The No. 9 Hurricanes have the makings of a great team – talent on both offense and defense, big-play potential in the game’s most pivotal moments and a win on their resume over rival Florida State for the first time since 2009.
But the talent on both sides of the ball can’t seem to produce at the same time. Many of Miami’s big plays have come at the last second after failing to close out the win earlier in the game. And although a victory over the Noles is always huge for the Canes, FSU has fallen three games below .500 for the first time since 1976.
Over the last four weeks, UM has won its games by a combined total of 18 points. Most top-tier teams have defeated at least one team alone by that margin. The national media and the AP Top 25 poll have noticed, dropping the Hurricanes one spot in the rankings after just a five-point victory over the 1-7 Tar Heels.
Even though Miami has a perfect 7-0 record nine weeks into the season, one question still remains: Are the Hurricanes a legitimate contender for the national championship?
Despite the team’s inconsistencies, the answer is yes.
The difference between being recognized as the ninth best team in the nation and being unranked is just a few game minutes. Despite the close calls, Miami is still in the running for an ACC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“We are a very, very solid football team that is fighting like mad to win the close battles,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I’ve always said that teams that win close games have the chance to be champions. We’re still in the running.”
Richt is right. Throughout college football history, national championship teams have often had close calls during the season.
Just last year, the Clemson Tigers, led by star quarterback Deshaun Watson, had tough battles against unranked teams. They beat Troy 30-24 and NC State 24-17. Their one loss of the 2016 season was a 43-42 defeat to the 6-4 Pittsburgh Panthers.
Despite the nail-biting finishes, Clemson went on to beat Alabama to win the 2017 National Championship.
In Hurricanes football history, UM experienced tight victories against unranked teams and still ended up winning the national title by season’s end.
In 1983, Miami lost 28-3 to the No. 16 Florida Gators the first week of the season. Even though the Canes went undefeated from that point on, they did have three marginal victories over unranked opponents, beating Cincinnati 17-7, East Carolina 12-7 and rival FSU 17-16.
The Hurricanes eventually upset No.1-ranked Nebraska 31-30 to win it all.
Starting quarterback Malik Rosier has acknowledged the team’s hiccups so far this season but said he knows when it comes down to it, all that matters is the score.
“The big thing for me is wins,” he said. “At the end of the day, you are judged on how you win and how you lead your team.”
The level of team camaraderie is also an indicator of a championship-caliber group.
“They play together, and they play for each other,” cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said. “That’s the most important ingredient for a championship type of team. We’re all about each other having success.”
With the Turnover Chain, a gold necklace that players are rewarded with when they recover a turnover, the Canes have brought back their trademark swagger to drive them on defense. Miami has performed well in that department, ranking No. 28 in the country in passes intercepted.
Even with the dramatic past four weeks for Hurricanes football, it is not impossible for the team to compete with top programs, such as Alabama and Georgia.
The key for Miami is to maintain its confidence but realize that certain areas need improvement to prevent the season from going awry.
“It’s up to us to see how far we want to go,” sophomore wide receiver Ahmmon Richards said. “Everyone’s bought in right now.”
The real test will come in the next couple weeks, when Miami faces off against two of the top teams in the country – No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 5 Notre Dame. With pressures high, this is the make-or-break part of the Hurricanes’ season.
“You know the players – the one thing you can’t question is their effort,” Richt said. “Sometimes, you run into a season where you have the chemistry just right, and this is one of those years. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but I know at least we’ve got the right ingredients.”