The Miami Hurricanes are back in action this Saturday after an early bye; created when the season opener against the Florida Gators was moved up a week as the marquee game to kick off the 150th season of college football.
After hanging tough but falling late in an upset bid to take down then-No. 8 Florida—the extra week to reset could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Miami, who heads north to Chapel Hill to take on a division rival in North Carolina, before returning home for a couple of warm-up games against the likes of Bethune-Cookman and Central Michigan.
Quirky scheduling, to say the least—especially on the heels of an off-season that saw a head coaching change, the entire offensive side of the ball fired and a dark horse redshirt freshman locking down the quarterback position days before the showdown with the Gators.
North Carolina survived their season opener in Charlotte; rallying late to take down South Carolina—Tar Heels’ new-yet-old head coach Mack Brown besting his former assistant Will Muschamp—whose Gamecocks blew a 20-9 early fourth quarter lead and gave up 15 unanswered in the 24-20 loss.
First-year Miami head coach Manny Diaz is also another Brown pupil facing off against his former boss, while looking to have his team avoid the mistakes that broke Muschamp’s squad down the stretch; namely two interceptions with less than three minutes remaining in the ball game—as well as a missed opportunity to haul in one of their own that would’ve shut the door on a North Carolina rally.
Miami is the favorite in this weekend’s primetime showdown; though any who have followed this series since the Canes jumped to the ACC, are all-too-well aware of the struggles that have taken place Chapel Hill over the years.
ROAD GAMES AGAINST TAR HEELS; LIVING HELL FOR HURRICANES
Hard as it is to comprehend, Miami is only 3-4 at Kenan Memorial Stadium since 2004—painful and frustrating losses where the Canes literally reinvented new ways to blow games to the Tar Heels, while the wins were all extremely hard-fought efforts.
Regarding those three victories, Miami won by a combined 15 points, never won by more than six points and never scored more than 30. A quick deep dive into this division rivalry:
— In 2004, the undefeated, third-ranked Canes wound up in a battle with a 3-4 Tar Heels team that showed up ready to play. Miami would trail 21-14 at the half, would tie the game going into the fourth quarter, would again fall behind 28-21—only to once-more tie things up with just over two minutes remaining—before the defense surrendered a nine-play, 55-yard drive capped off by a game-winning field goal with four ticks left on the clock.
— 2007 and 2009 losses had similar blueprints; starting with another mentor (Butch Davis) sticking it to his pupil (Randy Shannon) and ending with Miami getting off to slow starts in both affairs—down 27-0 the first meeting and 23-7 in the latter—before mounting comebacks that ultimately came up short by way of turnovers, mistakes or the defense simply unable to hold on. The Canes lost 33-27 in 2007 and 33-24 in 2009.
— 2015 proved ugly all around as Miami limped into Kenan Memorial three weeks after Al Golden had been fired—a 58-0 home loss to Clemson year five being the final straw. Tight ends coach Larry Scott took over in an interim role. Scott’s Canes survived a lateral-fueled miracle at Duke before beating Virginia at home, but the eventual Coastal champs destroyed the Canes, 59-21 in mid-November.
— Prior to his dismissal, Golden actually picked up two wins against the Tar Heels—2011 and 2013—both close calls and in completely different fashion. His first go-around, Miami almost blew a 27-3 third quarter lead, before hanging on to survive, 30-24—adrenaline flowing as the Heels recovered a late onside kick, ball in hand in the final minute loading for the go-ahead score.
Two years later, Miami won on a Thursday night in comeback fashion; Dallas Crawford playing the role of hero when replacing an injured Duke Johnson and scoring two late touchdowns, erasing a 23-13 early fourth quarter deficit—the Canes advancing to 6-0 while the Tar Heels dropped to 1-5.
— 2017 saw another one-win North Carolina squad giving an undefeated Miami team hell; the Canes strutting in 7-0 with recent comeback wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech, while the Heels were reeling at 1-7, having been trounced by Virginia Tech the week prior, 59-7.
Miami found themselves in an unexpected dog fight; turning it over twice to North Carolina’s four mishaps—but still surrendering 428 yards to the Heels, on a day the Canes only picked up 59 rushing yards. UNC’s final turnover was the dagger; coughing up a fumble in the final minutes, allowing UM to preserve a 24-19, en route to a 10-0 season start and the program’s first Coastal Division title.
STRONG HOME SHOWING LAST FALL AGAINST REELING HEELS
Fast-forwarding to present day; both the Tar Heels and Hurricanes are in the midst of a rebirth.
Mark Richt hung it up at the end of a three-year run in Coral Gables where he couldn’t get Miami over the necessary hump, while Larry Fedora was sent packing after seven seasons where he reached the pinnacle in 2015, but went 13-23 over the next three years.
Richt’s Canes put the biggest hurting on Fedora’s Heels during a nine-loss campaign in 2018; a one-sided, defensive-driven, 47-10 blowout on a Thursday night at HardRock. Miami’s forced six turnovers and returned three for touchdowns—though team stats outside of the mishaps was fairly even; UNC with 329 total yards to UM’s 354, with both teams each rushing for 200+ yards apiece on the night.
Gone are Richt and Fedora, with Diaz and Brown representing the respective programs this season. Miami rolls in having suffered a tough loss to Florida, while North Carolina unexpectedly took down South Carolina—both sides share one commonality early on in both new coaches’ tenures; a passionate attitude and style of play instantly noticeable game one.
The conference doormat that was the Tar Heels last fall appears in overachieve-mode attitude-wise, while last year’s lackluster, underachieving Hurricanes seem ready to play up to potential; opposed to the offensively-shackled bunch they were last fall under Richt.
