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.