Was it all a mirage? Are the Miami Hurricanes, who stuck close to Florida State for a half, really only a fraction of what a true Top-10 team should be?
These annoying questions must be dealt with immediately, and no better opportunity exists than to take care of Virginia Tech on Saturday night. This is how Miami reshuffles the deck. This is how Al Golden gets something tangible for his 7-1 start, and not just another pat on the back for making Miami so much better than it was when he got here three years ago.
“As much as it was a painful loss for us the other night,” Golden said Tuesday, “we really have to move forward quickly.”
Back into the buzzsaw is what he means, and with purpose. Defining that purpose should be simple enough this week, of all weeks.
Smoke the Hokies and a first-ever ACC Coastal Division title will actually be within clear reach for Miami after a decade of wishing. Win the last four games, against Virginia Tech, Duke, Virginia and Pitt, and it’s guaranteed. Even so, it’s going to take a lot to snap the Hurricanes out of their post-FSU funk.
“We still have all our goals ahead of us,” Miami cornerback Tracy Howard said. “A lot of people didn’t think we did, even some people on the team, until coach (Golden) said it. When we thought about it, we actually do.”
There’s another way to do this. Golden could tell his guys that winning every game left on the schedule would likely get Miami, No. 11 in the BCS rankings, a rematch with FSU in the ACC Championship Game. After all, that’s what the Hurricanes crave most, and none of the other challenges will get the same rise out of them.
Jimmy Johnson might have been bold enough to cut to the chase like that in his Miami coaching days. Golden, though, will take the conventional route, focusing always on the immediate task at hand, just as he did throughout an intimidating NCAA investigation that ended without real pain.
“We’re getting ready, obviously, for a team that has been the dominant representative of the Coastal Division since we joined the league,” Golden said. “They’re a well-coached team with one of the best defenses, if not the best, we’ll see all year.”
Suppress those snickers. Sure, the Hokies are 3-2 in the ACC and coming off back-to-back losses to Duke and Boston College, but there’s still a coordinator named Bud Foster on Frank Beamer’s staff, and he’s been cranking out cranky defensive units at Virginia Tech since gas cost less than milk.
No. 1 Alabama took a poke at Bud in August’s season opener at the Georgia Dome and came away with just 206 yards in total offense. That’s the second-lowest output any Crimson Tide team has ever managed under Nick Saban.
Of course, Alabama has lots of ways to win. That’s why they crushed Virginia Tech 35-10 all the same, scoring touchdowns on the returns of a kickoff, a punt and an interception. Miami is not Alabama. Miami is a team that needed some fourth-quarter magic to squeak past North Carolina and Wake Forest last month, and that was before prime running back Duke Johnson was lost for the season with a broken ankle.
Strangely enough, the Hurricanes can survive that 41-14 blowout at FSU far easier than they could a clunker against the 6-3 Hokies.
Virginia Tech is the rival that came into the ACC the same year as Miami, in 2004, and in the same division. Four times the Hokies have won the conference championship, and five times the Coastal Division. Comparatively, Miami hasn’t even made a dent in this league, and the scourge of Beamer Ball is the primary reason.
“Virginia Tech has won seven of the last 10 against us,” Golden said. “We know what’s coming to town.”
Danger, that’s what, and all the more so because this time around the Hokies are unranked.
Tougher to build a bonfire around that, or to look away from the scorched earth of Tallahassee.