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Miami Can Erase Early Struggles Against Virginia

By Dave Holcomb
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All of Miami’s early-season blues would disappear should it knock off the division-leading Cavaliers.

With the Virginia Cavaliers heading to Miami to face the Hurricanes in a Friday night ACC matchup, the two football programs appear to be heading in opposite directions. Virginia is aiming to win its first-ever ACC Coastal Division this season while Miami has posted a 9-11 record since capturing the division title two years ago.

The Hurricanes have been close to breaking through with a couple signature ACC victories this fall, but as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. If Miami loses to Virginia as expected, the Hurricanes would have to win four of its last six games just to finish .500 and have a shot at a bowl game.

However, all of Miami’s early-season blues would disappear should it knock off the division-leading Cavaliers.

The biggest contributing factor to Miami’s struggles this season has been its defense. A year after finishing first or second in just about every important defensive statistic, the Hurricanes are now third in total defense and fourth in points allowed. It sounds like only a small step back for the once elite Miami defense, but those numbers are misleading.

Almost every ACC team benefits statistically from facing Group of 5 or FCS opponents, but it’s particularly helped Miami this season. The Hurricanes have outscored non-Power 5 opponents 80-12 and held them to 385 total yards in two games.

In its games against Power 5 competition, Miami has allowed an average of 343.3 yards and 31.3 points per game. The only ACC team allowing more than 30 points per contest this year is Georgia Tech.

While the offense hasn’t exactly been elite, most would probably blame the defense for Miami’s failure to pick up victories I loosely called “signature wins.” Beating Florida would have fit into that category, but victories against North Carolina and Virginia Tech wouldn’t have. Those are closer to bad losses, especially against a Virginia Tech program that was so badly embarrassed against Duke the prior week.

Because of those losses, Miami is still searching for its first conference victory of the season.

Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz said in a radio appearance this week that he will be more heavily involved on defense this week. The fact Miami fired Mark Richt in order to bring back Diaz days after he left to become the head coach at Temple only makes the defensive struggles this year worse.

Diaz was suppose to at least keep that side of the ball elite, buying the program time to continue figuring out the quarterback situation. Instead, Miami is 0-3 against Power 5 competition because its defense has given up fourth-quarter leads in every loss. In the two blown leads against ACC teams, including against a below average Virginia Tech offense, Miami gave up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

But despite all of this, Miami can quiet the critics for at least a week with a primetime victory against the ACC Coastal leader. Virginia has emerged as the best team in the division, so a victory, especially on a night where there aren’t a lot of other Power 5 games, would be great for the Miami program.

It would signify that Diaz does have his program heading in the right direction. Miami has been ruled out nationally as a contender, but beating Virginia would place them back into the ACC Coastal race at one game back of the Cavaliers with half a season to go. The Hurricanes would also hold the all-important tiebreaker against the chaotic division favorite.

Of course, the Friday night matchup presents Virginia with an almost equally appealing opportunity. With a victory, the Cavaliers would move a full game ahead of every ACC Coastal team, and they’d hold the tiebreaker against the other top two preseason division contenders -- Miami and Pitt.

In recent years when Virginia was struggling to finish .500, the Cavaliers have given the Hurricanes fits in their matchups. Virginia beat Miami last season, 16-13, and held a halftime lead against the then No. 2 ranked Hurricanes in November 2017.

This decade, Virginia actually holds a 5-4 edge in the series against Miami, but the Hurricanes have won three of the last four matchups. Virginia is also just 1-3 in its last four trips to Miami, but this year, the Cavaliers have the luxury of extra rest and preparation because of a bye week last weekend.

Virginia should win, but the Cavaliers can’t underestimate the motivation the Hurricanes will be playing with Friday night. A victory against Virginia would erase a lot of the early-season criticism of the Miami football program.