After a bounce-back 2020 campaign, the Hurricanes look to take college football by storm this fall

UM students will be allowed to attend Canes games this year after a full year hiatus because of COVID-19.
UM students will be allowed to attend Canes games this year after a full year hiatus because of COVID-19. Photo credit: Josh Halper

The Miami Hurricanes have been far from perfect since head coach Manny Diaz took over after the 2018 season. In 2019, they finished with a 6-7 record, including three straight losses to close out the regular season.

Last year, however, the Canes showed significant improvement. They finished with an 8-3 record and put up a fight in the Cheez-It Bowl, falling to the Oklahoma State Cowboys 37-34 after trailing 21-0 in the first quarter and losing quarterback D’Eriq King in the second quarter with an injury.

Circumstances aside, the Hurricanes are 0-2 in bowl games under Diaz, and pressure is mounting for him and his staff to have a successful season this year. With a healthy starting quarterback and Diaz calling plays for the defense, Miami will look to take a step in the right direction and push to double-digit wins in 2021.

Below is a breakdown of this year’s schedule for the Hurricanes as they look to gain momentum after a bounce-back 2020 season.

Alabama vs Miami

Since 2009, Alabama has six national titles and has been a perennial top team in all of college football year in and year out.

For the Canes’ defense, all eyes will be on Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young. Entering his second year with the program, Young hasn’t seen much action at the collegiate level, having only played in five games and attempting 22 passes across all of his appearances.

Young is a dual-threat quarterback who delivers accurate throws on the run. It will be vital for the offensive line to slow him down and keep him in the pocket as much as possible. Doing so would benefit the secondary as well. With leaders like DJ Ivey, Gurvan Hall Jr., Al Blades Jr., and Bubba Bolden, making Young play out of the pocket will help Miami slow down a usually high-powered Alabama offense.

After former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones was drafted by the New England Patriots following a dominant 2020 season, it’s fair to assume the Alabama passing game will be slightly weakened with an inexperienced Young taking his place. The front seven containing and pressuring him will be the key to Miami’s defensive success.

On offense for the Hurricanes, a big question mark looms over King’s return. How King plays will be crucial in determining how Miami competes in this game. If he’s able to use his dual-threat ability to keep Alabama’s linebackers and safeties on their toes, it will help open up the offense and spread the field.

A key part of King’s success will have to do with the offensive line. With Corey Gaynor returning, Jarrid Williams transferring from Houston and all other 2020 starters returning, the ‘Canes have one of the more experienced offensive lines in team history.

If offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee can dial up some nuances into the game plan, Miami can compete. A good game from the guys in the trenches on both sides, allowing for quarterback and secondary success, will be the key to Miami competing with the Crimson Tide.

“The University of Miami has a proud football tradition and a history of matching up against the very best,” Director of Miami Athletics Blake James said. “We welcome the opportunity and the challenge in facing Alabama in the 2021 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, and I know that it will be an amazing college football experience for our student-athletes, coaches and fans.”

 

Appalachian State vs Miami

A week after facing Alabama, Miami faces Appalachian State at home. Although they may seem like an easy opponent, they’ve been in and out of the top 25 rankings for a few years. Last year, the Mountaineers went 9-3.

During the 2016 season, Miami beat Appalachian State with ease. This year, it’ll be a bit tougher. The Mountaineers are well-rounded, scoring about 34 points per game last year and allowing just 20.

The Mountaineers’ offense entails lots of motions and option plays, and they spread these packages inside and outside. The ‘Canes will have to rely on linebacker and safety play to be successful on defense. With Gilbert Frierson and Amari Carter playing striker, the defense is in good hands. Staying disciplined and in their lanes will help Miami slow down the Mountaineers’ fast offense.

Facing off against Appalachian State, Miami can maximize the running game against a team that failed to crack the top 50 in run defense last season. With Don Chaney Jr. returning from injury and Cam’Ron Harris coming off a strong year, they should be successful.

