For the past few years, a group of friends and I have attended at least one away/neutral site Hurricanes game. In 2018, this was no different as we planned our trip to Dallas to watch Miami take on the LSU Tigers in the season opener.
The stage was set for what was bound to be an epic trip: the college football season was finally upon us for the primetime opener, Miami was fresh off a strong 2017 campaign where they ranked as high as 2nd nationally, and the Canes were ready to exhibit why they belonged in the conversation with the nation’s best as they took on a well-respected SEC opponent. Better yet, my friends and I were looking forward to the big city of Dallas and the post-game celebrations that would surely ensue if the Canes started the season off on a positive note. Hopes were high not only for this game but for the future of the Miami program. That is, until the game started.
We arrived in Dallas on Saturday night of Labor Day Weekend and hunkered down at a local bar in the Deep Ellum area. College football was in the air as we watched Notre Dame take on Michigan in another matchup consisting of two ranked teams. Looking around the bar it was obvious that everyone in the city was there for the Miami-LSU game and the allegiances appeared fairly even based on the gear everyone was donning.
As we enjoyed the other games, we discussed the expectations for Miami-LSU. On paper, all signs appeared to be pointing in Miami’s favor. Miami was the nation’s 8th seed entering the game and was favored by 3.5 points over LSU, the nation’s 25th seed. Coach Mark Richt’s job seemed fairly secure after the Canes proved they could compete with almost everyone after blowing out Notre Dame in Miami the previous season and had a stout defensive roster ready to display the swanky turnover chain. On the other hand, LSU’s coach, Ed Orgeron, was on the hot seat after LSU finished the previous season at 9-4, and had relative unknowns at QB with transfer Joe Burrow who had seen insignificant playing time at Ohio State.
As the night rolled on, we ended up bumping into a group of LSU fans who we knew from law school and their optimism also appeared high. My LSU friend detailed how the Tigers had monsters on defense with projected first round NFL picks for 2019, LB Devin White and CB Greedy Williams, and playmakers at the skill positions on offense with RB Nick Brosette, WRs Justin Jefferson, Jonathan Giles, and Ja’Marr Chase. He admitted the question marks circled around Burrow and a transitioning offensive line. However, even though he didn’t have to tell me about Miami’s qualms, he made sure to. This was featured by the fact that despite being in the College Football Championship talk going into their regular season finale, Miami finished the season with three straight losses. This included a blowout loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte, which was coincidentally the last neutral site game my friends and I attended. Whatever. I denied it as it was a new season with new hopes and new expectations. We were onto game day.
The following day started early despite being a primetime game as we ventured over to bars around AT&T Stadium. As we approached the stadium in our Uber, I felt like Matt Saracen in the scene in the first season of Friday Night Lights where the Dillon Panthers arrive to Cowboys Stadium in their bus ready for the State Championship. In classic Texas fashion, the stadium was bigger than any I’d seen before.
Similar to the night before, we hunkered down at the closest bar, Texas Live, which was a huge venue filled with restaurants and gigantic TVs. The place had even more fans than the night before as swarms of people in green and orange and purple and gold trickled into the bar. Before we knew it, it got packed and it got loud. The big screen TVs played various highlight clips for each team and the respective (but not necessarily respectful) team chants started early and often up until game time.
As kickoff approached, we meandered over to Jerry World. Again, I felt a Friday Night Lights moment walking into the immaculate stadium, which featured 40,000 more seats than Hard Rock Stadium and an imposing jumbotron situated at the 50-yard line. Seated in a section filled with Canes’ fans, I felt right at home. And I felt confident and ready to cheer on Miami, who I was convinced was ready to blowout the Tigers.
The game started off fairly slow despite some pregame theatrics, in which Burrow put himself right in the middle. Things looked good when the new turnover chain appeared like it would be making an early appearance after Canes cornerback Trajan Bandy forced a fumble in the first quarter. However, the turnover was quickly overturned and, to make matters worse, Bandy was ejected for targeting.
