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Miami Hurricanes

What must be understood about Miami’s lost 2018 season

Matt Zemek

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Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Three losses. If you told Miami fans The U would lose three games this season, they wouldn’t have been happy… but they wouldn’t have been furious.

A 10-3 season after last year’s… uhhhhhh…

*checks notes*

.. 10-3 season would not have been bad.

Yeah, that’s right — even last year, when Miami returned to prominence and finally won an ACC Coastal Division title, then reaching the Orange Bowl — the Hurricanes lost three times. Yes, one loss was to Clemson. A second loss was to a 13-1 Wisconsin team. Nevertheless, Miami lost three times.

If three losses were all Miami suffered in 2018, it would have been an indication that Mark Richt was on the right track, on the way to sustaining a program.

Three losses? That would have been good… and better than a lot of fans might have first realized.

The problem? Miami has three losses in 2018 before November, not at the end of the full journey. Moreover, the Canes do not appear anywhere close to ready to win at Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech. This looks like a 7-5 team at best, and if the bowl matchup is a nightmare, that’s a 7-6 season, which is pure Al Golden misery The U thought it was about to leave behind.

Not now. Not yet.

The pursuit of sustained, replicated, regularly expected excellence — the fundamental goal at the heart of the 2018 season — led to a dead end in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts Friday night. Boston College ensured that Miami will not play in a good bowl game this year. The Eagles made it highly likely that Miami won’t win the ACC Coastal. The home team in New England plunged a dagger into the idea that this Miami team could turn the corner in any meaningful way.

Now, even if the Canes rally to finish 8-4 or even 9-4, the weak nature of the 2018 ACC Coastal makes it impossible to conclude that Miami has sustained what the 2017 team established. Miami fans have to face the reality that 2018 will not move the program forward. The 2019 season — freighted with even more significance in light of everything which is happening to this program — must be the year in which Richt quiets the grumbling from former Miami players and anyone important inside the program.

It is clear Richt has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and reestablish Miami as an ACC power.

What is less clear is why this season has been so bad after 2017 was so good.

That’s what I wish to address after Miami lost its sixth game to a Power 5 conference opponent in its last eight outings, dating back to the Pittsburgh loss late last November.

When anyone calls a team “lucky,” fans get upset. I know the drill. I have written about sports for nearly two decades. No one needs to explain why the word “lucky” sets off fans. Here’s the thing, though: Having a great college football season generally requires some luck. Teams can be great and still need — and receive — luck. Being “lucky” doesn’t negate or deny greatness. The great teams make use of luck. The bad teams do nothing with it. THAT’S the difference.

So, when we look back at Miami’s 2017, we have to realize that while the Canes WERE a great team, they received quite a lot of luck at key moments — at Florida State with the late replay touchdown which could have been ruled down at the 1, with the improbable fourth-down completion against Georgia Tech, with a large number of takeaways at just the right time in various games. Noting that 2017 Miami was lucky did not change the reality that the Canes were a great team. That team was independently great on the merits of what it achieved.

Why even bother to mention the breaks last year’s team received, then? Fair question.

This is why it matters: While last year’s team deserved to be seen as great — and not to be stripped of the greatness it attained — it did exist in a different realm of greatness compared to, for example, 2001 Miami or 1987 Miami, the teams which established greatness at its absolute zenith.

There are great teams which dismantle everyone — or almost everyone — and there are great teams which win a bunch of close games, like the 2002 Ohio State team which (aided by an official’s late call) broke Miami’s heart in the Fiesta Bowl. Those 2002 Buckeyes went 14-0, but they won so many of their games without elegance or imposing, overwhelming superiority. Ohio State won the national title, but is there anyone who thinks OSU would have won a majority of games in a best-of-seven series with The U? Not outside of Columbus, Ohio.

That result in Tempe, Arizona was controversial… and also an upset. Why? Miami — though not the definitively better team that night — was great in a way Ohio State wasn’t, and never could be. Those were different levels of greatness. One can’t use a single word and assume it possesses only one form or example.

This is why we measure and microanalyze greatness in fuller and more precise detail. This is why those of us who write or talk about sports assign tiers and categories to the ideas we put forth in every column, podcast or video.

The bottom line with the 2017 Miami team: All those breaks didn’t remove greatness from last year’s Canes, but they did show that in order to remain great Miami could not count on similar luck this year. The Canes would need to be objectively BETTER just to MAINTAIN the same results.

We can see how much Mark Richt has fallen short in that regard. This team hasn’t merely failed to be better. It hasn’t even been equally good. It has sharply regressed.

We saw why on Friday in New England.

I’m not going to go through all the little details of this game. The biggest thing to point out about this mess you saw against Boston College is that it came AFTER AN OFF WEEK.

Yes, after a chance to rest, regroup and refocus, Miami delivered that clunker in Chestnut Hill. It wasn’t any one man or any one unit, either. It was the pass protection allowing edge rushes to create turnovers and sacks. It was the run game being unable to blow open holes in the red zone. It was a passing game which couldn’t hit downfield plays. It was a defense which didn’t show up until the second quarter started.

It was Malik Rosier (above) throwing the costly interception which enabled B.C. to go up by two scores. It was the play selection which drew up a low-percentage jump ball on fourth down to the short side of the field in the fourth quarter, when The U needed seven points.

Everything about this team was noticeably flawed on a night when at least SOME aspects of this team needed to be great. Getting a supremely deficient performance — with holes and lapses and gaffes in so many facets of play — after an off week is a damning indictment of the head coach and his staff. If Miami had been coming off a grueling double-overtime win over Notre Dame or Virginia Tech, it would have been a lot more understandable… but not in these circumstances.

Understand this, one more time: Miami was lucky last season. That’s not a criticism, but it did mean that Miami couldn’t count on the small margins to work in its favor for a second straight year. The U had to EXPAND its margins by playing a more airtight brand of ball this year, improving in ways which would have reduced the possibility of random bounces turning against the Hurricanes.

The exact opposite has happened, and now, a season lies in ruins, a program immersed in doubt, already forced in late October to look to next year as a moment of truth.

Miami’s 2017 season didn’t end questions about the Hurricanes. If you thought it did, you read last season incorrectly. The 2017 season — as fun and as successful as it was — merely asked a new set of questions about this program, because it didn’t represent a supremely imposing and dominant form of greatness. It required a strong follow-up in 2018.

The regression from last year is a verdict on this year’s team, but it also shows that living with small margins is not a sustainable way of being successful in college football. That is what you need to understand the most about this lost season for The U.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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