The Miami Hurricanes will end their 2008 season with a home game in January 2009. Youth, trips to intimidating road venues and the former head coach in charge be damned. Anything less than a shot at a National Championship is considered a failure; Howard's miracle a quarter century ago dictates it as such.
In my opinion, it's everybody who has Miami on their schedule who must measure up to Randy Shannon's second edition of Hurricane football, not the other way around. So, let's look at the suspects who might be able to hang with the resurgent Hurricanes this year:
1) Charleston Southern - Yeah right. The only thing that this game will tell us is that there's a gathering storm brewing in the Florida sub-tropics after a Thursday night shutout sets the stage for week 2.
2) Florida - Or as I refer to it, Armageddon 2008, where I will be cheering opposite both my parents in a showdown of generational alma-matters in my family. Florida figures to be ranked in the top 5 coming into this game, will have the home-field advantage and be looking to avenge 23 years of futility and six straight losses. Gator fans smell dynasty, and this major demon they have to expunge from their psyche to truly feel they have earned the bragging rights they so often indulge themselves in as a premier football superpower. It took this program 90 years to win a title and another decade to luck into another one. Florida is playing for a national title in this game. The Hurricanes are playing for something more valuable, respect. The two teams virtual mirror images upon close inspection with only four major differences, the Gators have edges at quarterback, wide-receiver and on special teams, the Hurricanes hold a slight edge at running back. Two intangibles, however, side with the 'Canes, first the injury bug seems to have migrated north to Gainesville this year, and secondly, Tim Tebow has added a third T to his name with the Heisman, target. The Heisman curse has befouled better players career's than Triple T and even with less running on his shoulders this year, he will have to prove he has the ability to make the reads under pressure that he wasn't able to in his first year as a starter. The Gators will be forced to defend the run and shoot of Hawaii seven days earlier and the Thunder and Lightning combo of Javarris James and Greg Cooper will be about as big a change of pace as you can imagine for a defense to have to contend with. Ultimately I see UM's depth on the offensive line keeping the Hurricanes in the game behind a ferocious running attack which will prove to be the difference in a raucous rivalry reckoning that will leave only one team with the opportunity to proclaim themselves the kings of the state of speed while reinforcing the traditional pecking order for at least another year.
3) Texas A&M - The Aggies were dominated last year with a veteran team that was recruited for former coach Franchione's schemes, now they plan to run a pro set with a rebuilt offensive line and rebuilt front defensive seven. Add to the fact that A&M is only 3-14 versus BCS conference teams since the inception of the Big 12 and you can see why I expect the Aggies to need to field more than just a 12th man to avenge last year's embarrassment. Kyle Wright teased Hurricane fans one last time into believing this was the year he would FINALLY live up to the hype by picking apart a secondary that returns intact and while they figure to be improved, if UF wasn't able to prove themselves the better team with a more intimidating home crowd, the fringe loonies of College Station aren't going to be able to get it done either even with a bye week to prepare.
4) North Carolina - This is one of the four teams that are most likely to be able to defeat the Hurricane's drive to end the season at home thanks to 18 returning starters, Butch Davis' recruiting and ties to Shannon both as a player and an assistant coach. However they will be coming off a home date with Virginia Tech the week before and have lost five straight in Miami. Combine that with the payback factor for last year and suddenly those 18 returning starters seem a lot more like a bunch of guys who lost more games than the Hurricanes last year than a once and future ACC power. However, my respect for Coach Davis is healthy even if his hiring of a new defensive coordinator fresh off a stint coaching the worst defense in the NCAA in 2007 has me scratching my head. By this point the new quarterback will have to be in synch with his receivers as the Tar Heels secondary returns intact, but again the offensive line of Miami will spell the difference as they allow the running backs to expose the weak point of the powder blue defense, the linebackers.
5) Florida State - The transition from Bowden to Fisher hasn't diminished this rivalry game yet, but the shambles the program in Tallahassee has degenerated into in the last seven years has begun to smell like rotten old man to me. Where to begin with the 2nd tier football power in the state of speed? How about the underclassmen filled offensive line? Maybe the uninspiring Drew Weatherford at quarterback who's last mark of career distinction, his unbeaten record against the Hurricane's as a starter, is now null and void? The impending academic cheating scandal fallout? The fact that UM is 7-2 over the last nine with both losses by a combined six points? The fact that they are breaking in a new kicker this year again? If it wasn't for having essentially eight home games this year I'd be wondering openly about Bowden's ability to coax a winning record out this chronically underachieving squad. Even the once intimidating defense has become merely pedestrian at best in Tallahassee in the last three years. They look like the poor little sister of the State of Speed's Big Three to me this year.
