For All the Marbles

This Saturday tells all, Hurricane Nation. Miami takes on longtime rival Virginia Tech in what truly has become more than just a season finale. The ACC title is on the line and the winner is BCS bound while the loser settles with "co-champs" and less prestigious post season bowl experience.

The original goal of a sixth National Championship crashed and burned for this young Miami team after embarrassing back to back midseason losses to North Carolina and Clemson. That caused a shift in priorities. Though it'll sting Miami to watch two other teams battle it out for the National Championship in their own backyard – still attainable, a fifth straight BCS game. The Sugar or Fiesta has an invite ready for the Canes should they take down the Hokies this weekend. To Miami, anything less and this inaugural ACC season is deemed a failure.

Maybe it's slightly pompous to feel the Canes would win that ACC crown year one – but after beating long time conference king Florida State for the sixth time in a row this season and rolling the rest of the NCAA with a 46-4 record this decade – there was little reason to believe The U couldn't overtake the rest of the competition. That's just how the Canes size up a big time challenge. Aim for the top and thoroughly believe that capturing the conference championship year one and making a run at the National Championship is a must. Don't settle.

In the preseason, many circled a mid November match up at Virginia as a possible pitfall for Miami. Second on that list was an October visit to NC State and the South Florida talent on that Wolfpack team looking to prove a point against the hometown team. The Canes passed both tests rather easily. The failures? Completely unexpected as a 22-point underdog North Carolina embarrassed Miami on a national stage.

A week later it was Clemson – then 0-3 on the road – who traveled to the Orange Bowl and upset the Canes in a night game. Instead of dominating the week after a loss, Miami surrendered a 17-3 halftime lead, never scored again and gave up 21 points unanswered in the overtime loss.

The 2004 college football season is one upset-less weekend away from a potential BCS nightmare with Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Auburn all undefeated and vying for the two National Championship spots in the Orange Bowl. Barring no major change this weekend, Miami was truly out of the title hunt the moment North Carolina's game winning field goal sailed through as time expired. Thankfully there were enough late season upsets across the nation, allowing the Clemson loss to virtually be swept under the rug if Miami wins the ACC and earns that coveted BCS berth. Honestly, the next best thing to playing for the National Championship.

Potentially facing undefeated Auburn in New Orleans makes the consolation prize that much sweeter. What an opportunity for a young Miami team to make a statement and gear up for 2005. One has to look no further than 1999 to see a green Hurricanes bunch that were battle tested against higher ranked teams – No. 9 Ohio State, No. 2 Penn State, No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Virginia Tech. The Canes got their noses bloodied in three of those four outings – but it set the stage for the next three seasons of 11-1, 12-0 and 12-1.

Then sophomores Ed Reed and Mike Rumph held onto the memory of giving up the game winning score to the Nittany Lions. It fueled their fire for the remainder of their careers at Miami. As seniors in 2001, they led the Canes to the National Championship and with their teammates, grew from those big game experiences. Miami hasn't seen that big game environment since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and truly longs for the opportunity this bowl season. Landing a slot against an undefeated team who was snubbed from this year's title game? That's as good as it gets for a 2-loss, co-conference champ. Take the opportunity and run with it.

That said, let's not get ahead of one's self. Sixty minutes of football against a long time foe stand between Miami and that coveted BCS game.

In case anyone's forgotten, this is a heated rival which thumped the Canes to the tune of 31-7 last November in Blacksburg. They ended a 39-game regular season winning streak and 27-game Big East run. Cheap shots were thrown late in the game, a tiff ensued and Miami lost players for the following week's debacle against Tennessee. Insult to injury came in it was Miami's sixth loss to Virginia Tech in the last nine games of the rivalry – though five straight came during the probation era of 1995-1999. When at full strength, the Canes hold a lifetime 15-1 advantage over the Hokies - with 2003 being that lone win.

Miami has a million and one motivational reasons to unleash hell on Virginia Tech this coming weekend. ACC title aside – the Canes need to look no further then last season's smack down as their only motivation. Miami owes Virginia Tech a beating, big time and this weekend's national stage is the perfect environment to do so. It's payback time.

