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A Race for a 2021 Orange Bowl Berth: Miami, North Carolina, and Others

Miami Hurricanes football had been projected by some sources earlier this summer as an Orange Bowl favorite, but some experts have now gravitated towards North Carolina being the ACC team playing at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 2, 2021.

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Capital One Orange Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin
A wide view of inside Hard Rock Stadium prior to the 2017 Capital One Orange Bowl game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Wisconsin Badgers on Dec. 30, 2017 (Miami Gardens, Fla.).
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic may be far from over, though the Miami Hurricanes football program has worked relentlessly since mid-June to prepare for one of the most bizarre college football seasons in NCAA history.

Plowing through practices and scrimmages in the blazing South Florida heat, the team remains aware of the work involved in the climb back to the summit of the ACC. Their offensive unit has implemented a radically different offense with new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and graduate transfer quarterback D’Eriq King righting the ship.

“I’d probably say it was the best first scrimmage from an offense since 2016 that I can speak of,” second-year coach Manny Diaz said. “And not just in terms of the performance and touchdowns and number of yards, but again the amount of mental errors was so low. We did not call a timeout or have any procedural penalties or delay of games until maybe the last drive when we were just getting everybody in.”

But the journey back to ACC supreme now serves as a tougher feat for the team given the absence of rising defensive end Greg Rousseau, who has shifted focus to the 2021 NFL Draft. Highly touted freshman safety Avantae Williams will spend this fall on the sidelines nursing an underlying medical condition.

Miami had been projected this spring as the ACC representative in the 2021 Orange Bowl, though No. 17 ranked North Carolina has now overtaken that as of Aug. 26. The ‘Canes, on the other hand, have been predicted by USA Today to finish fourth in the ACC behind the Tar Heels themselves at No. 3.

A matchup scheduled for Dec. 5 at Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.), the ‘Canes have unfinished business to handle against their conference foe from Chapel Hill, N.C. Losing to in-state rival Florida 24-20 to open last season was painful enough. A 28-25 road loss to North Carolina the following game just rubbed salt in the wound.

Quarterback Sam Howell was sensational as a true freshman in 2019, totaling 3,641 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. The program’s likely future cornerstone is prepared to lead North Carolina further as a possible New Year’s Six bowl contender. Running back duo in junior Javonte Williams and senior Michael Carter ran for almost 2,000 yards combined in 2019 and aspire to do more damage in the backfield for coach Mack Brown.

The Tar Heels will not face the reigning five-time ACC champion Clemson but will match up against a No. 10 ranked Notre Dame team looking to take the league by storm. The Fighting Irish will also have the chance to swipe other ACC teams’ potential slots in the 2021 Orange Bowl this season. The Orange Bowl involves either an ACC versus SEC or ACC versus Big Ten or Notre Dame matchup in non-College Football Playoff semifinal years.

With both the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences’ decisions to postpone their football seasons due to COVID-19 precautions, bowl projections, including those of the New Year’s Six, have remained uncertain. Such a situation leaves the door open for potential “New Year’s Six at-large” teams like Miami to possibly have a greater chance at a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Having lost to Louisiana Tech 14-0 in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 26, 2019, Miami will have ground to cover. Games like their regular season finale against the Tar Heels will hold significant importance towards competing in the ACC Championship, let alone a New Year’s Six bowl game, given the absence of the conference’s Atlantic and Coastal divisions.

The Hurricanes could find themselves ranked nationally by the season’s midpoint, should D’Eriq King display a true ability to combine orchestrating an offense with employing athleticism. A new-and-improved, up-tempo offense will have to be consistent enough to not only solve the grave concern of third down conversion, but to drive scoring average to the 35­–40 points range. Miami has arguably not had a legitimate signal caller with the speed of the Manvel, Texas native’s in eons.

The defensive side of the ball must continue hold its ground this year to prevent quarterbacks like Sam Howell and North Carolina’s star running backs from torching them for yards. Having one of the nation’s top edge rushers in graduate transfer defensive end Quincy Roche could aid in keeping the program’s established knack for forced turnovers alive. The ‘Canes ranked No. 26 nationally in opponent points per game at 21.9, something that must be upheld.

Hopefully the program and the ACC can actually kick off the games every Saturday without any interruption, let alone turning plenty of heads in winning the Orange Bowl.