|MIAMI HURRICANES (2018: 7-6, 4-4 ACC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Manny Diaz||6 offense, 6 defense||359 YPG/28.8 PPG||268 YPG/18.2 PPG|
|1st year||63%, 57% of stat production||105th/66th in FBS||2nd/15th in FBS|
All time series: Miami 29, Florida 26
Last meeting: Miami 21, Florida 16 (2013)
Introduction: if last year was “Year Zero” of the Dan Mullen era, then the true Year One (at least in terms of judgment) begins in Orlando against an old rival. From World War II through the mid 1980’s, this was THE game in the state of Florida, the equivalent to today’s Florida-FSU rivalry with a giant wooden paddle of a trophy to boot. Now, the Battle for the Seminole War Canoe will add one final chapter, an epilogue to put a pretty bow on the once heated rivalry, before being laid to rest for good. Rest assured: though Mark Richt’s shocking retirement gypped Florida out of one more chance to embarrass him, this game still means everything. Because for either Mullen’s Gators or Manny Diaz’s Hurricanes, the book on this rivalry will close with a bang- the bang that launches his team full throttle into a highly anticipated 2019 season.
Miami’s offensive prospects hinge almost entirely on the quarterback play. For a team that has had precisely zero dependable quarterback play since the departure of Brad Kaaya, that’s bad news. N’Kosi Perry was basically useless down the stretch, to the point where opponents refused to respect his ability to throw. Ohio State transfer Tate Martell will fight him for the job, but keep in mind that he didn’t look particularly efficient throughout spring ball, and there’s also redshirt freshman Jarren Williams. Whoever it is, though, has virtually no experience worthy of placing on an NFL highlight tape.
If whoever takes the snap can make good decisions, the Hurricanes should be in decent shape through the air, as Miami has plenty of weapons to choose from. After being kicked off the team late last year and then flirting with the NCAA’s Wheel of Transfer Portal Decisions, Jeff Thomas (35 catches for 563 yards) is indeed back in 2019, as are slot receiver Mike Harley (21 catches for 240 yards) and tight end Brevin Jordan (32 catches for 282 yards). Diaz also imported the explosive KJ Osborn from Buffalo as a grad transfer. So at least in terms of names, the pieces are there.
But other parts of the offensive personnel, at least on paper, could blow the whole operation. For starters, the best true threat on the Canes’ offense last year, Travis Homer, is now a Seattle Seahawk. Deejay Dallas is a solid running back (617 yards on 117 carries as Homer’s backup), and Cam’Ron Harris is brimming with potential. Now, though, we get to the real problem for Miami: the offensive line. If you think Florida’s offensive line has work to do this offseason, let’s meet the Hurricanes’ big uglies. One returning starter (guard Navaughn Donaldson) is back from a unit that allowed over two sacks a game- and keep in mind that this was with running quarterbacks- and fared little better on the ground.
Offensive grade: C-. There’s some talent in the skill positions, but massive questions on the offensive line and at the QB position require answers. And these types of questions typically don’t get answered in the first game of the season. Dan Enos certainly has his work cut out for him.
It got lost because the offense’s ineptitude dragged the whole team down to a level of mediocrity, but Miami actually led America in both sacks and TFL’s last year. Not the state, or the ACC Coastal, or the ACC, but the entire country. A couple of major reasons for that- not the least of which is former Gator-turned-Cane-after-he-shoved-Jameis-Winston-on-the-sideline-in-2014 Gerald Willis- are gone, but the Hurricanes still have plenty of dominant linemen to keep this a strength in 2019. Jonathan Garvin and Scott Patchan make up two potentially havoc-wreaking ends, and now the Canes have VT transfer Trevon Hill in the mix. Meanwhile, Nesta Silvera and Pat Bethel should slide into larger roles on the interior.
The linebacker corps could be even better because of its experience. Shaquille Quarterman, Zach McCloud and Michael Pinckney will both be playing in the NFL next year, and they return for their senior seasons in Coral Gables. Simply put, this is the most veteran unit in all of college football, and it’s a frightening one at that. Quarterman’s next tackle will be his 250th as a Cane, and he’s going to be a handful for Florida (any everybody else) to stop both on the ground and through the air. And whereas Pinckney and McCloud don’t have the numbers that Quarterman does, they’re both invaluable pieces to this Hurricane defense and are capable of ruining a game plan by themselves.
Miami’s backfield could again be strong, too, but this one is more of an uncertainty. Trajan Bandy (11 PBU in 2018) returns to his CB1 role, while striker back Romeo Finley and safety Amari Carter also reclaim their respective roles. However, a lack of dependable depth here could eventually prove costly. It’ll be up to young guys like Al Blades and Gurvan Hall, Jr. to step into larger roles and thrive right away, as if Miami can’t defend the deep pass, the entire defense could crumble.
