The return to glory for the University of Miami’s football program won’t stem from knocking out the heavyweights on its schedule, it begins by surviving the upset bids of the basketball schools inside the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Not so long ago, The U was on the verge of greatness under head coach Mark Richt, who in his first season at the helm guided his alma mater to its first bowl game victory in a decade. The Richt-era continued to make tremendous strides in year-two with the birth of the Turnover Chain, 10-straight victories and a No. 2 ranking. The 2017 campaign peaked with losing-streak halting victories at Florida State and vs Notre Dame, but big picture-wise, those rivalry wins were simply window-dressing on the Canes’ ultimate goal: A return to national prominence.
Pitt ends the Mark Richt honeymoon phase
With an undefeated regular season 60 minutes away, Lady Luck departed the Orange and Green in a 24-14 loss on a chilly afternoon in Pittsburgh. Eight days later, injuries and an inconsistent offense reared its head against a superior Clemson squad during an ugly loss in Charlotte. Fast-forward three weeks to the Capital One Orange Bowl where the Canes were unable to slow Wisconsin and its inconsistent quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, who resembled his in-state NFL counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, while equaling a career-high with four touchdown passes in a 34-24 victory, ending Miami’s season on a three-game skid and relegating its starving fan base into finger-pointing-mode, reminiscent of the previous three coaching regimes.
If there were any positives to take away from the loss, it was the passion for his players shown by Richt. The reigning ACC Coach of the Year finally reached a breaking point, snatching the arm of an official after growing tired of watching his defense -- that led the nation at 3.4 sacks-a-game -- grind through 31-consecutive quarters without a single holding penalty against opposing offenses. Richt’s aggression set social media ablaze with half of the comments calling for an ejection, fines and suspensions — keep in mind, this was on the heels of Kentucky running back Benny Snell getting tossed for a transgression less egregious than Richt’s — and the other half, meanwhile, wondered where that same emotion was hidden during 15 seasons at the University of Georgia, claiming it could have saved his job.
Richt apologized for the altercation, and, for reasons unknown, that fiery, goatee-sporting version of Coach Richt was never spotted again as Miami dropped 10 of his final 16 games.
Two months earlier, the program soared to a 14-year high on the back of DeeJay Dallas as the then-true freshman stretched the ball over the pylon while diving for the endzone, putting an exclamation point on a thrashing of Notre Dame in front of a prime time, national television audience.
The Miami fanbase was euphoric when Trajan Bandy took his pick-six to the house, capping off a 27-0 first half. And as ABC/ESPN’s Kirk Herbstriet sang the praises of a jam-packed Hard Rock Stadium along with the atmosphere in Coral Gables during College GameDay, Canes fans reveled in the spotlight as one of the sports most respected voices dispelled the stereotype of the laissez-faire South Florida sports fan. While it’s no secret that blowout victories over highly-ranked blue bloods can recast programs into media darlings overnight, those same teams are just as quickly forgotten when they continually struggle in a division that’s been the weak link in the ACC football chain for much of the past decade.
Maybe quality losses do exist?
Miami has bounced back from losses to Florida State and Florida to win national titles. The Canes rebounded from losses at Notre Dame in 1988 and 1990 to finish second and third, respectively -- good enough for a playoff berth in this day-in-age of college football.
As for losses Miami could not recover from: See Maryland in 1984; North Carolina in 2004; Georgia Tech in 2005; Pittsburgh in 2017.
What’s remembered from that aforementioned ‘84 campaign, isn’t the Jimmy Johnson-era opening with a victory over No. 1 Auburn — when Alonzo Highsmith (140 yards on 21 carries) outperformed Bo Jackson (96 yards on 20 carries). Instead that season is defined by the 6th ranked Canes blowing a 31-0 halftime lead to Frank Reich’s Maryland Terrapins or when “Hail Flutie” turned a 5-10, 185-pound quarterback from Boston College into an American folk hero.
ESPN analysts and other non-Miami media continually want to bash us over the head with the tiring question of “is Miami back?” The answer: When losses to Duke and Virginia become the anomaly and victories over top 10 programs are expected. And in the rare event a basketball school pulls off the upset, it will be the result a play or a performance so iconic that we’re still writing about it 35 years later.
We could hear that same question once again in Orlando on August 24 when the Hurricanes meet the Florida Gators in a rivalry game with the potential to swing either way. Miami has owned the series over the last 30-plus years making the Gators extremely overdue for a W. Should Miami fall in the opener, they can’t allow Dan Mullen to beat them again two weeks later when they travel to Chapel Hill.
On the flip-side, a win over Florida moves the Canes into the top-20. But a loss at UNC immediately drops them back into “others receiving votes” territory. And more importantly, Miami falls a game behind the entire Coastal Division right out of the gates.
Titles aren’t only decided by heavyweight showdowns
Ken Dorsey to Jeremy Shockey in the 2000 win over Florida State is considered by many as the moment Miami returned to elite status. But it was avoiding the upset two weeks later in a 42-31 win over Louisiana Tech that made certain they remained elite. No team was more perfectly scripted for a storybook upset than Louisiana Tech over Miami in 2000. The Bulldogs were coached by former-Boston College center Jack Brickell, who was returning to the Orange Bowl for the first time since snapping the ball to Doug Flutie on that fateful November evening, 16 years earlier. Denying Brickell and Louisiana Tech made certain Miami remained a title contender, proving the 27-24 win over top-ranked FSU wasn’t your typical run-of-the-mill upset. A year earlier, the 9th ranked Canes suffered a humiliating loss to East Carolina. A year before that they were torched by Syracuse in the de facto Big East title game. As of mid-2000, the jury was still out on Butch Davis’ Hurricane teams.
We often forget that prior to 2000, Davis’ tenure was inconsistent and laden with head-scratching moments. If Miami doesn’t reel off 17-straight en route to the 2001 title, that FSU win likely goes down in history alongside UCLA in 1998 - just another glimpse at the capability of Davis’ underachieving Miami teams.
Even the mighty 2001 Canes watch their title hopes go down the drain without Reed’s heroics in Chesnut Hill, Massachusetts. A decade earlier, there’s no chance the voters select a one-loss Miami team over Washington in 1991 if the Canes’ defense doesn’t overcome a poor offensive showing in the rain against another pesky Boston College squad, and the list goes on and on.
The true mettle of a champion isn’t measured by how badly you can thump a rival when everything is going right, it’s how you respond to an early deficit in Charlottesville, Virginia one week after rallying from 20-down against your Garnet and Gold rival. The 2017 team appeared to have turned a corner in that regard, then suddenly, the calming influence of a new-and-improved Mark Richt disappears and a tortured fan base suffers through another 4-game slide while shouts of “we told you so” ring out from Athens, Georgia.
What went wrong under the coach that USA Today ran a cover story declaring as “Made for Miami?” In my next piece, I’ll discuss what can Manny Diaz do to right the ship, what’s a reasonable time frame for the first-time head coach and if Dan Enos’ offensive overhaul will be enough.