A good game from the linebackers on defense, combined with a good performance on the ground should be enough for the Hurricanes to grab a win in their home opener.

Michigan State vs Miami

Although last year didn’t offer a large sample size of games, Michigan State went 2-5 and finished last in the BIG10 East. Their two wins came against Michigan and Northwestern.

This season, the Spartans don’t know who their starting quarterback will be yet. Redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne played four games last year and threw for just 582 yards and three touchdowns. Anthony Russo transferred from Temple, where he played for a 1-6 record with the Owls and threw 868 yards and nine touchdowns.

Below average play at quarterback for the Spartans can cost them. With an aggressive defensive line and experienced secondary, the Miami defense should be able to rattle whoever gets the starting nod.

The MSU defense also allowed 35 points per game. Playing in the hot Miami weather against an up-tempo ‘Canes offense is going to be challenging. If Lashlee calls a diverse game mixing in RPO’s, play-action and misdirection, the Hurricanes’ offense may be too tough for the Spartans to handle.

Central Connecticut State vs Miami

To be quite frank, this game shouldn’t be a real concern for Miami. Every year it seems, there is a crazy upset that derails a big team’s season. Therefore, Miami will have to prepare for this game just like they prepare for their Week 1 game versus Alabama.

The team is in Division I in the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS. The Blue Devils haven’t played since the 2019 season due to COVID-19, and shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the Hurricanes.

Virginia vs Miami

 

This game will be critical for the Hurricanes as it’s their first ACC matchup of the year. The Hurricanes have won four of the last five, but the Cavaliers have posed a tough matchup the last few years.

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong is a dual-threat QB, which has proven tough for Miami to defend. However, last year, they only put up 14 points per game. Although there are some solid skill players on offense, the Cavalier offense isn’t deep enough to provide a real threat to the deep and experienced Miami defense. With Armstrong at quarterback, containing him with the front seven will be key for the defense.

Last year, Miami put up almost 450 yards but converted less than 50% of first downs. The UVA defense has struggled with the high-powered Miami offenses of the past, and this year may not be different. The Cavaliers have significant experience on the defensive end, so offensive efficiency will be key for the ‘Canes. If the offense can stay on the field and extend drives to tire out the UVA defense, Miami should have few worries taking UVA the distance and escaping with a conference win.

Miami at North Carolina

What happened the last time these two met deserves no reminder. Luckily, it’s a new year and a fresh start.

The Hurricanes will come into this game off of a bye week, which will be very beneficial. Being well-rested and healthy, Miami will need all hands on deck to compete with the Tar Heels.

UNC lost both running backs that tore up Miami last season in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter to the NFL Draft this offseason. Quarterback Sam Howell, though, is entering his junior year and has had another full offseason to develop.

Considered one of the top quarterbacks in his class, Howell has a strong and accurate arm, which will require Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to play well. Remaining tight in man coverage and disciplined in zone will be critical. If not, Howell can and will have a field day.

With UNC ranked No. 10 in AP’s preseason rankings, Miami’s offense will need to be active early and often. If King and the offense get off to a fast start against North Carolina’s young defense, Miami should be able to compete in a very important ACC matchup.

“North Carolina came out and executed,” senior wide receiver Mike Harley said after last year’s loss to the Tar Heels. “They just wanted it more. We had some guys that weren’t all in and we paid the price for it. North Carolina did what they had to do to get the win so we have to give all the credit to them.”

North Carolina State vs Miami

Last season, the ‘Canes pulled off a miraculous fourth quarter comeback against NC State, winning a nailbiter by a score of 44-41. In the game, Miami had 12 penalties totaling 101 yards of field possession, which left them trailing all game long. Hopefully, that isn’t needed this year.

For the Wolfpack offense, quarterback Devin Leary is a redshirt junior entering his first year as a definite starter. Leary has played in meaningful games, but he hasn’t always been NC State’s primary option, so his inexperience will benefit Miami.

