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Which Miami Hurricanes football season had the most difficult path to the title?

The ‘Canes built their dynasty on playing anyone anywhere, but which season was the most brutal of a schedule?

Notre Dame v Miami Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

When Howard Schnellenberger arrived as the head coach at the University of Miami, the Hurricanes program was in the dumps. Miami infamously resorted to ticket giveaways at Burger King and the Hurricanes were on no one’s radar as a national power. However, one thing that drew him to Miami was that The U played a national schedule.

In 1979, Schnellenberger’s first season in Coral Gables, the ‘Canes faced off against Florida State, Syracuse, Penn State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida. Three of those teams were ranked in ‘79 including the Crimson Tide who stood as the best team in the nation.

A national schedule allows your program to be seen on television, and be visible to recruits all over the country. Miami has always done a good job of recruiting “The State of Miami,” but the Hurricanes have cleaned up in places like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas and California, too.

By the time Schnellenberger rode his National Championship to the USFL in 1984*, Miami was poised to take on one of the toughest scheduling runs in NCAA Football history. Let’s investigate five of the toughest schedules and decide which was the hardest slate to run the table on, including during the Decade of Dominance and beyond.

Jerome Brown - Miami Hurricanes

1984, 8-5 and 18th overall final ranking

Jimmy Johnson took over the Hurricanes after Schnellenberger’s departure and had to replace a few names from the 1983 title team, balance the egos of Howard’s offensive staff holdovers, and keep the program moving after such a pinnacle moment. Few programs have won a single title and disappeared off the top of the hill right away but the Florida Gators did have to wait 10 years between their titles in 1996 and 2006, Florida State had a long break between their second and third titles (1999 and 2013) and it’s been a long time coming for Penn State and Notre Dame who haven’t won the big one since 1986 and 1988, respectively.

Johnson had to start his era with the Hurricanes facing off against Bo Jackson and the top ranked Auburn Tigers. JJ knocked Auburn off of their pedestal, but three straight weeks against top teams got the better of Miami. After the classic against Auburn at the Meadowlands, Miami beat 17th ranked Florida in Tampa, before losing to 14th ranked Michigan in the Big House.

Miami then hosted 15th ranked Florida State (a loss), traveled to South Bend to take on 16th ranked Notre Dame (a win), and closed the regular season hosting 10th ranked Boston College and their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Doug Flutie. After the “Hail Flutie” defeat, Miami hit the road to Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl against 14th ranked UCLA, another defeat.

Six ranked opponents, two on the road and three at neutral sites, and two Heisman Trophy winners; that’s one hell of a schedule for Johnson’s Hurricanes in year one.

Notre Dame v Miami

1987, 12-0 and 1st overall final ranking

Coming off of the Fiesta Bowl debacle against Penn State, Miami started the 1987 ranked 10th and facing the 20th ranked Florida Gators in the Orange Bowl. Miami dominated Florida 31-4 (yes, four) before hitting the road to face 10th ranked Arkansas, and to Tallahassee to face 4th ranked Florida State. The 1987 season didn’t start off with McCheese State and follow that up with UAB.

Miami had a lull in the schedule as they tore through Maryland, East Carolina, and Virginia Tech before another three-game stint against ranked opponents. The Hurricanes shutout 10th ranked Notre Dame and their Heisman Trophy wide receiver Tim Brown in the Orange Bowl 24-0, before a narrow 20-16 win over 8th ranked South Carolina (Sterling Sharpe was a wide receiver there), and beating up on top-ranked Oklahoma 20-14 in the Orange Bowl Classic for the National Championship. The Sooners had future NFL Pro Bowl tight end Keith Jackson and dynamic quarterback Jamelle Holieway amongst other household names.

Six ranked opponents, another Heisman Trophy winner, and future NFL players were all over the Hurricanes schedule in ‘87. Miami played two of those on the road to the title.

1988, 11-1 and 2nd overall final ranking

I’ve long believed Jimmy Johnson was such a great talent evaluator with the Dallas Cowboys not only because he’s a great talent evaluator (he is) but also because of Miami’s national schedule and “anyone, any time, any where” attitude to scheduling. Coming off of the ‘87 schedule the ‘Canes were right back in the thick of it opening the ‘88 season with top ranked Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Miami blasted FSU 31-0 in front of a rowdy crowd.

The team then hit the road to face 15th ranked Michigan in the Big House with a come from behind victory over the Wolverines 31-30. After a couple of easier weeks Miami headed to South Bend once again for the then-annual showdown against the Fighting Irish. Miami was ranked 1st and the Irish were 4th heading into the Catholics vs. Convicts showdown. Miami lost 30-31 (never let a game come down to kickers or referees!).

