MARIO CRISTOBAL TO MIAMI HURRICANES FAITHFUL; “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”

There’s an old adage in journalism about a focus on being right, opposed to the empty calories that come from being first and risking getting it wrong.

Unfortunately, old school sportswriting processes don’t exist when everyone has a voice, platform and take via social media—the constant race to break news, or to offer scathing critique with limited information—with emotion besting logic and common sense.

If someone isn’t giving their hot take on Twitter within minutes of reading a rumor on a message board—don’t even bother playing the game or attempting to enter the chat, as you’re too late.

Before this rant goes all “old man yells at cloud”, let’s cut to the chase and make sense of the past almost-three months in Hurricanes history.

Former Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal lost the Pac-12 title game on Friday December 4th and by Monday morning he was announced as the University of Miami’s 26th top dog—returning to his alma mater after a strong run with the Ducks, and four career-building years in Tuscaloosa, where he drafted his blueprint on how to build a juggernaut while studying every move Nick Saban made.

That in itself should’ve been the only storyline and national focus.

Instead, a hot mess of Miami supporters frustrated with the timeline—while critics, attention-starved talking heads and garden-variety haters piled-on UM in regards to process, or leaving it’s current head coach out to dry for 48 hours—as if he didn’t pull his own shady moves two years prior.

The story wasn’t about Cristobal’s homecoming; instead a focus on how he left Oregon, or how Miami worked under the radar to land the architect for a return to glory. If the same storyline surrounded any program outside of the University of Miami, the narrative would’ve been everything and it’d have been the feel-good story going into the off-season.

For any out-of-the-know, Cristobal is a Miami native who played for local Christopher Columbus High and stayed home to play for the hometown Hurricanes–where he won two national championships under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson—before joining the program as a grad assistant under Butch Davis, which he parlayed into an invite to resume-build by join Greg Schiano at Rutgers, when the former defensive coordinator was named head coach in 2001.

Three successful years in Piscataway sent Cristobal back to UM for a three-year run coaching tight ends and offensive line—before nearby Florida International gave him his first shot as a head coach, cutting his teeth with the Golden Panthers for six seasons.

Cristobal took the underfunded, poorly-run program to its first bowl game—and first post-season win—before the experiment prematurely crapped out and he was off to Alabama to learn from the best in the biz, which paved his way to Oregon and a spot with the Willie Taggart-led Ducks—where he was promoted to head coach when Taggart bailed for Florida State.

Cristobal looked in for the long-haul with Oregon—a 35-12 run over four seasons with the Ducks, highlighted by a 12-2 season and Rose Bowl win in 2019—as well as three division titles and two Pac-12 championships.

It’s this point of the story where Miami most take pause, as Cristobal-to-the-Canes couldn’t have been more far-fetched as 2021 came to a close. The on-the-rise head coach was building something special in Eugene—all the money, all the resources and his own Nike contract from Phil Knight to help sweeten the pot. Life was good for Cristobal and arguable a 99% chance he would settle in for a lengthy run with a Pac-12 contender.

All that to say, one-in-a-million shots are discussed for a reason—because sometimes the 1% wins out and the improbable actually happens when stars align perfectly.

While all was well in the Pacific Northwest, a story was brewing downs south as Miami continued its lengthy run of underachieving under Manny Diaz—the Canes’ fifth head coach in 14 seasons—seismic shifts fast-taking place with new, big-money, billionaire boosters coming out of the works and hellbent on bringing Cristobal home to build a winner. (Not to mention, influential 305-bred moguls like John Ruiz and family on a mission to get ‘The U’ it’s own near-campus stadium at Tropical Park, or elsewhere.)

If not for Diaz’s early face-plant this past season—digging a year-three hole impossible to crawl out of—the final six weeks of 2021 don’t play out in miraculous fashion for ‘The U’—and even now, its still somewhat impossible to fathom just what the f**k happened to reverse this brutally-bad course Miami had been on; UM crying poor for decades, not making a financial commitment to building a winner and settling for low-rent, knee-jerk, safe hires for years.

