A widely anticipated loss (Vegas has Miami as a 16.5-point favorite) would mean the Jackets (4-2, 2-2 ACC) need to hustle just to make one of the bottom-feeder bowls played indoors or on blue carpet. An upset would put Tech back in the hunt for a holiday game on grass, some place warm.
We say if the teams play, because the weather-guessers are predicting that Tropical Storm Wilma will make a hard right hook from its current position southwest of Cuba, strengthen to hurricane force, and nail Miami early Sunday. If the storm gets strong enough or speeds up, the scheduled Saturday noon game (ESPN-2) could be canceled or moved.
We vote for the Georgia Dome; Miami (5-1) would sell more tickets there, anyway.
But assuming the game goes off as scheduled, the Jackets have a big job in front of them. Quarterback Reggie Ball (finger, hip) is expected to play hurt, as is tailback P. J. Daniels (shoulder). Tech will need everything they've got to overcome an agile, mobile and hostile Hurricane defense.
The Jackets need a big game from receiver Calvin Johnson. They need freshman kickoff man Mahomed Yahiaoui to do what he did at Duke (five touchbacks in six kickoffs). They need turnovers on defense, and ball control on offense.
The last time the Jackets needed so many stars to align for them, they went to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech, and we know how that turned out. But on offense, anyway, Miami is no Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes have won three straight blowouts, but against three lesser units of the University System of We Stink (aka South Florida, Duke and Temple). Miami needed three overtimes to beat Clemson, and lost to up-and-down Florida State. Miami is unlikely to be as up for this game as the Hokies were when the then-undefeated Jackets looked like an ACC challenger. Tech can win this game, with a mighty effort.
Where they're coming from: Miami started the year ranked in the Top 10, and have hung in the vicinity even after their 10-7 opening road loss to Florida State. As usual, the ‘Canes are bursting with talent, and since Sept. 17 (a 36-30 escape from Clemson's Death Valley), they've been applying it to the scoreboard. Miami flattened a decent Colorado team 23-3 in Miami, before embarking on a bum-of-the-week tour, winning by 20, 45, and 31 respectively over the aforementioned tomato cans.
Canes to watch: The more Tech fans see of Devin Hester, the less happy they'll be. Hester, a junior with six career return TDs, is the nation's most dangerous return man, although he's received only three kickoffs since switching from receiver to starting defensive back this year. He still returns punts, though (17.3 yards per, one TD this year), and comes in occasionally on offense for running plays (three for 45 yards). He has an interception, and is one reason why Miami has the nation's top passing-efficiency defense. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Wright has thrown for nearly 1,300 yards with 10 TDs, but has given up five interceptions. Mini-bulldozer Tyrone Moss (5-10, 220) gets most of the tailback carries and averages 80 yards per game.
Who's hurt: Wright sprained the thumb on his throwing hand against Temple, and missed some practice reps, but insisted he would be ready in time for Tech. Defensive end Bryan Pata (knee) is out. For Tech, defensive tackle Joe Anoai (ankle), the top inside lineman, is doubtful, as is nickelback Djay Jones (leg). Receiver Pat Clark (thigh) has been replaced at punt returner by freshman James Johnson. Clark, cornerback Jamal Lewis (undisclosed), Ball and Daniels are "somewhere between questionable and probable," Tech coach Chan Gailey said Sunday. There's some good news: top defensive end Eric Henderson (ankle) is expected back at full speed after missing four games.
Xs and Os: Miami averages scoring nearly 30 points per game, but their stifling defense is what has them in the Top 10. Against good defenses, the Hurricane offense has hardly dominated. Florida State sacked Wright nine times, and held them to only 81 yards on 44 rushes. Since a 195-yard rushing performance against Clemson, the Hurricanes have had most of their success throwing the ball, but they continue to give up sacks (21 on the year). Miami head coach Larry Coker fired the ‘Canes defensive line coach Greg Mark Monday, presumably not for performance reasons. All the Canes had done on defense was average giving up 2.9 yards per rush, 10 points per game and 227.2 total yards per game. Even Florida State was stymied by the Hurricanes, gaining only 170 yards total offense with nine first downs.
Key matchups: Tech guard Nate McManus vs. Miami DT Orien Harris. While Harris hasn't dazzled in box scores this year, he is considered one of the nation's best defensive lineman and a future first-round pro. Tech's offensive line needs to be able to create inside holes for Daniels in order to burn clock and make the passing game viable. Henderson vs. Miami OT Eric Winston (6-7, 310). If Henderson can shake off the rust and get past the Lombardi semifinalist Winston, he may be able to force Wright into bad throws or fumbles. Tech is No. 2 nationally with 14 interceptions, and turnovers would give their offense the short field they need to have much hope of scoring on Miami.