Miami hit the road to Death Valley to face the 11th ranked LSU Tigers in November. Miami left Baton Rouge victorious after a 44-3 demolition. The ‘Canes then hosted 8th ranked Arkansas and a BYU team that finished the season 9-4 (but some how not ranked?), both wins, before another Orange Bowl Classic in January. This time Miami faced 6th ranked Nebraska and knocked off the Huskers 23-3 in Johnson’s last game at Miami.

Gino Torretta - Miami Hurricanes

1992, 11-1 and 3rd overall final ranking

Dennis Erickson had inherited the same style of difficult national schedule when he arrived from Pullman, WA in 1989. His Hurricanes teams had already won two national titles and boasted a 33-3 record before the “Season of the Storm.” In August, South Florida was devastated by Hurricane Andrew and the ‘Canes had to relocate their practices and living situations.

After the tragedy of Andrew, Miami flew to Iowa City, IA and a battle of genius coaches took place as Erickson faced off against legendary Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry. Iowa was ranked 23rd in the nation and a weary ‘Canes team knocked the Hawkeyes off 24-7. Miami barely escaped against the Arizona Wildcats “Desert Swarm” defense with an 8-7 victory in the Orange Bowl (the Wildcats would finish the 1993 season ranked 10th and victorious over Miami in the dreaded Fiesta Bowl).

Then there was the hellacious run of hosting the 3rd ranked Seminoles and their future Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Charlie Ward, before heading north to Happy Valley to face the 7th ranked Nittany Lions. Miami was victorious in both meetings by a combined six points (seven points total in three straight games counting Arizona). Miami also had to face a budding Hokies team in Blacksburg and host the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Miami then went back up north to the Carrier Dome and a meeting with All-American quarteback Marvin Graves and the 8th ranked Syracuse Orange. Miami held on to beat Syracuse 16-10.

In the 1993 Sugar Bowl for the National Championship, the top ranked ‘Canes faced off against the 2nd ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama and their seven All-SEC defenders swarmed Gino Torretta beating Miami 34-13 and ending the ‘Canes winning streak that dated back to the middle of the 1990 season.

Miami faced five ranked teams, three more up and coming programs, playing four of the games on the road and one at a neutral site. The ‘Canes also faced multiple highly touted quarterbacks in Ward and Graves.

Kenny Kelly #15

1999, 9-4 and 15th overall final ranking

To start the 1999 season the resounding feeling in South Florida was that the Hurricanes were back. After a 9-3 season in 1998 that finished with an upset over then third ranked UCLA and a bowl game win over NC State; Miami seemed primed to take the nation by storm once again.

Miami started the season ranked 12th and back at the Meadowlands in New Jersey once again, this time to face the 9th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Miami emerged victorious with a 23-12 win over the Buckeyes. Two weeks later the ‘Canes hosted the Nittany Lions of Penn State in the Orange Bowl. The city was electric (I was down in Miami at the time but not at the game). Miami lost the game 23-27 on a late touchdown throw. The Lavar Arrington led Lions beat Ed Reed’s Hurricanes that night.

Miami played ECU the following week in Raleigh and lost 23-27, yes, the identical score from the week prior. A week after that upset disaster the ‘Canes were matched up with top ranked FSU in Tallahassee. Florida State was too much for Miami to handle and edged The U 21-31. They did have Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Chris Weinke and NFL bust Peter Warrick on the offense. A few weeks later Miami was in Blacksburg to take on the 2nd ranked Hokies. Virginia Tech pounded Miami 43-10 in front of a rowdy crowd and with Ken Dorsey taking over for the injured Kenny Kelly.

Dorsey then hit his hot streak and knocked off three unranked opponents before Miami faced 17th ranked Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. The Hurricanes won another bowl game, this time 28-13 over the Yellow Jackets their star QB Joe Hamilton.

The 1999 season saw Butch Davis and the ‘Canes face five ranked opponents including the top two teams in the country with both games on the road. The U also played two ranked neutral site games and another Heisman Trophy winner as well as some of the NFL’s future star defenders.


The Hurricanes spent the majority of 1983-1994 on top of the college football world. By December of 1998, Miami was “back” or at least posing as back on the way to a solid 1999, good 2000 and 2002 seasons and a great 2001 campaign. Which of these schedules was the hardest for Miami to overcome on the road to national dominance?


Which schedule was the most difficult for the ‘Canes?

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