After months of anticipation, game day is finally here; college football getting the ultimate kickoff in 2019 for the sports’s 150th anniversary; Miami versus Florida—in primetime, with all eyes on this big-time showdown.
The Gators roll in No. 8 in the country, while the Hurricanes are in that all-too-familiar Others Receiving Votes category; understandable and expected on the heels of a six-loss season, a head coaching change and no proven quarterback—though it doesn’t properly speak to the overall talent level of this squad.
Most have Florida tabbed to take care of business on Saturday night—albeit in much closer fashion than the Gators’ delusional fan base and some of their players are predicting. All that to say, games aren’t played on paper, because if so, last season’s eighth-ranked preseason team—Miami—wouldn’t have gotten boat-raced by LSU in 2018’s season-opener.
PRESEASON RANKINGS BASED ON YESTERDAY’S NEWS; NOT TODAY’S
Preseason predictions are a fickle beast. For the most part, Miami earned a Top 10 ranking going into last fall due to a 10-0 start that included a primetime massacre of then-No. 3 Notre Dame. A regular season-ending loss at Pitt was swept under the rug as the Canes locked up their first Coastal Division title in 14 tries—while a loss to defending national champion Clemson in the ACC title game was expected and also forgiven.
A one-loss Wisconsin squad outlasted Miami in the Orange Bowl; which also wasn’t completely held against the Canes when going into 2018, as a 10-3 record—just as Florida posted in last year—looked good on paper and fit an on-the-rise narrative.
In reality, Miami still had some glaring weaknesses that were fast-exposed against LSU in Dallas, while the Tigers ultimately surprised with a brand new quarterback—Ohio State transfer, Joe Burrow—and a head coach few were expecting to turn a corner so quickly; Ed Orgeron, a perennial assistant who’d struggled in all previous head coaching stints, but ultimately had a break-through season.
That’s not to say Miami is—or isn’t—this year’s LSU, that Manny Diaz is destined to get everything right in his first game leading the Canes, or that r-freshman quarterback Jarren Williams can do game one what Burrow did in his first start; the Tigers’ quarterback cutting his teeth as a back-up the year prior. This is simply a reminder that when a team believes its own hype, as well as those preseason accolades bestowed upon them—things can sometimes go south quickly. Last year’s Canes are living proof and the jury’s out regarding how the Gators respond to their early positioning.
Entering Saturday’s opener, it’s hardly a shock that Florida thinks they’re hot shit—with an air of superiority like it’s 200 and not 2019; when Dan Mullen was calling plays under Urban Meyer and rolling into a new year as defending national champs, opposed to the former offensive coordinator entering year two with an inaugural season that truthfully wasn’t as strong as the 10-3 record it posted.
DEEP-DIVING THE GATORS’ 2018 CAMPAIGN & STUMBLES
Give Florida props for a convincing bowl win over Michigan; though one would be remised to not acknowledge the 62 points the Ohio State laid on the Wolverines in the regular season finale for a seventh-straight series win, which certainly took the piss out of the *other* UM and left them flat for bowl season.
Those three losses? Falling to Kentucky at home (for the first time in 31 years), an understandable 19-point loss to rival Georgia (a title contender and pride of the SEC East) and a 21-point home loss to Missouri; a game that saw starting quarterback Feleipe Franks benched in favor of Kyle Trask— thought it was a short-lived move as the r-sophomore broke his foot in practice days later, allowing Franks to return by default for a home showdown against South Carolina.
The Gators trailed by 17 late in the third quarter before scoring 21 unanswered to avoid the upset against the Gamecocks; who finished 7-6 and fell to Virginia in the postseason, 28-0.
The point in this quick history lesson; Florida’s perceived invincibility and the supreme confidence in Franks both seem built on a similar house of cards to last year’s Miami hype. Maybe the Gators are the real-deal and will prove it Saturday night—but there’s at least room to question if this team is as good as they believe they are.
Miami’s off-season approach has been the exact opposite—and with good reason as one can’t run their mouths when on the wrong end of a 35-3 post-season ass-kicking; on that forced former head coach Mark Richt into early retirement; the keys tossed to his former defensive coordinator who was 18 days into his new stint as head coach at Temple University.
Diaz drove home the we-have-no-business-talking mantra home from early on, when he posted 7-6 signs on tackling dummies all over UM’s new indoor practice facility and encouraged his players to take out their frustration there—not on their smartphones, offering up any bulletin board material.
Hurricanes players have been suspiciously quiet and even-keeled these past few months, while the Gators are spewing noise any time a microphone is stuck in one of their smug faces.
“I don’t really see them as a challenge. I just see them as another team really, because I feel like my whole team—we face big-boy teams,” defensive end and linebacker Andrew Chatfield said about Miami months back. “They faced one SEC team and got smashed by LSU last time I checked. But whatever though, it’s just another game.”
