Dave George: With berth in ACC final, Canes ahead of schedule

Dec 01, 2017
Miami coach Mark Richt and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will lead their teams into Saturday’s ACC Championship game. (Diedra Laird/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

In just two seasons on the job at Miami, Mark Richt has made it look relatively easy getting to the ACC Championship game.

It most certainly is not.

One way you can tell that is because former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, suddenly bound for a new adventure at Texas A&M, hasn’t been to the conference title game in three years.

Frank Beamer, the winningest active coach in major college football at the time of his retirement in 2015, is another way to tell the story. The Virginia Tech icon won four ACC championships altogether but in his final four seasons failed to get the Hokies to Charlotte, N.C.

Then there’s Bobby Petrino, a former NFL head coach who has won league titles in Conference USA and the old Big East. Since Louisville joined the ACC, he is 0-for-4 in reaching the conference championship game, and for more than half of that time his quarterback has been Lamar Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner who prepped at Boynton Beach High.

The ACC, long past its old reputation as a basketball league alone, is growing stronger all the time, with depth not even the SEC can match and with defending national champion Clemson in position to win it all again as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Of course, longtime Miami fans need no particular education in this matter.

Saturay night at Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte, and with Clemson as the opponent, the Hurricanes will make their inaugural appearance in the ACC championship game, and that’s after 12 years of trying to win the Coastal Division under four different head coaches.

The toughest part in all of this was missing out on an appearance in the 2012 ACC title game as part of a self-imposed bowl ban tied to the Nevin Shapiro investigation.

That was Al Golden’s second season at Miami, but it never had the promise of Richt’s second in Coral Gables. The 2012 Hurricanes were 7-5. They weren’t on anybody’s radar as national championship contenders. They were leaking momentum in recruiting and in overall trust, not building it.

Now Richt has the Hurricanes at 10-1, and against the seventh-toughest schedule in the nation. They’re feeling it, too, at FSU and at Florida, where coaching changes are the story of the day and where recruiting has become, at least in part, a mission to dissuade top prospects from believing that the good old days have returned to Miami, as brawny and bold as ever.

I’m not completely convinced of that just yet, but Richt, once a quarterback at Boca Raton High School and for the Hurricanes under Howard Schnellenberger, is the newly named ACC Coach of the Year. He’s figured out a lot of things in a hurry and is making rapid progress toward a continuous string of top recruiting classes, just as Dabo Swinney did at Clemson beginning in 2008.

It won’t matter if Miami is No. 7 in the CFP rankings if they do to Clemson what they did to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. Everything will just keep falling neatly into place, with a spot in the national semifinals for the Hurricanes.

Again on Friday, at an ACC title game press conference in Charlotte, Richt was asked if he saw this coming, and if he saw it coming so fast, when getting fired after a successful 15-year run at Georgia opened the door for him to conduct an extreme Miami makeover.

“As far as a timetable,” Richt said, “all I can tell you is our plan was to become the best we can be and win every game we play. When we line up, we don’t say, ‘Man, we think we’ll win that one, but I don’t know if we can win that one.’ We go into every game believing we can win.

“This year we’ve won all the close games where last year we didn’t.”

There’s a 20-19 loss to FSU in that reference to 2016, and a 30-27 loss to Notre Dame. Painful.

You won’t find anything, however, like Clemson’s 58-0 mauling of Miami in 2015, the last time these teams met.

Richt was nearing the end of his time at Georgia when that game, Golden’s last at Miami, made national headlines, gigantic and gross. When that day came, Richt and the Bulldogs had already lost to Alabama by four touchdowns and were about to lose to Florida 27-3. What happened to Miami, however, had to get his attention, in recognition of how far his alma mater had fallen and how much needed to change.

A lot has changed, enough that many thousands of Miami fans descended on Charlotte on Friday and will continue to pour in Saturday, convinced that “The U” is back and they need to be here to celebrate it.

“I’ve never said to the team, ‘Let’s prove to everybody the U is back,” Richt said Friday. “I’ve never said that. I’ve said, ‘Let’s get to work. Let’s play physical. Let’s play fast. Let’s play disciplined. Let’s do the things that you’ve got to do on a daily basis to give you a chance to win.

“That’s really all I’ve been preaching to these guys.”

Sweeney has been driving those same points home at Clemson for years now, and he’s not shy about pointing out the results.

“As far as the Turnover Chain and all that stuff, the name of the game is points,” Swinney said Friday. “They (the Hurricanes) have had an unbelievable year creating turnovers, but so have we. We’ve scored 77 points off turnovers this year. They’ve scored 72.”

Swinney went on to say that Clemson has scored a touchdown in every road game without the offense being involved. Interception returns. Fumble returns. Punt returns. Many, many happy returns, reinforcing the idea that the Tigers come at you from every possible direction.

No, it won’t be easy getting past these guys, but it wasn’t easy getting to the ACC Championship game, either.

Miami already has done more than anyone expected. What happens now will either become legend or, at the very least, a foundation for skyscraping achievements to come.