He is mostly a pocket-passer who isn’t afraid to take a hit and can deliver accurate passes all over the field. It will be on the Miami defensive line to pressure Leary and come out of his spot. Making Leary uncomfortable in the pocket will significantly help Miami slow down the Wolfpack offense.

In last year’s duel, Miami had no issue cracking the scoreboard against NC State. The Hurricanes put up over 620 yards to record their 44 points, and King manhandled the NC State secondary. NC State has 10 returning starters on defense, which will make it tougher for Miami as they’ve already seen King and the offense once before. If Miami can eliminate early mistakes like they had last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them post big numbers again.

Miami at Pittsburgh

Similar to UVA, Pittsburgh seems to pose an underrated threat to Miami every year. Miami hasn’t let that stop them, however, and they have taken the last four out of five.

Last year, Miami faced quarterback Joey Yellen when starting quarterback Kenny Pickett was out with an injury. Yellen played well, totaling 277 yards on 22 completions, but it wasn’t enough to outperform King. This year, Kenny Pickett is back for the Panthers’ offense.

Kenny Pickett hasn’t put up mind-blowing numbers against the ‘Canes in his three starts against them, but he has given them some trouble in certain situations. His freshman year, he beat the Hurricanes and scored twice with his legs. Although he isn’t seen as a top-tier dual-threat, he has wheels. If he gets outside the pocket, he will be able to keep Pittsburgh in this game. Containing Pickett, maybe having a linebacker or striker like Amari Carter spy him, will really help Miami.

Pittsburgh had the third-best run defense in the nation last year allowing just 93 rushing yards per game. If there is any indication that defense continues into this season, Miami will have to mostly rely on D’Eriq King’s arm. Lashlee will always try to add misdirection, options, reverses, and anything to keep the Pittsburgh front seven honest. Even if Miami doesn’t have huge success on the ground, keeping the front seven on their toes will help open up the offense as Miami attempts to take another ACC victory.

Georgia Tech vs Miami

The last two times Miami played Georgia Tech, they lost in close games that came down to the wire. Fortunately for the ‘Canes, those two losses came in below-average years by Miami’s standards, and the Yellow Jackets shouldn’t pose as much of a threat as other ACC opponents will.

Head Coach Geoff Collins has implemented a more traditional spread offense for Georgia Tech. In years past, the Yellow Jackets heavily relied on the triple-option offense.

Sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims returns as the starting QB for Georgia Tech. He’s extremely mobile and has an accurate deep ball. Although the Yellow Jackets went 3-7 last year, a full offseason and a second year in the system will make Sims an even bigger threat.

However, if UM’s defense can force Sims to throw into tight windows and rely on only his legs, they will be able to limit his production on the gridiron. Sims threw 13 interceptions last year, and a good secondary performance from Miami will be huge in shutting down Georgia Tech’s offense.

The Yellow Jackets defense allowed 450 yards per game last year and ranked outside the top 50 in third down defense, which really helps Miami, who struggled on third downs last year. Expect to see a lot of rush plays from Harris, Chaney, and Knighton. Extending drives on third downs and increasing time of possession through the ground game might make Miami too tough to handle for GT.

Miami at Florida State

All Hurricanes fans have this game circled on their calendars. The FSU-UM rivalry is one of the most historic ones in all of college football, and the teams usually battle in a close game, with last year being a rare exception. The ‘Canes have won the last four matchups, but before that, FSU owned the first half of the last decade.

The Seminoles went 3-6 last year, but upset UNC and showed signs of life at the end of the year. A key part of the issue was inexperience and lack of depth at quarterback.

That has changed after FSU landed transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton, who took UCF to the Peach Bowl in 2018. He delivers accurately out of the pocket and is a threat to run, so for the ‘Canes to succeed, they will rely on veterans like Frierson, Bolden and Bradley Jennings Jr.