A spirited rivalry dating back to 1938—of which the Hurricanes have taken seven of the past eight is, “just another game”. Upperclassmen should’ve thought about muzzling the r-freshman, but instead many chose to pile-on when given the opportunity.
HOW FAR APART ARE MIAMI & FLORIDA AS NEW SEASON GETS ROLLING?
Regarding Miami, there’s been understandable outside focus on the setbacks of 2018—yet a short memory regarding what this program successfully managed to do in 2017; the same way few recall that four only managed to win four games while the Canes were rolling heads en route to winning the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Simply put; the Canes are as far removed from a successful 10-win season as the Gators are dropping six of their final seven in 2017.
Also ignored; as quick as Miami ascended, it crashed down hard the following year—and as bad as Florida was two years back, it won 10 games year one with Mullen; begging the question, are these two teams really as far apart as the way the narrative is being written for 2019’s opener?
What about the monster hit the Gators have taken to an offensive line that was masterful in protecting Franks; buying him time and opening up holes for Lamical Perine and other running backs? Long gone are Martez Ivey, Jawaan Taylor, Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson—paving the way for a lot of youth on the Gators’ line, similar to what Miami is dealing with up front. Any way you slice it, it’s a step back for Florida—while despite the young line, Miami can only improve based on the offense they fielded a year ago.
For both Miami and Florida, each taking on a team of this caliber for an opener deserves the tip of a hat—as it’s always advantageous to work out the kinks against a doormat, or two. Neither gets that luxury this season; both putting their balls and pride on the line Week 0.
Of course facing a foe like each will face this early in the schedule will also alter overall game plans; both head coaches well aware early match-ups like these are usually lost more than they’re actually won. Translation; whoever eliminates mistakes, excels in special teams and get a few fortunate bounces is usually the team that prevails in what should be a low-scoring affair with its share of three-and-outs and rusty timing.
INTANGIBLES OUTWEIGH OVERALL GAME PLANS & STRATEGIES
As far as an X’s and O’s breakdown goes for this one; throw it all out the window for this one as there are simply too many unknown in a late August match-up like this.
Yes, Florida has an advantage with Franks under center—but how will the junior quarterback respond behind his young and green offensive line in the face of UM’s pass rush? Last year #13 had the benefit of protection that he simply won’t have against a Miami fronts seven that has some talent on the defensive line, as well as some of the best linebackers in the nation in Shaq Quarterman and Mike Pinckney—heavily-relied upon seniors who only returned when Diaz was handed the keys to the kingdom.
Williams will deal with the same pressure on his end as the Canes’ line is also inexperienced—though a safe bet new offensive coordinator Dan Enos keeps the newbie reeled in a bit; whereas Franks and his blend of confidence and experience could lead to him taking more chances that might backfire. Miami, and new defensive coordinator Blake Baker, also have years’ worth of film on Franks and know his tendencies, while Williams is an unknown and expectations are low in regards to his carrying the Canes—which could be also blessing in disguise if this game somehow goes UM’s way.
Back to last year’s opener at LSU; Burrow was the biggest question mark for the Tigers—the Canes banking on the transfer turning the ball over. Instead, he had a clean outing (11-of-24 for 140 yards) and played all the part of game manager. By season’s end; Burrow was the MVP of the Fiesta Bowl in LSU’s win over Central Florida—the unknown signal caller playing a big part in a 10-3 season.
Special teams should also have a massive impact on this season opener. For Miami’s sake, it better hope kicker Bubba Baxa has shaken off any of last year’s freshman jitters that left points on the field—while the punting game immediately got an upgrade when former Australian football player Lou Hedley transferred to Coral Gables (by way of City College of San Francisco); a move that could prove MVP-worthy based on the UM’s punting woes the past few seasons.
While it’d be a disservice to LSU—and a handful of the teams that beat Miami last season—it’s impossible to not bring up how often the Canes lost field position battles due to the inept Zach Feagles, as well as his replacement Jack Spicer. Against the Tigers, Feagles first three punts were short, giving LSU the ball at mid-field—which led to 13 first half points. Toss in Baxa having a 45-yard field goal attempts blocked and quarterback Malik Rosier coughing up a painful-to-watch pick-six and it’s no mystery the Canes were in a 27-3 halftime hole they couldn’t dig out of.
Miami looked outmatched by LSU; not so much talent versus talent—but due to holes at quarterback, offensive play calling and shoddy special teams play; all of which continued into ACC play and were a common theme en route to 7-6. If nothing else, simple addition-by-subtraction will play into the Hurricanes’ favor as Richt has yielded to Diaz, Enos has installed a more up-to-date offense and Rosier made way for Williams; who realistically should’ve been given his shot last season based on upside and potential, versus Rosier’s experience and Richt going the “safe” route in a weak Coastal Division.
Aside from all those aforementioned intangibles, it can’t be ignored that literally all the pressure here is on the eighth-ranked Gators; Florida expected to take a step forward this fall, while Miami comes in a bit more stealth and undetected—on the heels of a six-loss season, a new head coach, an entirely new offensive staff and a brand new quarterback. Attention has already been paid to UM’s favorable schedule this year and many have the Canes continuing to improve as the year rolls on; earning them a division title and a crack at defending national champion Clemson in the ACC title game.