Revenge games have been known to go the Canes' way in recent memory. In 2000, No. 4 Miami stumbled in Seattle, dropping a 34-29 heartbreaker to then No. 15 Washington. The loss ended up costing The U dearly as Florida State earned the Orange Bowl berth in the National Championship game, though Miami won the head to head meeting in October, knocking off the defending champs and then No. 1 Noles, 27-24.

A season later, No. 1 Miami played host and welcomed No. 12 Washington to the Orange Bowl. The result, a 65-7 beating that sent the Huskies' program into a tailspin they're yet to recover from. A week before the meeting, Hurricanes' center Brett Romberg guaranteed a big victory and payback. Miami delivered and Washington is now a shell of the program they seemed destined to be a few seasons back.

Miami version 2002 put a dominant 38-6 beating on Boston College – a team that took them to the brink in 2001 and almost pulled the monumental upset. Same can be said for the 2003 Canes who stuck it to Pittsburgh, 28-14 in the season finale for the Big East crown. The Panthers gave Miami all they could handle in 2002 and almost derailed the National Championship run in a 28-21 Thursday night match up, ending on an overthrown fourth down pass in the end zone.

Even more fitting than all the above is Miami's dominance over Florida State this decade. After suffering five straight losses to the Seminoles during the probation era, the Canes are yet to drop one to their state rival since. Toss in a post season 16-14 win in the 2004 Orange Bowl Classic win and Miami has now dropped Florida State six straight. The ultimate revenge against a program that took full advantage of Miami's lack of depth when the Canes were reeling in the probation era. Simply put, Miami never forgot 47-0 in 1997 and has been taking that frustration out on Florida State ever since. .

The Hokies are next on that short and bitter revenge list. Only a 2003 match up against Ohio State would've been more gratifying than what Miami has an opportunity to do against Virginia Tech this weekend. The stage is set, everything is on the line and the Orange Bowl provides the ideal backdrop for a season saving win – and the sweetest revenge.

Recently the Hokies were on the decline when meeting up with the Canes late in the year. In 2002, Tech started 8-0 before going 2-4 in their final six games – including a 56-45 loss to Miami. During The U's 2001 title run, Tech was 6-0 before a 2-4 skid and 26-24 season ending loss to the Canes.

2004 brings a different Virginia Tech bunch to South Florida. One stung by No. 1 Southern Cal in the season opener, 24-13 and weeks later, an early season loss to NC State, 17-16 – ending on a missed field goal as time expired. Since then, 7-0 with wins over then No. 6 West Virginia and No. 16 Virginia. The Hokies strut in 9-2 as opposed to limping in after their standard late season collapse. New to the ACC as well and picked around the middle of the pack preseason, they know exactly what's on the line with a win. Bragging rights, redemption and their first BCS berth since losing the 1999 National Championship game to Florida State.

Several different Miami teams have seen the field this year. Against Florida State it was an all world defense which could do no wrong, combined with an anemic offense with quarterback struggles and inexperienced, inept receivers. The result was a 16-10 overtime win which essentially set the tone for the first half of the season and had many believing defense would have to lead this team to a title. It appeared to be 2003 all over again - with a better ground game, but the same aerial issues.

The Canes relied on stellar defense those first few games, until a Louisville team with a wide open offensive attack found a way to toss up 38 points against Miami. Vulnerable and exposed, the world saw a different Hurricanes team the next few weeks - one which relied on offense was forced to bail out the defense for the first time in years. An uncharacteristic 41-38 Thursday night win against the Cardinals was followed up by a 45-31 win at NC State and 31-28 loss at North Carolina. 100 points and over 1,500 yards surrendered in a three game span. Hard to fathom when Miami has been known for its defense this entire decade. As much as Hurricane Nation hates to admit it, the losses of Vince Wilfork, Sean Taylor, Jon Vilma, D.J. Williams, Darrell McClover, Al Marshall and Maurice Sikes hurt more than expected. The Canes still reload as opposed to rebuild, but no program can absorb a loss like that and feel nothing.

With or without the aforementioned players, most disappointing this season was the lackluster performance against Clemson. A week where Miami should've throttled any opponent on the other side of the ball, the Canes were dazed and confused the entire evening. Sitting at 6-2, a showdown at No. 10 Virginia now loomed. The Cavaliers were picked by some to upset the Canes in the preseason. After a two game skid, most of the college football world jumped on the Hoos' bandwagon.

