Halfway Home

Miami's Hurricanes are 6-0, halfway through 2004, ranked No. 3 and everything appears to be on the right track going into game seven at Chapel Hill, NC this weekend. The offense is clicking, the defense – though far from invincible – is still proving to be the strength of this team and though injuries are piling up, this team looks like it has the mettle to overcome all obstacles… aside from the BCS.

Miami circa 2004 has grown leaps and bounds. From the overtime thriller against No. 4 Florida State – to this most recent win at hostile NC State – the Canes are pressing on and winning the games they're expected to win. Brock Berlin is finally becoming the quarterback coaches expected when they brought him aboard in spring 2002. Receivers are stepping up and becoming the playmakers they were recruited to be. The ground game is solid. The offensive line is as strong as they can be with the rash of injuries they're being forced to overcome.

On defense, the line is dominant and linebackers are having minor growing pains learning the position, filling in for two of the greatest to ever play at The U – Jon Vilma and D.J. Williams. The secondary has absorbed the loss of Sean Taylor and new playmakers emerge weekly under new secondary coach Tim Walton.

The Canes' special teams sports possibly the biggest playmaker it has ever seen. Tremain Mack-like on field goal blocking and Kevin Williams-esque on kick and punt returns, Devin Hester has emerged as the player everyone hoped – and then some.

North Carolina is on deck and next week, Miami welcomes Clemson to the Orange Bowl. Neither foe is currently striking fear in opponents as the Tar Heels and Tigers both sit unpretty at 3-4. Still, neither can be taken lightly as playing Miami is the highlight of their season. That said, both are truly winnable games for the Canes. Same can be said for the final contests of the season – Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, both traveling south to the Horseshoe in Little Havana.

A road trip to Charlottesville, VA on November 13th remains the biggest challenge of this half finished season. Though Florida State laid a 36-3 beating on then No. 5 Virginia weeks – that was in Tallahassee and they are familiar, long time foes. Miami is road tripping into unchartered territory and the Cavaliers can save the season with an upset and take a step closer towards an ACC Championship. In other words, the Canes will have to play the game of their season mid November.

At 6-0, Miami legitimately has a shot at running the table and going 11-0 this regular season. An amazing feat for a team that sits at 52-4 this decade, put 40 kids in the NFL since 2000 and has that bull's-eye on their chest week in and week out. Every team brings that much talked about "A" game when they see "Miami" on the schedule. To overcome that challenge week after week? Nothing short of incredible.

When one ponders all that Miami's accomplished this decade - the possibility of 11-0 in 2004, a record of 58-4 from 2000-2004, two title game appearances, a National Championship and twenty first round draft picks this decade – it leaves both the diehard Canes fans and the average sports fan awestruck. How does this little school from Coral Gables continue to dominate? Three titles in the 80s, one in the 90s, five years of probation and now stronger than ever. It's a Canes thing.

Another fact that'll have jaws hitting the floor? How about the possibility of 11-0 in 2004 and that not equaling an Orange Bowl berth for Miami this season?

Should Southern Cal and Oklahoma remain undefeated, they can pack their bags for South Florida and prepare to play for a National Championship while the Canes would be shipped off to the Sugar Bowl and a date with most likely, the Auburn Tigers – another team with a shot to remain undefeated, yet shut out of the title game.

It's no mystery that the Bowl Championship Series is a farce that continues to cross its collective fingers, shake its Magic 8 Ball and put voodoo hexes on unbeaten teams every week. This flawed system has survived because it continues to get lucky and has avoided real controversy.

In its inaugural season of 1998 – there were three unbeatens heading into the final week of the season. UCLA, Kansas State and Tennessee were all up in arms, wondering who would get snubbed. By day's end, Miami knocked off No. 2 UCLA and Texas A&M took down Kansas State in the Big XII Championship. Tennessee ended up beating a one-loss Florida State team in the Fiesta Bowl. The BCS was saved.

In 1999, only No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech escaped unscathed. No controversy, thankfully.

2000 was the first time a snub occurred and who other than the Canes to pay the price? BCS No. 2 Florida State took on BCS No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Miami was No. 2 in the AP and Coaches Polls – but No. 3 in the BCS.

UM and FSU had each lost a game in 2000, but the Canes won the head to head match up, 27-24. Still, no title game berth – and controversy swept under the rug, when the Sooners stunned the Noles, 13-2. A quick fix was made, stating that head to head match ups would be taken into consideration in the future. Of course this was no consolation to an 11-1 Miami team who romped No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl, 37-20 – and had no shot of finishing the season higher than No. 2.