With no real pressure on Miami to perform game one—it can afford to play loose and to pleasantly surprise the nation should it pull off an upset that really isn’t all that unthinkable.
ALL THE PRESSURE ON THAT TEAM FROM UP NORTH; THE GATOR
Florida—like Miami last season—is coming off a step-forward season and is expected to go to the next level this fall; hence the overconfidence and belief pouring out of Gainesville; something the Canes are familiar with after so many false starts the past few years, which begged all the, “Is ‘The U’ back?” queries by the media and college football analysts anytime UM did something noteworthy.
There’s a different type of pressure when you’re on the mend and expected to grow year two under a new head coach—versus year one; proven by the fact there were no real expectations for Mullen in 2018 having taken over a four-win team. Anything he did was gravy, but after reaching the 10-win mark—Florida faithful have high expectations for his second act.
Conversely, everything for Miami has come up roses since the morning after losing the Pinstripe Bowl last December—starting the moment Richt abruptly retired and walked away from a multi-million dollar buyout; not wanting to hold his alma mater over a barrel. Had Richt stuck around for a fourth season, the following would most-likely be true as the Canes roll into Camping World Stadium on Saturday night:
— Diaz would be the head coach at Temple University and two former defensive assistants would be running the Canes defense this season; barring either Ephraim Banda and Jonathan Patke didn’t ultimately follow him to Philadelphia as the Owls’ new staff came together. Morale was low after that Wisconsin-sized beat-down. Instead, Banda is co-defensive coordinator and continued working with safeties, Patke handles strikers and special teams and Diaz brought in Blake Baker to run the defense, opposed to simply promoting from with in.
— Quarterman and Pinckney would’ve left for the NFL a year early and the Canes would be breaking in a young, inexperienced group of linebackers this fall—instead of that position being rock-solid and the soul of the defense. The Canes would also be without the services of speedster and special teams demon Jeff Thomas; who was dismissed by Richt, appeared Illinois-bound but earned his way back on to the team through a sit-down with Diaz.
— Richt would’ve made minimal changes to his offensive philosophy—under protest; his hand forced by UM’s administration and the Board of Trustees—which would’ve created some form of contention as coaches don’t like pencil-pushers and suits telling them how to run their program.
— Gus Felder would still be Miami’s strength and conditioning coach instead of David Feely; who’s had an immediate impact on this team since his arrival—getting this Hurricanes’ program in the best shape it’s been in for over a decade.
– The much-criticized Stacy Searels would still be coaching UM’s offensive line instead of NFL veteran Butch Barry; another immediate-impact guy who is getting underclassmen to play above their level, resulting in true freshman Zion Campbell winning the left tackle job while r-freshman John Campbell turned heads in his quest to lock down the right tackle position.
— Miami also wouldn’t have robbed the Transfer Portal blind, reeling in Tate Martell, Trevon Hill, K.J. Osborn, Chigoze Nnoruka, Bubba Bolden and few other immediate-impact kids who are going to be difference makers this season.
Even scarier, all signs were pointing towards William transferring out between the end of the regular season and the bowl game last year; leaving the Canes with with N’Kosi Perry, who would’ve gotten the job by default (over freshman Peyton Matocha)—opposed to the spirited competition on Greentree where Williams came on strong late, beating out both Martell and Perry; all three of them better for it.
— Lastly, there wouldn’t be The New Miami and this new-yet-old-school attitude that Diaz has been infusing. The new head coach kept things rolling defensively, while injecting some life and swag into his offensive players—with links to the past and a focus on competition; pushing players’ buttons in the style of greats like Jimmy Johnson—who Diaz is leaning on as a mentor and bringing around to inform his current players about the way it was done during that Decade Of Dominance.
While none of these feel-good reminders necessary mean the Hurricanes are going to upset the Gators on Saturday night—they are all worth mention as important pieces to this storyline; one that seems to have been reduced to, “7-6 last year, a new head coach and a quarterback playing his first game”. Seems everyone is overlooking Miami; which is just fine as the Canes are definitely relishing the opportunity to fly-under-the-radar for this one.
Again, on paper—Florida should prevail as they’re one year ahead in their rebuild—but dammit if it doesn’t feel like something special is brewing in Coral Gables since Diaz took the reins.
Maybe it’s all that TNM hype, this renewed energy, former players and coaches buying in—coupled with a slew of off-season victories for a program out of the spotlight for way too long—but there’s a nagging sentiment that UM is being devalued here and that the Canes are going to play off of and respond to that.
On the 27th anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Andrew—it seems like another type of storm is fittingly brewing.
Logic says Gators—but the intangibles are saying the Canes pull a fast one on an unsuspecting Florida team that isn’t giving Miami its due, and doesn’t seem as good as their current hype.
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.