The remainder of the first quarter was slow but QB Malik Rosier showed poise connecting with his formidable targets, Lawrence Cager, Jeff Thomas, and Deejay Dallas. Right when Miami appeared ready to take a lead, Bubba Baxa missed a field goal, which deflated the momentum amongst the Miami fans.
The fans in our section still seemed optimistic as the defense had been performing well but the enthusiasm quickly dissipated when Brosette broke off a long touchdown run before the end of the first quarter. It was more of the same in the second quarter as LSU started pulling away when Rosier and Miami’s offense struggled, which included a Rosier pick-six to LSU LB Jacob Phillips. Burrow, on the other hand, showed immense poise in the pocket and expanded LSU’s lead with relative ease behind an offensive line that kept Miami’s potent front-seven at bay. Turns out all of those starting linemen were either drafted or had been signed to an NFL roster: Saahdiq Charles, Damien Lewis, Lloyd Cushenberry, Garrett Brumfield, and Adrian Magee.
Although all signs pointed to this turning into a massacre going into the second half down 27-3, we remained optimistic in the Canes’ fan section. The Canes defense pulled together a bend-don’t-break mentality. But LSU’s kicker, Cole Tracy, a Division II transfer from Assumption College, was hitting everything which helped expand the lead to 33-3 going into the fourth.
By the time the final quarter rolled around, it appears the Canes finally decided to show up. Rosier showed flashes of brilliance as he connected on deep passes with Thomas on multiple occasions and on a long touchdown to Brian Hightower. Miami scored back-to-back touchdowns and the defense held LSU scoreless. There was a path to a miracle down two scores - albeit it would require a pair of two point conversions - midway through the fourth quarter. However, at that point, we were merely watching to see if the Canes could finish in a respectable manner. Of course, they didn’t do much and the game ended 33-17 in favor of the bad guys.
Instead of celebratory post-game festivities, we dissected the game at a local bar. For Miami, there was some reason for optimism, and while LSU looked strong, there was reason to doubt they could maintain it due to the slow second half where they only scored six points. After all, they still had a lot to prove after their 2017 season, Burrow was not the Joe Burrow we know now, and they had a challenging SEC schedule to look forward to. For the Canes, the strong fourth quarter indicated their was reason for positivity moving forward. LSU would likely be their toughest game on the schedule as they faced an easier ACC schedule so recovery felt possible after the rough opener. As I boarded the plane back to Miami the next morning, I saw another grad school classmate on my flight who asked how the trip was. I think I spoke for the entire Hurricanes fan-filled plane when I said “it was great, until the game started.”
Fast forward to now: LSU ended up finishing the 2018 season ranked sixth overall after a 10-3 campaign. This past season, LSU had a perfect season on their way to a National Championship. Burrow won the Heisman with ease. Orgergon won the Coach of the Year Award. And LSU tied a record by having 14 players drafted into the NFL in 2020, as well as several undrafted free agents making NFL rosters. Miami, however, ended up finishing an unranked 7-6 in 2018, which included being blown out in their Bowl Game. Matters didn’t get much better as they went 6-7 in 2019, with another bowl loss. Richt abruptly retired last year and there has been zero semblance of consistency at the quarterback position.
Besides Florida in 2019, Miami has not played an SEC team since they lost to LSU. Assuming they do not play one in a bowl game this season, the next SEC team they face will be perennial powerhouse, Alabama, in Atlanta for the 2021 season opener. Even though LSU and Burrow waltzed into the 2018 season under the radar, they had one of the most illustrious seasons in college football history just a year later.
Miami will likely show up in the Bama game as an underdog. And maybe, just maybe, they can turn the tables on an SEC opponent, and go on to dominate for the years to follow. Regardless of that outcome, I fully anticipate being there for the annual trip. And, at least for now, this Canes fan can dream of writing a narrative where the positivity continues into and through the actual game. Hey, with any luck, this Canes fan can dream of writing a narrative where the positivity concludes with the same outcome LSU got a year after being the underdog against Miami - with an illustrious National Championship.