A good game from the linebacking corp and safeties is critical. Staying in their lanes and not biting on options and play-action passes will throw off the FSU offense. If they are not disciplined and sticking to their assignments, an experienced player like Milton can tear them apart.

The good thing is, if the defense falters for the ‘Canes, the offense should be able to keep them alive. The Seminoles ranked 98th in total defense last year and allowed 36 points per game. The Miami offense scored seven touchdowns last year and put up 517 yards, and the FSU defense hasn’t shown any reason they’ll be much better.

This game will likely be a high-scoring affair, and it’ll be on King to help Miami light up the scoreboard. Throwing the ball down the field and outside the numbers should be expected, allowing the middle of the field to open up for the running backs as well.

This season, the rivalry game will be held in Tallahassee, which benefits FSU. However, a good game from the linebackers and safeties on defense, coupled with King’s passing attack on offense are what Miami will need to win their fifth straight versus FSU.

“People say it’s a rivalry,” Chaney Jr. said. “We try not to treat it as a different game. It’s just a regular game, regular season. It’s another game we’ve got to play to win.”

Virginia Tech at Miami

Miami has won three of their last four against the Hokies, including a 25-24 nailbiter last season. Although ranked No. 10 last year, they played Virginia Tech with 13 injured players and almost got upset on the road.

Last year, the Hokies went 5-6, but showed flashes of potential against solid teams. They scored 31 points per game by keeping defenses on their toes with zone runs and designed quarterback runs embedded into pass plays. Like many opponents Miami will face this year, the dual-threat quarterback will challenge the middle of the defense.

The defensive line and pass-rushers will have to make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket and create penetration on running plays. If the defense can take away the most lethal part of the Hokies’ offense and force them to throw against an experienced secondary, Miami will be in good hands.

As for the offense, this may be a ground-and-pound game. The Hokies ranked 83rd in run defense last year. With the powerful and speedy backfield combined with D’Eriq King’s legs, look for Miami to run up the rush yards category. If the Hokies load the box knowing the damage Miami can do on the ground, it’ll allow Miami to throw over the top. The running game will be key for Miami’s offense in this matchup.

Miami at Duke

Miami has split the last four matchups with Duke 2-2. Luckily for Miami, Duke was horrible last year. They went 2-9 and their only wins came against Syracuse and a non-FBS opponent.

This year, Gunnar Holmberg takes over as starting quarterback for the Blue Devils. He wasn’t great in the limited action he saw last year, failing to record a touchdown in 25 pass attempts. Holmberg gets uncomfortable in the pocket, which is good for the defensive line. However, he does like to get the ball out fast, so Miami will have to be good in coverage to cause issues for the Duke offense. Making Holmberg hang on to the ball will make him uncomfortable and force errors. That will make Duke rely on senior running back Mateo Durant on offense. Although, if Miami can make Duke a one-dimensional team, they should have no issues limiting the Blue Devils on the scoreboard.

Duke had the 83rd overall defense in 2020. Most starters are returning, most notably linebacker Shaka Heyward. He’s been a good tackler and core of the Blue Devil defense. Duke’s defensive squad is expected to be slightly better with starters returning to health, but Miami’s high-powered offense shouldn’t have a tough time dealing with the Blue Devils.

The Big Picture

Miami definitely has some tough games this year. Most notably, their season opener versus Alabama and the revenge game versus UNC will be crucial for UM to win if they want to stay atop the national rankings. Dominating the slate of ACC games will go a long way in securing the Coastal Division as well, but arguably the most important games will take place in the first month of the season.

If the Hurricanes can get off to a strong start with a victory over Alabama, they will then coast into four consecutive games at home, the bulk of which are winnable. Excluding the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, seven of Miami’s 11 remaining games will take place on their home turf. After a bounceback season and circumstances working in their favor in 2021, the Hurricanes are well-positioned to make some noise this fall.