Miami got its revenge a year later on the BCS by going undefeated and thumping one-loss, No. 2 Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl. Still, controversy ensued as No. 3 Oregon was another one-loss team who many felt deserved a shot at No. 1 Miami.

A late season loss by Oklahoma left only two undefeateds in 2002 - No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Ohio State – who battled it out in the Fiesta Bowl. The BCS got the teams right, but brought the wrong crew of referees to officiate the biggest game of the season. Again, the Canes paid the price.

Most recently, controversy in 2003 as there were three one-loss teams fighting it out for two spots. BCS No. 1 Oklahoma took on BCS No. 2 LSU in the title game – while AP and Coaches Poll No. 1 USC was shut out and forced to whip an overrated No. 7 Michigan team in the Rose Bowl. Unlike Miami in 2000, USC was able to share the title with LSU as No. 2 beat No. 1 in the BCS Championship game.

Enter 2004 and more drama on deck. Sure, there's still a ton of football left to be played – but it would take upsets of monumental proportions to leave less than three undefeateds this season. No. 1 USC has the clearest cut path with lowly Washington State, Oregon State, Arizona, Notre Dame and UCLA.

No. 2 Oklahoma faces Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Baylor before gearing up for the Big XII Title game. Lest not forget No. 4 Auburn who faces winnable games in Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama and then the SEC Championship.

The inevitable happened this week as Oklahoma leapfrogged Miami in the BCS polls and took over that coveted No. 2 spot. Forget that the Canes are No.1 in the computer polls. Human poll rankings of No. 3 and No. 4 pull Miami down to a solid No. 3 in the BCS.

Why the lack of love in the human polls? Pick your poison. Biased media, blatant disrespect, pollsters voting without actually watching the games, a love affair between voters and fair haired programs like Southern Cal and Oklahoma. All of the above.

Whatever the case, it's time for Larry Coker and the Canes to rip off the gloves and come out swinging. Not because they want to – but because they have to. Snubbed once in 2000? Shame on the system. Snubbed a second time in 2004 without putting up a fight and playing the game? Well then shame on the undefeated team left out in the cold.

The NCAA has devised a bogus system that is forcing coaching staffs' to take matters into their own hands. Running up the score won't fool the computers – but dominating wins impress the human voters. The same folk who voted Miami down after the comeback win over Louisville. Most like the same ones that would vote Oklahoma up for an "impressive" win over lowly Kansas, 41-10.

With :35 left in the fourth quarter and a comfortable 35-10 lead, head coach Bob Stoops called for a pass play and Heisman winner Jason White threw the 8 yard TD strike. After a missed extra point, the final - Oklahoma 41, Kansas 10.

Do the extra six points make a difference in voter's eyes? Maybe. Maybe not.

But it sends a message.

With a few games left in the season, Stoops and the Sooners will pour it on if and when they have the chance. So little is left in a team's power when it comes to Sunday night voting – but inserting second teams and running the clock out for the sake of sportsmanship are a thing of the past for BCS minded teams. The current system forces top ranked teams to make a statement every week. Simply winning is no longer rewarded. Miami actually lost ground in the polls after a thrilling comeback against a solid No. 17 Louisville team, 41-38.

Oklahoma's late game score probably had less impact on voters than No. 3 Miami's running out of the clock virtually the entire fourth quarter at NC State this past weekend.

Holding tight to a 45-24 lead, the Canes had a chance to put their foot on the Wolfpack's throat. They didn't. Sportsmanship won out and Coker's bunch played keep away for the game's final fifteen minutes instead of going for the late, cheap score.

Early in the fourth, three straight runs resulted in a Miami punt. NC State followed with a three and out. On the next possession, two straight Cane runs, one overthrown deep ball and another punt. The Wolfpack was eventually stuffed on a 4th & 6 the following drive, giving Miami possession. Three and out after three more straight runs resulted in a muffed Hurricane punt, a short field for the Pack, busted coverage and a quick score making it, 45-31.

A failed onside kick gave Miami the ball at midfield. Three more shots on the ground had the Canes punting yet again, stuffing the Pack three and out and kneeling the ball out from the 4 yard line with :07 left in the game.

Once Miami got what looked like a three touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter, eleven of the final twelve plays were on the ground. A way too early attempt to start running out the clock when playing a hungry – and dirty – team like NC State who in no way, shape or form considered the contest over. While the Canes displayed class, the Wolfpack was playing what right tackle Chris Myers called, "the dirtiest game I've ever played in."

For voters who watched the game, they saw a Miami team exuding textbook sportsmanship and cruising to a victory as the game – barring a miracle – was out of reach. For those who woke up and read the headlines Sunday morning, they were informed that the Hurricane defense gave up 31 points and 440 yards.