Defensive grade: A-. It was a shame that Miami’s offense was so putrid last year, because its defense was actually really, really good. And even with so many pieces to have to replace, it should be again this year.
Key Matchup: Miami’s front seven vs. Florida’s offensive line. The one unmistakeable advantage the Hurricanes have on Florida is in the trenches when Florida has the ball. If the Canes are to have any morsel of a chance to win, this advantage has to show up in a big way.
Florida key to victory: a big game from Feleipe Franks. Was Franks’ MVP performance against Michigan in the Peach Bowl a real sign of things to come in 2019, or the natural result of an opponent that thought it was too good for the Peach Bowl, mailed it in and filled half its starting lineup with backups? I genuinely think it was option A. Let’s see Franks prove it by making plays against a defense that’s spending three months preparing for him.
Miami key to victory: win the turnover battle. I know, I know: at least three of four previews a year, I inevitably resort to the turnover battle for one of the keys. It feels gratuitous at this point. But takeaways are every underdog’s best friend, and the Hurricanes have the defense to cause them. Turnovers create short fields, eliminating the need for a bad offense like Miami’s to have to go more than 25 yards or so for seven points, or they can wipe seven points off the board if they’re at the other end of the field. If Florida’s offensive line isn’t ready for war, it’s going to be a long night in Orlando. That is, assuming Miami doesn’t turn the ball over right back.
Fun fact: Florida and Miami used to play for the Seminole War Canoe, which was exactly what it sounded like: a hand-carved wooden canoe made out of an 18th century cypress tree by the Seminole tribe. From 1950, when the city of Hollywood, Florida donated it to the two schools, until 1987, the winner would claim the canoe as their rivalry game trophy.
When the annual rivalry ended in 1987, however, Miami felt as though its 31-4 victory entitled them to keep the trophy forever, as it is now locked in a glass case in the Hurricanes’ athletic Hall of Fame. After the Gators crushed the Canes 26-3 in 2008, Florida’s student government sent a formal letter down I-95 to the Miami student government requesting the canoe’s safe return, which was rejected with a narcissistic reply: “the canoe was intended for the yearly rivalry, and Miami won the final game of the yearly rivalry.” Which for our purposes, translates to: “this is what you get for taking us off the schedule. You want the canoe again, play us every year.” Since Florida has no plans to add Miami back on the annual schedule, the canoe will likely stay in Coral Gables forever.
However, there will be a trophy at stake for these two teams this year: the little known and seldom awarded Florida Cup. In 2002, then-governor Jeb Bush, along with the Florida Sports Foundation, came out with the idea to award the winner of the round-robin between Florida, FSU and Miami a trophy in recognition of being state champions. Since Florida and Miami must play in order for the Cup to be awarded, 2019 will be the first time since 2013, the second time since 2008 and the third time since 2004 it will be given out. Winning this game in Orlando won’t earn either school the Cup, but it’s step one of two necessary in order to claim it with the other being a victory over FSU.
On paper, this is a mismatch. Miami has a strong defense that could cause problems, yes, but so did Mississippi State last year. In fact, the Bulldogs and Hurricanes finished tied with exactly 268 yards per game allowed, and while Florida didn’t exactly light MSU up, the Gators moved the ball satisfactorily and made enough plays to win. Now remember that Mississippi State put up those numbers against far better competition than Miami did, and now factor in that Miami’s offense isn’t just worse than MSU’s was, it’s far worse, and Florida’s much maligned QB will be much better and more ready to play in this game than he was in that game. And oh, Florida won that game.
Still: this game terrifies me, if only because Miami’s biggest strength (front seven) is matched up with Florida’s biggest weakness (offensive line), and that strength vs. Florida’s weakness is one that, if exploited, can lead to the great equalizer that is the turnover. That’s not to say the Gators will be bad up front, per se, but they might look it in their first game together when they’re still figuring things out. And we only have to look back as recently as last November against Missouri to see what happens when the line can’t protect its QB: Feleipe Franks goes rogue, reverts back to his 2017 self and starts misfiring bullets all over the state.
And for awhile at least, that’s exactly what I think will happen. The offseason hype will transform into real, on field results, as Miami will be ready to run through a brick wall for Manny Diaz in their first rodeo. That sets up for a nasty, ultra-physical street fight between South Florida boys who know each other all too well under the lights in Orlando, and it will likely get quite hair-raising. Ultimately, though, sheer talent wins. Much like Tebow & Co. did in 2008, Franks and the Gators will shake off a rough start and finally break through in the fourth quarter to turn a close game into a rout by the time the final whistle blows on this rivalry.
Projection: Florida 34, Miami 10.