PRIMETIME OPP TO BACK UP SOME BIG TALK ABOUT ‘THE NEW MIAMI’
There’s been a lot of talk out of South Florida the past nine months regarding The New Miami; guys talking the talk again, while Diaz robbed the Transfer Portal and brought some immediate-impact kids in to hopefully make a difference this fall.
The former defensive coordinator knows the time is now—as well as the fact he needs to find a way to win with what he has, if the Canes are ever going to keep top talent from escaping to the likes of Tuscaloosa or Athens; wanting to play for SEC teams and automatic Playoffs contenders.
A win against Florida would’ve been a nice splash and way to kick off the era, but it didn’t come to fruition—so now it’s on to the next challenge; will Diaz have these Hurricanes ready or Chapel Hill and a place with some bad juju over the years?
Having suffered through the past decade-and-a-half of Miami football, there’s arguably been no more disappointing a character trait of those teams than the Canes not showing up prepared in the wake of a loss.
Last fall Miami rattled off five consecutive wins after falling to LSU in the opener; including 21 straight points against Florida State for a 28-27 comeback. Things were back on track, until they weren’t—an offense-less Miami falling 16-13 in a defensive struggle at Virginia the following week; but that was just the beginning of the shit-show.
The Canes had a bye week and a chance for a hard reset after that loss, but it never came. Instead, a musical chairs-like quarterback controversy ensued and Miami showed up flat to Chestnut Hill for a game Boston College owned from the get-go; methodic drives of 88 and 77 yards on their first two possessions—sitting on a 17-14 lead before shutting the Canes out in the second half in a 27-14 ball game—another outing with sub-par quarterback play for UM.
Miami returned home and fell to Duke the following weekend and came up short at Georgia Tech the week after that; four losses in a row and three failed opportunities to show up and stop the bleeding.
The sin hasn’t been in losing; it’s the way these Canes have been going down, as well as a completely inability to show up prepared and to seize a moment—which has as legit a shot to turnaround today, as any time in recent history.
OVERCONFIDENT TAR HEELS RIPE FOR A U-SIZED SMACKDOWN
All of the rough outings in Chapel Hill over the years; that isn’t baggage the 2019 Hurricanes have to carry. It’s ancient history—just as much as last year’s home rout of the Tar Heels is in the rear view. North Carolina has eked out seven wins on a football field over their past 28 games, dating back to November 2016. This is a program that has been in complete disarray, as proven by the off-season dismissal of Fedora.
Yes, those kids are buying into Brown’s return—and there was definitely a feel-good moment against South Carolina last weekend, for a program that’s worked out to purge itself of its losing ways—but don’t mistake that win as overly impressive. The average Gamecocks served that loss up on a silver platter and the Tar Heels found a way to win ugly; which gets a pass when playing such a horrible brand of football these past few seasons.
The win injected some life into UNC’s program—as well as a fan base that will pack Kenan Memorial for a sold out, primetime kickoff Saturday night—which Diaz should love in regards to The New Miami narrative. This game now has the look and feel of something bigger than it is and can be a good building block moving forward, assuming these Canes show up and take care of business.
Roll in with the same passion and energy that Miami brought to the Florida game—but eliminate the mistakes and show that work was put in these past two weeks to clean things up.
This is also a do-over for quarterback Jarren Williams and the Hurricanes’ offensive line, which gave up 10 sacks to the Gators. A safe bet the Tar Heels will dial it up and try to rattle the r-freshman, as well as exposing a young line—but North Carolina is a Top 10 team with Florida-caliber horses on their defense.
Miami’s quarterback and offensive line simply need to settle in this week, not flinch and do what they’re capable of doing, against an inferior opponent—while running DeeJay Dallas backs up his social media inspiration call-out, due to some elitist Tar Heels fan trash talk and liberal use of the “thug” moniker.
A MUST-WIN GAME EARLY SEPTEMBER? ABSOLUTELY.
All of that, “never scored more than 30 in Chapel Hill” and “never won by more than six” noise; Miami has every ability to end both of those stigmas if it proves this new attitude hype is real. North Carolina is ripe for the picking and is a perfect mark; even more ideal than originally planned, thanks to the fact they actually beat and SEC team last week and are feeling overconfident about their abilities; fans and players alike.
Conversely, a loss that drops Miami to 0-2—with one conference loss—would be an utterly disastrous start for Diaz, which he and his staff are obviously aware of. One hates to use the phrase “must-win” the first Saturday of September, but based on the issues these Hurricanes have had in-conference over the years and an inability to bounce back after losses, Diaz and crew will be in a world of hurt if the fall to a program that’s gone 5-18 over the past two years.
The Miami / Florida showdown could’ve gone either way. The Canes simply made a few more mistakes than the Gators—a few of which couldn’t have come at worse times—but they happened, an opportunity was squandered and you move on.
In reality, this 2019 season is about Miami’s new-look Hurricanes playing with the purpose and passion great teams have expressed in the past. That whole “national championship, or bust” attitude is no longer prevalent for UM in this modern era of the game—but the first step towards greatness certainly has to be a, “Coastal Division title, or bust” mentality.
The old schooler will rant about “lowered expectations” and what not, but Miami has no business uttering the phrase “national championship” until it can actually win the ACC; something that hasn’t been done in 15 tries—getting no closer than one division title (2017) since joining the conference.
The Canes also need to get back to winning the winnable games, opposed to giving them away in epic-fail fashion. Saturday’s trek to North Carolina needs to be a statement game that sets the stage for the rest of this season—while sending a message to everyone in the ACC that’s not Clemson.
Get that offense rolling, jump on the Tar Heels early, create a ruckus on defense and by the time those “four fingers” go up late in the game, put an inferior opponent away.
Chapel Hill has been hell for Miami over the years. Time to change that storyline and raise some hell in the Tar Heel State on Saturday night.
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.