Cristobal-caliber coaches were forever out of reach for ‘The U’—until one day they weren’t; a fact that when combined with daily noise on social media, via a fan base that’s been as off-track as this program itself the past two decades—it helps make sense of the chaos witnessed the past 76 days since a program-defining changing of the guard that still doesn’t feel real.

These new ways, big moves and monstrous off-season victories have even proven too much for some to grasp—tripped up every step of the way, with no ability to let things play out before coming in hot.

Kevin Steele was hired as Miami’s defensive coordinator just over two weeks ago—February 3rd and one day after National Signing Day, where Cristobal worked his magic over a seven-week span to turn Diaz’s disastrous 60th-ranked class into the 15th-best in the nation—an all-killer, no-filler haul of 14 players, with a few late-in-the-process surprises.

In vintage Miami fan fashion, the narrative remained focused on those who got away—some blaming a lack of a defensive coordinator when highly-coveted defensive end Shemar Stewart stuck with Texas A&M, instead of focusing on the fat NIL bags Jimbo Fisher and staff dropped, en route to what on-paper is the most-talented recruiting haul of all-time—packed with seven 5-Star ballers, including Stewart.

The second half of December and all of January was nothing but a bitch-fest regarding the timing surrounding assistant hires; digs at Cristobal “striking out”, dragging his feet or being in over his head—while any who praised his thoroughness or process was immediately mocked as the Miami Miserables relied on old muscle memory—expecting things to go south or quickly blow up, as has been the case since 2005.

In a matter of weeks, Cristobal took Diaz’s 60th-ranked class and finished with a punch-packing No. 15 group.

FOCUS ON THOSE ONBOARDED; NOT WHO GOT AWAY

In mid-January, defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson was poached by Alabama—many unable to grasp that when Saban calls, smart coaches answer, take the promotion and haul-ass to Tuscaloosa to further their careers—just as Cristobal did post-FIU, after temporarily agreeing to join Al Golden and staff in 2013—sticking around a matter of days before he was called-up to Bama’s big leagues.

At the same time, there were also leaks that Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles supposedly turned down Cristobal in the Canes—when in reality, it appeared to be a textbook negotiating move to shake down the Razorbacks for more cash. (According to Miami, no offer was ever made—and per Cristobal’s hiring history, offers aren’t extended to assistants not legitimately committed to getting on board.)

Cristobal was attacked for “losing” Robinson—fans in sky-is-falling mode again. The ace recruiter and former secondary coach who called Miami his “dream job”—it was now and indictment on Miami’s new leader for “T-Rob” wanting to beef up his resume by working for the best-run program in the sport.

The perceived “hits” continued days two weeks later when co-offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon—who followed Cristobal from Eugene to Coral Gables—got a shot to return to his alma mater and trekked north to Georgia to work under Kirby Smart and the defending national champs. The topic resulted in an all-over-the-place, 72-page thread on CanesInSight—one that went as far as attacking McClendon’s wife’s looks as why she didn’t feel comfortable in Miami—prompting his barely-got-to-know-you stint at UM.

Not for nothing, but Charlie Kelly and his “Pepe Silvia” evidence wall on a fan-favorite episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia comes across more logical than some of these current message board threads and Twitter Spaces rants.

Robinson and McClendon jumping ship, no assistants hired by NSD—too many refusing to let things play out; chastising Cristobal and prematurely playing that here-we-go-again card—negativity was quickly replacing all new goodwill surrounding the program, and for what? These self-imposed timelines by overly-aggressive fans who want to make up 15 years of incompetence in 15 minutes?

Whatever self-imposed dark skies fans chose to hover under for two months—clouds finally parted after the Steele hire and February has gone gangbusters ever since for Cristobal and his Canes.

Three days after landing a veteran defensive coordinator, Cristobal poached Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis—the 2021 Frank Broyles Award Winner also a masterful recruiter who runs a balanced offensive attack and is a massive addition to the staff.

