downtrodden Saban in 2007 after Alabama was upset at home by Louisiana-Monroe—four years after he’d won a national championship with LSU, but failed with the Miami Dolphins.

Most think of these two championship caliber head coaches in their present-day form—forgetting how both reacted and responded before they’d officially arrived.

Diaz is still young and is only two years into this head coaching game—one he took over after three successful year’s as Miami’s defensive coordinators. Conversely, Swinney never held a position higher than wide receivers coach when at 38 years old he took over for the maligned Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season.

The hard-ass snapping at the media after rolling Syracuse this past weekend sure-as-shit isn’t the same rookie he was a dozen years ago—having a lifetime, by college football head coaching standards, to find himself and his style.

Diaz’s youthful energy is a plus, but over-celebrating routine ACC wins is part of a cultural problem at Miami.

Diaz entered the 2019 season taking over for a program Richt saw go 7-9 over a two-year span after that 10-o start in 2017—a youthful up-and-coming coordinator whose passion and personality were always worn on his sleeve.

That first order of business when promoted to head coach; a questionable WWE-style set-up at UM’s Soffer Indoor Practice facility—where players were encouraged to wrestle, beat-up and take out their “frustrations” in tackling dummies sporting 7-6 jerseys reflecting Miami’s 2018 record.

Diaz even got in on the action—tackling and beating up the dummies like his players—all of which left fans in wait-and-see mode. Would this approach work—or fall flat? It proved to be the latter after the Canes backslid with a 6-7 season—low-lighted with that FIU embarrassment and bowl game shutout; the program slipping to 13-16 since that out-the-gate run in 2017.

This season, Diaz broke out victory cigars after Miami laid it’s biggest win on Florida State since 1976—scoring the most-every points the Canes ever have on the Noles as well, in the 52-10 smackdown—an act that can be bought or sold either way, depending on the angle one wants to take.

Was it wrong to stop and smell the roses along the way—enjoying a big win over a rival? Probably not, though the fact Miami rolled out sloppy early-on at Clemson after the post-FSU bye week—it puts the celebratory gesture a bit more under the microscope.

Fact remains, the Canes had zero business losing to the Noles at any point over the past four tries—an thankfully have prevailed against a Florida State program that’s gone 18-21 dating back to the beginning of 2017 and is on their third head coach in four seasons.

So what makes more sense here—a business-as-usual approach attitude and we-expect-to-win-these-games-vibe—or a little gloating … which truthfully comes off a little overzealous on the heels of 6-7 and the tackling dummy event falling flat out the gate.

After the win over Virginia, Diaz again seemed overly-hyped for a game the Canes eked out against a one-win Cavaliers squad—even sliding in the rain in celebratory fashion, like players would, when all was said and done.

Some might love this player-friendly approach—others might loathe it; feeling a head coach in Diaz’s position should be setting at tone that wins like these over Pittsburgh and Virginia are the standard at Miami and that it should be treated in a business-as-usual mindset.

DAMAGED UPPERCLASSMEN VERSUS FRESH-START FRESHMEN

Fact remains, the Hurricanes’ program has lived with a loser’s mentality for too long now—13-16 entering this fall, going back to the end of 2017. Those losing ways have impacted this 2020 class—many of which bailed on the program before this year even got underway; another aspect of this broken culture—DeeJay Dallas, Jon Garvin and Trajan Bandy going pro, while Michael Irvin II and Scott Patchan transferred out.

All that’s left are the finally-turning-a-corner Harley, safety Amari Carter, who gets tossed every other week for targeting—as well as offensive lineman Navaughn Donaldson, who redshirted to rehab a knee injury. Hardly the type of senior leadership championship caliber programs are accustomed to.

The flip side to this frustrating trend; the King effect this season and a grad transfer that has injected some life into the program. Despite any of King’s limitations—the 23-year old quarterback is a winner and in six short games he has raised the level of play of those around him.

It’s been a while since Miami has seen a veteran leader of this caliber—especially one at the most-important position on the field.

All those in the 2020 recruiting class; they’re getting a front row seat to the King show and are starting their Miami careers in a year where the Canes are winning the types of games they used to lose, en route to a 5-1 start and Top 15 ranking with five games remaining.

Closing strong—both on the field and the recruiting trail— might be the shot in the arm Miami needs. From there, another strong showing with the Transfer Portal—it could set up for another step forward in 2021.

Outside of that, Diaz and staff must revamp their approach to recruiting the offensive line—starting with tapping into Big Ten and Big 12 country and working to sell some big boys on getting out of the Northeast and Midwest. It is really that hard of a sales pitch to get those guys down to South Florida for some fun in the sun, nightlife, beach proximity and girls in bikinis? Sounds like a no-brainer.

Long-term, time will tell where things go with both Diaz and this program—but in the short term, Miami is doing the most-important thing it can do to help it’s overall sales pitch right now; it’s winning football games, while remaining in the conference race.

Next up; a bye and then a Friday night road challenge at North Carolina State—the same Wolfpack team that North Carolina demolished, 48-21 in bounce-back this past weekend—a week after the Tar Heels were upset at Florida State.

Virginia Tech,Georgia Tech and Wake Forest will then be all that remain before the Coastal clash of the season on December 5th, when North Carolina visits Miami.

The showdown will be the Canes’ highest-stakes game this season, outside of Clemson—and one worthy of a well-earned, season ending victory cigar—or a loss that leaves Diaz as punching bag and tackling dummy until 2021.

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.

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

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.

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


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.