6) UCF - A program looking to increase its profile on a national level that has found new depths to sink to and heights to reach to alternately under George O'Leary, the Knights are 0-4 on the road against in state schools. They have 22 wins the last three years, the same as FSU and one more than UM but are rebuilding an offense that was the team’s strength last year while lacking the highly touted recruits that those two powers feature throughout their depth charts. O'Leary should have them in contention in the CUSA, but not at the Teal Box this year. A decade from now, who knows? But not this year.
7) Duke - David Cutcliffe is a great head coach, ask anyone who cheers for Ole' Miss if they would have him back and watch how quickly they reach for a sharp instrument to stab themselves with in response, but this is Duke. If Turf Face could climb off the deck to find a way to beat them two years in a row, they aren't winning this game unless it's played in a snow storm and they wear an all white uniform to blend in amongst the flurries. Yes, they basically will need a snowball to have a chance in hell of winning this game.
8) Wake Forest - On one hand the Deacons seem to be a team on the upswing. Jim Grobe is a hot coaching name and you can't argue with his results at this non-traditional football school. They have never finished above .500 for three consecutive years since the ACC was formed in 1953 and figure to do so this year. However they have lost four straight to Miami by an average of 45 points a game. They figure to stay closer than that this year, but the type of athlete they recruit does not match up well with the type of athlete Miami recruits. Grobe's teams are known for lulling opponents into a false sense of security only to end up out executing the competition on the way to the upset, but by know I expect the Hurricane offense to have settled into a nice groove that won't be easily disrupted by Wake's veteran defense.
9) Virginia - 48-0. 48-0. 48-0. That should be enough. Oh, you want more? OK, OK, it's a rebuilding year, the entire interior of the offensive line is being replaced along with the entire defensive line. Bob Pruett made a name for himself as Marshall's head coach, but to me, he's the defensive coordinator who watched the Choke at the Doak transpire while he sat back in a prevent defense in 1994. Did I mention 48-0?
10) Virginia Tech - The second most dangerous team on the schedule, which isn't saying that much this year. The wide receivers are a question mark, the running game was surprisingly average last year, yet the offense as a whole was efficient as usual. Of course the traditional weak out of conference scheduling always helps inflate the Hokies' numbers even more than the laughably low 40 times they report yearly. They are replacing five of their front seven but have won four of five from the Hurricanes despite trailing the all-time series 9-16. They also must face Bill Young, the coordinator who upset them in the Orange Bowl last year and must replace their returners and long snapper from their heralded special teams. Sure they play dirty and fraudulently call themselves America's team while disgracing the sport and school routinely but this year, much like 2005, they will face a rushing attack that will keep the ball out their hands and force them to attack down-field with the pass, something they never like to do. The game will turn on how Miami's defensive line and linebackers handle Bryan Stinespring's close to the vest offense, I'll side with Miami's athletes on the line over the unheralded but effective offensive line of Tech.
11) Georgia Tech - The Yellow Jackets have owned the Hurricanes historically and recently. They are one of only four teams in the last 30 years to have won three straight versus Miami, FSU, VT and Notre Dame the others, and the games have always been historically low scoring. With that said, they have played poorly on Thursday nights recently and are undergoing major changes in schemes and coaching this year. John Tenuta is no longer dialing up the zone blitzes for them and Patrick Nix will have a chance to attack a rebuilt defense, although this late in the year, inexperience will be negligible for new starters on both sides of the stadium. The Hurricanes are due but no Paul Johnson team ever goes down without a fight.
12) NC State - The Hurricanes have never lost in Raleigh and this is an improved team with a killer schedule. Tom O'Brien is a solid coach but needed more than few lucky breaks to eke out a win on the road last year in Miami. Payback should be enough motivation to spur the Hurricanes to victory over a Wolfpack team that looks to be building toward next year and might not have much of anything to play for by the time their season finale arrives.
And that's it for the regular season, by my count only four legitimate threats to the Hurricane's punching their own ticket to BCS championship home game with an ACC title game victory over a foe to be determined later. By my account it will be the Bowden Bowl winner standing in the way in the championship game but the ACC has been anything but predictable the last few years. However there is one prediction that stands the test of time for the last 25 years in college football, discount the Miami Hurricanes at your own risk.
As for who will face the Hurricanes for the National Title, well that's easy, it's a little team that you might have heard of, none other than the Ohio State Buckeyes. No word on where Terry Porter will be watching the game from as of now or if the 2002 title will be put up on the line in a winner take all scenario in order to right previous misdeeds, but I'm all for that particular stipulation being added into the BCS contract at the first opportunity possible. Let's face it though, they would never have the intestinal fortitude to agree to that. Guess we'll just have to lay even more of a beating on them than the Gators and Tigers did the last two championship games combined to drive the point home instead. At least it'll be a great start to the new year Hurricane fans! And it might even wipe the taste of 48-0 out of our mouths, finally.