Next up, the Robinson void was filled—and improved upon—when Cristobal poached Georgia’s defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae from Smart’s staff. Addae was ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 2 recruiter for the Class of 2022—the Dawgs No. 1 in scoring defense, No. 1 in red zone defense and No. 2 in total defense during their 2021 title run.

No McClendon? No problem, as Cristobal reeled in Appalachian State offensive coordinator Frank Ponce in a quarterback coach and passing game coordinator role. Ponce is another ace recruiter and was a successful head coach at Miami Senior High, where he also played—these deep local ties set to pay dividends with local high school coaches on the recruiting trail.

For good measure, to add a little more beef to the defensive side of the ball regarding experienced position coaches, it was announced Friday night that Cristobal is adding Charlie Strong to his staff as linebackers coach.

The former longtime Florida defensive coordinator—and top-flight recruiter—parlayed that success into a four-year stint as Louisville’s head coach, before getting hired away by Texas and then a run at South Florida in the same role. One year as an Alabama assistant lead to a one-year role with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021—and now he’s on board with Cristobal’s Canes.

Another sneaky little pull during this February to remember—former Michigan State staffer Andrew Rodgers took his talents to Coral Gables two weeks back. One big storyline from 2021; how the Spartans and Mel Tucker dominated the Transfer Portal with two dozen new players—including former Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker Jr.—it was Rodgers who creates lists and compiled the info for Tucker regarding these transfers.

Add these key pieces to staff that already saw Joe Salave’a (defensive line), Alex Mirabal (offensive line), Aaron Feld (strength and conditioning) and Jeff Eaton (assistant strength coach) following Cristobal from Eugene to Coral Gables—this might’ve just become the best top-to-bottom coaching staff in the ACC in a matter of weeks.

Translation; Cristobal and Miami are going to go ham on the Portal in the coming month, in a way that should even supersede Diaz’s impressive three-year off-season run.

Highsmith in a much-talked about GM-type role; the final piece to the infrastructure puzzle Cristobal is building.

Lastly, for context- and narrative-sake—chatter surrounding Alonzo Highsmith returning to Miami in the oft-talked about GM role many wanted him in a year ago—balls seem to be in motion. Manny Navarro of The Atlantic–and former Miami Herald UM beat writer—guested on the a recent “Wide Right” podcast and worked in the Highsmith tidbit (around the 53:35 mark) when discussing if Ed Reed will continue in his Chief of Staff role under Cristobal.

All of this recent movement playing to the hyperbolic title of this piece—the Maximus Decimus Meridius quote from Gladiator—after the former Roman general makes mincemeat of a few well-armed opponents. Cristobal remains fueled—by his Cafecito scuba tank and desire to build a winner—to hear, or give a collective shit about any critique or outside noise.

Not delivering on superfans’ timetables? No one gives a shit. Questioning the resume of guys he thoroughly interviewed through a rigorous process? That’s why Cristobal pockets a reported $8,000,000 annually and has a monster budget to bring on who he deems the ideal fit—while critics furiously peck away online, getting Doritos dust all over their keyboards.

FROM PRETENDERS TO CONTENDER-ISH OVERNIGHT

Incredible to think that three short months ago Miami was shuffling out of Doak Campbell Stadium as losers, dropping a must-win game to a joke of a Florida State program that had won six football games dating back to October 2020—upset at home by Jacksonville State two months prior, and sitting at 3-5 when the Hurricanes rolled in.

Fans were at their wits end with Diaz—the 1-2 start to open his third season at the helm; demolished by Alabama (mocked for celebrating with silly jewelry while getting manhandled) and outlasted by Michigan State (outscored 21-3 in fourth quarter after holding up “four fingers”)—while almost upset by Appalachian State in-between the two (a late field goal to escape victorious).

The chase for a Coastal Division title was even all but out the window by mid-October—sitting at 0-2 in conference after gut-wrenching, slow-start, last-second losses to Virginia and North Carolina.

