It has come to this for the Miami Hurricanes:
They must win their final three games — and hope Virginia Tech loses — to have a chance at earning a berth in the ACC Championship Game.
The Hurricanes, the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division, started 7-0 for the first time in nine years and ascended to the No. 7 ranking for the first time since 2005. The good vibes have evaporated. Miami has lost its last two games by blowout scores and lost star running back Duke Johnson to a season-ending broken ankle.
Now, a season formerly filled with promise teeters on Saturday’s must-win game against Duke (3:30, ESPNU). UM has lost to Duke once, and it was nearly 40 years ago. Since joining the ACC, UM has beaten Duke eight years in a row.
But Duke isn’t the pushover it has been in the past.
The Blue Devils (7-2, 3-2 ACC) carry the same record as Miami, but they are in a much more enviable position. Duke’s 13-10 win at then-No. 14 Virginia Tech on Oct. 26 means it needs no outside help to earn its first shot at an ACC title. With wins over Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina, the Blue Devils will face Atlantic Division champion Florida State on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
A Duke win would likely cause a reversal of bowl scenarios. Based on its No. 23 ranking, Miami is widely considered the ACC’s third-best team not projected to play in a BCS bowl. That would place UM in Dec. 28 Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Duke, currently the fourth-best ACC selection, is likely to make the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl in El Paso.
These are heady times for the Blue Devils, who have earned bowl berths in consecutive years for the first time ever.Duke last produced a winning season in 1994, when it was 8-4 (Duke finished 6-7 last season after losing its bowl game). From then until this year, it went 43-165 under four different head coaches. But David Cutcliffe, in his fifth season, has his team playing well.
“I think we’ve got a team that’s been confident all year and not in a false way at all,” Cutcliffe said. “But I think these guys believe they can compete with Miami and know that we have to play well. We’ve got quite a few fourth- and fifth-year guys on this team. So they understand. They’ve been in the battles.”
Since giving up 58 points in a Sept. 21 loss to Pitt, the Blue Devils have won five games in a row, allowing an average of 18 points per game. Miami won a wild game in Durham last Nov. 24, passing for 398 yards and rushing for 248 to win 52-45, but those kind of numbers should not be expected Saturday.
Duke has the nation’s 30th-ranked scoring defense (22.2 points per game) and is especially strong against the pass (40th nationally). The Blue Devils have 12 interceptions (24th), with nine coming in the second half of games, seven in fourth quarters.
Last week, safety DeVon Edwards intercepted passes and returned them for touchdowns on back-to-back plays, helping Duke score three touchdowns in just 26 seconds and turn a tight game against North Carolina State into a 38-20 rout. Edwards, who also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, became the first ACC player to score three non-offensive touchdowns in a game.
Duke is 69th against the run, but Miami’s run game hasn’t been as effective without Johnson. Against a stout Virginia Tech defense, the Hurricanes produced just 28 net rushing yards.
The last time Miami was 7-2 was 2009, a team only a handful of current Hurricanes played for. They have not won a bowl game since 2006. Though a top-10 ranking and thoughts of a BCS bowl are long gone, and their ACC title hopes are in grave danger, UM’s first 10-win season since 2003 is a possibility.
“Our seniors are doing a good job leading and making sure the guys know there is a lot of football left, a lot to play for,” coach Al Golden said. “And then clearly when you watch the tape and look at how much confidence Duke [has], it grabs your attention.”
Paying attention to Duke in November. This is where Miami — and the ACC — is, like it or not.