It is true that in 2017, Mark Richt did more for Miami football than his two immediate predecessors did in nearly a full decade. In one resplendent season — ending in an Orange Bowl bid — Richt eclipsed both Randy Shannon and Al Golden. For a brief time, “The U” was back. For that alone, Richt has given his alma mater a gift.
However, the mandate for any coach at Miami is not to have one great season, but to keep the program at the top of the college football pyramid, to make big games and splashy occasions a regular annual part of fall Saturdays.
Why is Miami’s loss to Virginia in Week 7 of the 2018 season so painful? Sure, it’s the loss of a game in the standings to ACC Coastal Division leader Virginia Tech. Yes, it’s the loss of a game which basically forces Miami to win out to have any chance of making a “New Year’s Six” bowl this season — good luck with that. Of course, the loss stings because a 10-win regular season is now extremely unlikely. This team will have to be flawless over the next several weeks to make that happen.
Yet, what is by far the most damaging aspect of this major setback in Charlottesville — a sloppy, feeble and dumb 16-13 decision endured at the hands of the Cavaliers — is that it reinforced every last doubt about the 2018 Canes and the larger Miami program.
Typically, a win over Florida State — especially after being down by 20 points in the second half — would send Miami soaring with confidence into the rest of its season. In a context when Miami-FSU mattered, the outcome of that game would represent a springboard for the winner. If one of college football’s most important rivalries from 1987 through 2005 had truly regained in 2018 the importance it once owned, Miami would have become not just a new team this season; it would have become the team it was meant to be, the team it was expected to be at the start of this season.
If Miami beating Florida State truly was the in-season catapult to greatness it annually proved to be back in The U’s glory days, this season would become a lot like last season:
Double-digit wins. A division title at a time when chief competitor Virginia Tech is in a down year. Another date with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. A big bowl game — the “New Year’s Six.”
If beating Florida State still contained the stature and cachet and value of the olden days, Miami would have turned its attention to Virginia, brought its working boots, and kicked the ever-loving daylights out of the Cavaliers, who are not terrible, but hardly rate anywhere close to their best years under George Welsh nearly 30 years ago.
If Miami was still MIAMI — the way it was last year — and if beating Florida State still carried anything close the level of resonance and importance it once did, this game on Saturday night in Charlottesville would have been taken care of with businesslike efficiency.
Miami would have gotten off to a solid, decisive start, or at the very least, punched back if UVA landed an early blow. Miami would have prevented a sluggish first three quarters, removing the burden of having to scramble desperately in the fourth quarter to make something happen. Miami would have been sharper on offense, with better play from either N’Kosi Perry or Malik Rosier, whoever was given the keys to the offense.
Miami would have served notice that it was a restored team. It would have shown that the Florida State game snapped the Canes back into a state of focus… and the look and feel of a high-quality team which had found its bearings.
Instead, Miami did……… THAT.
Whatever THAT was.
Instead, Miami didn’t control the line of scrimmage. Instead, Miami tossed three interceptions. Instead, Miami dug itself a familiar hole heading into the fourth quarter. Instead, Mark Richt didn’t make any profound adjustments. Instead, brain-dead decisions and penalties doomed the Canes just when they were on the cusp of giving themselves a chance to steal another win in the final minutes.
This was so reminiscent of Richt’s days at Georgia, when any big win — any sign of improvement and restoration — was immediately followed by a deflating loss which shattered aspirations of playing in the most important games of the year: a conference title game and a prestigious bowl game. So often at the University of Georgia, Richt would stub his toe on a game like this. His team might still have gone 9-3, but that meant an Outback Bowl instead of the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl. Georgia played in a largely irrelevant bowl game and did not reach its highest goals, the goals the fan base and the national pundits both expected.
It is true that even the best coaches have a tough time winning big every single season. There will be individual years which slip through the fingers of programs. The pieces of the puzzle simply aren’t found in time to maximize results. It happens… and only three programs right now — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State — seem to exist above that level of organic chaos.
Yet, this year seemed to give Richt a roster talented enough to sustain what had been built last year. This year offered Miami and its fans the promise of consolidating 2017’s gains and making Miami a more entrenched power, a program which could stick around as opposed to making an appearance but then reverting to its previous decade of mediocrity under Randy Shannon and Al Golden.
Maybe Miami will still bounce back. Maybe Miami will still win at Virginia Tech and make a late surge to steal the Coastal Division. Those scenarios are still within the realm of possibility. That much can and should be acknowledged at this point.
However, this past Saturday against Virginia was so important because Miami needed to show itself — more than the rest of the nation — that the Florida State game was a turning point and a sign of real growth. Miami needed to prove that it was ready to take hold of the ACC Coastal and its season in general. Miami needed to demonstrate that it had rounded into form or, at the very least, was on the cusp of doing so. Such a demonstration would have been more than enough to beat Virginia.
Miami fell short. Well short.
The Canes basically have to run the table over the next month and a half — let’s not think they have a snowball’s chance in hell against Clemson in December — to get anywhere close to where they want to go.
Given what we have seen all season, and given what we just saw in Charlottesville against UVA, is that a realistic expectation? Not right now.
This looks like an 8-4 season at best, the kind of season which all too often emerged for Mark Richt at Georgia, precisely when his teams were expected to do better.
This is not how The U becomes the annual powerhouse it used to be. This is not how the restoration of the juggernaut of Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis, and early-period Larry Coker returns to the scene.
This was a loss which casts a shadow over a program. Mark Richt has a lot of work to do to make the sun shine brightly again in Coral Gables.
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