Counted out by most, Miami thrived on the negative press, stormed into Charlottesville and went for the jugular. Brock Berlin threw for an efficient 177 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Frank Gore amassed 195 rushing yards and a touchdown. Roscoe Parrish hauled in four receptions for 50 yards, including a 25-yard score which sealed the 31-21 win. His 62-yard punt return was equally as important in the Canes' upset victory.

True to form, when counted out – Miami rolled. The team pulled together and won back to back must-win games the past few weeks. There was no post-Virginia letdown as Miami came home and absolutely took it to Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons dropped a few nail biters this season and their previous five losses were by a combined 30 points. The Canes delivered an impressive 52-7 beat down which featured Berlin's career-best 361 yards and four touchdowns, highlighted by finding Parrish five times for 141 yards and a score. Back ups saw some late playing time, starters got their rest and the Canes' confidence level rose another notch as the offense saw what it could do when throwing the deep ball and clicking on all cylinders. The seven points given up to Wake Forest were the least Miami had given up since beating Georgia Tech, 27-3 in early October.

Both Miami and Virginia Tech enter this unofficial ACC Championship game with a little bounce in their step while the anticipation for this meeting builds daily. The Canes used the bye week to get healthy – the Hokies took down the state rival Cavaliers and started the cries of "ACC Champions" before the clock even hit 0:00. Will that provide any extra motivation or the Canes?

It shouldn't. If Miami needs any extra motivation to beat Virginia Tech – shame on them. Honestly. The probation losses were bad enough – but last season's 31-7 beating was the final nail in that revenge coffin. The 24-point loss was the worst Miami had seen since falling 66-13 at Syracuse in 1998's unofficial Big East title game. It was embarrassing to the program – and hopefully even more embarrassing to each and every Cane who didn't bring it that day. Here's a chance to rectify last season's most glaring mistake.

December 4th is redemption day for Miami. Atone for last year's loss in Blacksburg. Use the opportunity to wipe out the two embarrassing blemishes this season which knocked the Canes out of the title race. Let this coaching staff to prove it knows how to go for the jugular when everything is on the line. The difference between a Sugar Bowl and a Peach Bowl berth are night and day. Obviously. Players and coaches all know the magnitude of this. It's more than just dollars and cents. It defines the character of this program. What are they going to do about it?

How does Miami morph the defense that showed up the first few weeks of the season with the offense and special teams that's been rolling since Louisville? The talent it there – but the heart, focus and schemes lacked at times. If there's any week that Miami needs to show that heart and roll an opponent, this is it. The ACC title is a must for this program. It's the cornerstone for 2005 and keeps Miami mentioned in the same breath with Southern Cal, Oklahoma and Auburn. Florida State, Ohio State and LSU have all fallen from the upper echelon since winning their titles. The U cannot afford that same fate as it's proving more difficult year in and year out to reclimb that mountain.

The Miami Football program is at a pivotal point. A crossroads, if you will. The next two games determine if this young bunch of Hurricanes will complete for a National Championship anytime in the near future.

Only fourteen seniors depart after the bowl game while most of the twenty six juniors will return. Add sixty underclassmen to that mix, combined with what should be a stellar recruiting class – and Miami will be loaded next season. How the Canes enter 2005 determines everything.

Do they strut in with a top three ranking, coming off a Sugar Bowl win over the likes of an Auburn?

Do they merely just make the BCS and get rolled up by an undefeated team that got snubbed?

Or does this bunch not realize what's at hand, simply fall to Virginia Tech and head to the Peach Bowl for an anticlimactic match up against a bitter Florida team who just lost its coach and upset Florida State?

Everything is on the line for Miami this weekend. It's more than just a game. Saturday this program takes a giant step forward or a disappointing step back. Set the bar in the ACC with a win this weekend, get to the Sugar Bowl, hope to play and upset the likes of an Auburn and gear up for 2005. Again, it's all moot if Miami doesn't take care of business the next sixty minutes.

Take it to Tech. There's no other program on Miami's schedule that deserves more of a beating.

The Call: Miami 37, Virginia Tech 27

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 - #1 shop for Miami Hurricane apparel. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at chris@allCanes.com


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