The unexpected emergence of Tyler Van Dyke and a Heisman-like performance from the new quarterback helped Miami go 5-1 from that point on—but it also masked a dismal defensive performance as Diaz’s unit underperformed, regressing as the year rolled on.

There was zero hope going into 2022 had this madness continued; Diaz set to lose offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee—by way of Van Dyke’s emergence and SMU wanting their former play caller to return in a head coaching role—while Diaz stubbornly stuck to his self-imposed dual role of program CEO and maligned defensive shot-caller.

Recruiting was a disaster and a 7-5 run killed any improvement narrative had Diaz returned for year four—but everything changing when a few rogue Miami boosters went big game fishing and set out to  in Cristobal.

The act itself nothing more than a pipe dream and ultimate long shot before pressure ramped up by way of the slow start to a new season—resulting in a few difference-makers building off the shots fired by ESPN College GameDay’s Kirk Herbstreitwho took UM to task on the September 25th broadcast.

University of Miami football had legitimately been irrelevant since the 2005 Peach Bowl—when No. 9 LSU waxed No. 8 UM, 40-3 on New Year’s Eve—and it’s been a rinse-wash-repeat disaster ever since.

Larry Coker gutting his staff for a lame-duck 2006 season before getting canned—leading to the low-rent hire of defense coordinator Randy Shannon, who was never ready for prime time—going 28-22 over four seasons. Meanwhile, Golden was an empty-suit and nowhere near the up-and-comer he was tabbed as coming out of Temple—going 32-25 before canned in the middle of his fifth season, on the heels of a 58-0 ass-kicking Clemson laid on Miami at home in 2015.

Mark Richt was the right guy at the wrong time; the Canes needing the 2006 version of the former Georgia Bulldogs head coach—not the 2016 guy leaning towards retirement with too many miles on the odometer after a 15-year run in the SEC—temporarily reignited when his alma mater called.

As for Diaz, that show was over before it started—former athletic director Blake James with a career-defining gaffe—paying Temple a reported $4,000,000 to bring his defensive coordinator home as head coach, 12 days after he’d agreed to taking over the Owls program and signed less than a day after Richt stepped down.

Due diligence and any legit interview and hiring process, be damned—which thankfully helped lead to James’ departure and the off-season hiring of Clemson’s Dan Radakovich—who Miami has since made the highest-paid athletic director nationwide.

Those who followed this program for decades—defeated is an understatement. The OG’s saw the top of the mountain in the 80’s and early 90’s, suffered through the probation era, saw Davis rebuild this program against all odds—only to capture that fifth national title in 2001, with Miami set up to dominate for years to come.

Instead, Davis’ extension was mismanaged and he bailed for the NFL payday—leaving the wheels to fall completely off in matter of years. Still, hope remained as no true college football power emerged—until Saban turned things around at Alabama and captured his first championship with the Crimson Tide in 2009.

At that moment, Miami was stuck hoping it could fail upwards—relying on past glory, and hoping it could keep enough local talent home to compete—which didn’t happen as the likes of Alabama, Georgia and the others started throwing millions of dollars at recruiting budgets, in effort to lure South Florida’s best out of state.

Wheels fell off New Year’s Eve 2005 in Atlanta and have never been put back on—until now—as Cristobal will change everything.

NO MORE FOOL’S GOLD; ‘THE U’ WITH REAL DEAL

Each new hire brought a modicum of home to Miami faithful—if Shannon could just lock down local talent, if Golden could create something out of nothing like he appeared to do at Temple, if the proven and experienced Richt could do with the Canes what he did earlier in his career with the Bulldogs—or if Diaz could find that 2017 defensive energy, coupled with bringing a prehistoric offense into the modern era.

All those “if” moments never panning out—while the Hurricanes put together a pathetic 118-85 run, starting that gut-wrenching night in Atlanta on December 31st, 2005.

Hope is what keeps college football fans coming back for more—albeit expectations vary on the respective program one pulls for. Some hope it’s the year they can simply beat a rival, others hope to win a division and to get a crack at a conference title—while the elite aim for conference championships, College Football Playoffs berths and playing for national championships.