Until a better system is formed – i.e. – a playoff – a win is no longer just a win. Teams now need style points to stand out from other highly ranked, undefeated teams. They walk a fine line between a dominating victory and rubbing it in. Class versus crass.

Unfortunately, that's a lose/lose for the Canes. Run up the score and Miami are the thugs of yesteryear. Don't score that late touchdown, let the game look closer than it was and run the risk of being snubbed yet again from the title game. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

No one is calling for a shellacking like the 58-7 pasting Jimmy Johnson's Canes put on Notre Dame in 1985 – but eleven of twelve runs in the fourth quarter when the defense is stacking eight in the box? That's just inviting inferior teams to hang around late with late game scores.

A killer instinct has to kick in at some point – yet at times it seems Miami plays it cool, fearing comparisons to Cane teams of old. Butch Davis created a program that instilled winning with class and Coker is carrying the torch.

It's nice to hear "class" and "Miami Football" synonymous – at the same time, Miami Football is also an attitude, mindset and style of play that sometimes requires putting lesser teams out of their misery.

After the 41-10 loss to Oklahoma this past weekend, Kansas coach Mark Mangino said it best: "I don't blame Oklahoma at all. With the quest of having just one national champion, there's going to be some casualties along the way." Ain't that the truth.

Five games remain for Miami the second half of this exciting season. Hopefully it results in five more casualties along the way and an Orange Bowl berth. The Canes can't control the voters – but it's time to bring back a trait from yesteryear: winning convincingly and with style. Eventual National Champions need to make bold statements along the way.

The Canes have developed their knack for winning the thrilling comeback. Look no further than the Florida State and Louisville classics this season.

A lesser opponent in Louisiana Tech was dominated in all facets of the game – to the tune of, 48-0.

A sluggish game at Houston resulted in a 38-13 victory, with no style points given – but lessons learned as a week later, Georgia Tech proved to be Berlin and the offense's breakout game. Louisville and NC State proved to be the O's full blown coming out party.

The only thing left is to now start winning big and with some of that old school, patented Miami swagger.

The Tar Heels welcome the Canes this weekend. A night game and a rowdy crowd similar to the one Miami saw last week at NC State. Kenan Stadium will be 60,000 deep and Tar Heel blue will be everywhere. A nationally televised game (ESPN2), all eyes will be again on Miami as another lesser team prepares for the game of their season.

How will the Canes respond? Happy to get out with a win – or ready to shake up the BCS? The Heels are already talking their trash, stating that the Canes aren't as good as advertised. Strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh spent his off week studying film on Miami. His assessment?

"It's probably the most simple offense we've seen. They're really talented, but they basically run the same play over and over again. In the games I've watched, they've probably run like six plays," said Sensabaugh. "If we go out there and play like we can, we can shut anybody down."

Miami's reaction to the bulletin board material? Dismiss it.

"Once you get on the field, you're not even thinking about what's been said or the media or the rankings," said Miami's Chris Myers.

The Canes are right to not get into a war of words here. Again, a lose/lose. The Tar Heels are doing all they can to drum up hype and psyche themselves up for the big time game. Lose – and you were expected to go down anyways. Win – and you just shocked the college football world.

Between the smaller, fired up squads like Louisvilles, NC States, North Carolina… the media… the BCS… and the other blatant disrespect – where is Miami's collective head at? Could this be the week to silence critics?

A nationally televised romp of the Tar Heels is a good start. Imagine the Miami offense everyone saw the past two weeks – combined with the defensive effort displayed in the first few games of the season. A lethal combination that could go toe to toe with any team in the nation.

With five games left in this short regular season – Miami is yet to play their best game and bring it all together. One hopes the disrespect shown the Canes by opponents, the media, the BCS and the critics is fueling Miami's fire. The boys from The U seem to be holding their tongues, pinning their ears back and saving it for the moment they take the field.

Oklahoma heads to Stillwater this weekend for their annual match up with Oklahoma State – a team that's had their number 2 of the past 3 seasons. Southern Cal takes their show up to Pullman, Washington to take on an underachieving and banged up Washington State.

Upset city? One can hope – but Miami can't rely on it. This week, all that matters is a monumental Cane effort and a statement in Chapel Hill. North Carolina will bring their all and work towards the upset. Miami has to weather that storm, play its game and dominate. Could this be the week where the Canes new potent offense and suffocating defense merge as one? I'll bite and give it a "hell yeah." Down the Heels. Make ‘em pay.

The Call: Miami 37, North Carolina 10

Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1996, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA and handles online sales and provides all content for www.allCanes.com. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at chris@allCanes.com

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