Miami used to be a title-or-bust program back in the day; where a 10-2 run in 199o—capped with a 46-3 beatdown of No. 3 Texas in the Cotton Bowl and No. 3 rank in the final polls—was seen as a “down” season; an opening-season loss at No. 16 BYU getting the Canes off to a bad start, with title dreams ending in South Bend late October went falling to the sixth-ranked Irish.

To go from that, to only winning the Coastal Division one time since joining the ACC in 2004—boat-raced out of the stadium by Clemson, 38-3 in Miami’s lone ACC Championship Game appearance? The logical Cane learned to make peace with history, to appreciate the glory days and to hope for a resurgence—but to expect the worst, as 7-6 seasons were the new norm and 9-4 seasons were the new benchmark for a step-foward season.

All of this is what makes the Cristobal hire so hard to wrap one’s head and heart around less than three months in. These kinds of big-money moves happen at other programs—not at the University of Miami—highlighted in an October 2019 deep dive we did at ItsAUThing.com regarding the University of Georgia’s $200,000,000 investment in their program; the “Do More” campaign designed to help them make up what little ground their was between the Bulldogs and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

Two years later, the investment paid off and Georgia took home its first national championship since 1980. Could Miami legit be on a similar trajectory with Cristobal and the financial commitment the university is now making in its efforts to again become a contender?

LEARN TO BE A WINNER AGAIN; PROGRAM & FANS

Cocky as Miami fans come across, 16 seasons of being a pretender took a toll—that loser’s muscle memory real—which causes many of the negative reactions to any perceived setback; the time it took to assemble a staff, an assistant bailing for a bigger program or a 5-Star the Canes started chasing late in the process going elsewhere.

It’s almost as if many supporters of ‘The U’ don’t know what to do with any level of prosperity—while unable to “trust the process” of a real head coach, as so many previous frauds spouted the phrase and never delivered.

The tide as finally turned for Miami and before going into spring football, some Portal robbing and some spirited fall practices that set the stage for Cristobal’s inaugural season at his alma mater—a quick reset and acknowledgement of all that’s taking place.

Diaz is gone, Cristobal is home—and while the process of assistant-hiring didn’t fit the self-imposed timeline of many—the gangster, Saban-like moves of Miami’s native son are all that matter right now.

Months back, this program was on track for a Ponce to replace a Lashlee as offensive coordinator, while fans could only hope Diaz focused on his CEO role and brought someone like Strong run his defense. Instead, it’s Cristobal in charge, a head-coach-caliber offensive coordinator like Gattis in the driver’s seat, a salty veteran like Steele running the defense—and ballers like Ponce and Strong both stepping into coordinator-like roles, simply to be a part of something special that is brewing.

If that doesn’t get the orange and green juices flowing, check your pulse to make sure you’re alive.

Everything has changed overnight in Coral Gables—which is part of the reason it’s so hard for some to digest all that is taking place. That being the case, it’s time to exhale, sit back and enjoy the ride—because for the first time in a long time, there is a process that be trusted and a total pro in the driver’s seat—confidently on the move and chasing that sixth ring.


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

CAN MANNY DIAZ AND MIAMI HURRICANES MAKE EARLY SEASON STATEMENT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEARNING ON THE JOB; MAKING MOVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CANES’ BEEFING UP ON BOTH SIDES; BIG IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A STEP CLOSER TO BACK, OR ANOTHER FALSE START

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIG TIME STATEMENT GAME FALLS FLAT IN 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CANES’ EXPERIENCE VERSUS BAMA’S REBUILD

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

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

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

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

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

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

SELF-IMPLOSION BIGGEST HURDLE TO CLEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KING UNLOCKED CHEAT CODE WHEN CHOOSING MIAMI

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

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

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

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

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

THE MAGIC CITY; REBIRTH DUE TO NIL SHIFT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE U: TRANSFER PORTAL DREAM DESTINATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.