The latest installment of Why The ACC Can’t Have Nice Football Things: Volume Infinity played out Saturday in South Florida. It played out in a mostly empty stadium, off a toll highway somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where a once-proud college football program added another sad chapter to its recent (and now not all that recent) history.
It’s a chapter that could be called “Eight Turnovers,” or, perhaps more directly: Duke 45, Miami 21.
Almost 20 years ago now, the ACC thought it was marrying rich when it landed the Miami Hurricanes in what was considered, at the time, to be an expansion coup. Miami was among college football royalty throughout the 1980s and 90s, and as the early 2000s gave way to the middle part of that decade there was little to suggest that Miami wouldn’t remain a power.
One can imagine the dollar signs flashing before then-ACC Commissioner John Swofford’s eyes as he envisioned years and years of Miami-Florida State ACC title games and their resulting television revenue; and years of the sort of brash, winning, financially-lucrative football that Miami had long been known to produce.
And now, as the kids and hip Twitterers say these days: “Welp.”
Eighteen years after the ACC poached Miami from the Big East, it is clear that the league did not marry rich. Instead, this has been more like if the conference had attempted to, only to be left with nothing once it learned that its spouse was running a Ponzi scheme that led to all of their assets being seized. Is this a convoluted way of saying that Miami has largely been a fraud since joining the ACC? Well, yes. Yes it is.
We could say that Saturday was a kind of rock bottom moment for Miami, only that’d be disingenuous — for there have been a lot of those kinds of moments over the years and even this season. Remember, this is a team that lost to Middle Tennessee a month ago. (And who can forget the 48-0 defeat against Virginia in 2007 in Miami’s final game inside the Orange Bowl?)
Instead, the 24-point loss against Duke was just another in a long line of Miami disappointments during its time in the ACC. It begs the question (again): What in the world happened to this program? It’s easy to understand what has happened to, say, Nebraska, which was among Miami’s fiercest national rivals back in the glory years. After all, Nebraska faces some significant recruiting challenges due to geography and climate.
But Miami? Perhaps no program in the country has done less with more over the years. The coaches have changed, from Larry Coker to Randy Shannon to Al Golden to Mark Richt and now to Mario Cristobal who, like the others who came before, spent the offseason talking tough and saying all the right things. The results, by and large, haven’t changed.
In a financial sense, the ACC needed Miami to be good. It needed Miami to be the Miami of the 80s and 90s, and needed the Hurricanes and Florida State to transform their rivalry magic to conference championship games. Instead, here we are. The final year of ACC divisions will come and go without Miami and Florida State having ever played each other for the league title.
Is it a mystery, then, why the ACC finds itself on shaky ground concerning its long term future? It shouldn’t be. Only one of the league’s strongest football brands has consistently done its part over the years. None, though, has been more disappointing than the Hurricanes.
ONE BIG THING
On the opposite end of Miami’s misery is Duke, which has quietly become one of college football’s best stories. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the Blue Devils were able to control Saturday the way they did. Duke was picked to finish last in the Coastal Division in the ACC’s annual preseason media poll, and was the only Coastal team without a first-place vote.
Miami finished first, and entered the season as the overwhelming favorite in the division. Watching Saturday, you might’ve thought these teams switched jerseys. With apologies to Dave Clawson, who’s in the midst of another strong season at Wake Forest, Duke’s Mike Elko to this point is the ACC’s Coach of the Year.
THE HOTTEST TAKE*
This week it comes from none other than Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, speaking to reporters after back-up quarterback Cade Klubnik came in for the struggling DJ Uiagalelei to lead the Tigers to a comeback victory against Syracuse on Saturday: “As far as DJ, DJ’s our starter, DJ’s our leader.”
Really, coach? We assume you were watching the fourth quarter on Saturday, no?
* a take in which we sarcastically poke fun at a real, actual take. Not meant to be taken seriously.
THREE TO LIKE
1. N.C. State’s Devin Leary was the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year and North Carolina’s Drake Maye is starting to generate some Heisman buzz, but Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman has continued to be one of the most consistently-excellent quarterbacks in the country. Hartman’s numbers Saturday in Wake’s romp of Boston College: 313 yards passing, five TDs. Ho hum. By now it has become as predictable as it is impressive.
2. North Carolina’s ACC schools, and especially UNC and N.C. State, should be growing more and more concerned about the developments south of the border. Shane Beamer has South Carolina playing beyond its means, and the Gamecocks’ latest conquest came Saturday in a six-point win against Texas A&M. Afterward, Beamer talked his talk about the no-quit attitude of his team. We enjoy a coach with some spice, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
3. Speaking of coaches, like Beamer, who appear in the midst of building something: Mike Houston continues to turn ECU into more of a contender. The Pirates on Saturday snapped a six-game losing streak to UCF, with a resounding 34-13 victory. It’s not as if the Knights have been pushovers this season though ECU, which has been through its share of stressful finishes over the past several weeks, made it look easy.
THREE TO … NOT LIKE AS MUCH
1. Nothing says “amateur sports” like firing a coach mid-season. Charlotte’s Will Healy became the latest addition to a growing trend when the school fired him Sunday following the 49ers’ 34-15 loss against FIU. The 49ers have been bad, yes. The program has regressed. Perhaps it had bottomed out under Healy. Still, barring off-the-field wrongdoing or transgressions that go beyond losses, what does a mid-season firing accomplish?
2. Of course an ACC Coastal Division game produced one of the most humorous blunders of the season. It came last Thursday night in Virginia’s ugly victory at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets still had hope, however slim and barely existent, when quarterback Zach Gibson simply … ran out of bounds to end the game. No Hail Mary heave. No effort to try to make something happen. Just the ol’ roll-out-of-the-pocket-and-out-of-bounds-to-end-the-game maneuver. Classic.
3. The State Fair was going on in Raleigh the past two weekends, and you know what pairs well with the fair? An N.C. State home game. Yes, traffic is (even more) nightmarish. Ditto for parking. There are, to put it mildly, some logistical challenges. But it needs to be said: Bring back a State home game on a State Fair weekend. Maybe a Thursday night affair. The neon illumination of the Ferris wheel blending with the stadium lights; the smells of the fair wafting over from across the street. There was always something magical about all of those scenes and sensory details coming together.
1. Clemson (you didn’t really think the Tigers were going to lose, did you?); 2. Wake Forest; 3. North Carolina (did the Tar Heels come up with a better defensive plan in the off week?) 4. South Carolina (Gamecocks movin’ on up); 5. Duke (Blue Devils deserve their due); 6. N.C. State (did the Wolfpack come up with a better offensive plan in the off week?); 7. Appalachian State (you didn’t really think the Mountaineers were going to lose, did you?); 8. ECU; 9. Coastal Carolina (really no difference here between Nos. 7-9, to make that clear); 10. Charlotte.
FINAL THOUGHTS, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
▪ I think the biggest reasons for Miami’s decline have roots in its departure from the old Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes lost their home and a significant part of their identity. They’ve never been able to replicate anything close to a home-field advantage in the sterile confines of whatever the NFL stadium in Miami Gardens is called now (Turns out it’s still Hard Rock Stadium! OK.). Relative to its history and tradition, Miami has the worst home environment in college football. It’s a huge part of the problem.’
▪ I think part of the reason why Hartman is so overlooked (compared to Leary in the preseason and, now, to Maye) is because Wake Forest plays in what’s become a college football media desert. The Demon Deacons don’t even really have a newspaper beat writer. The team lacks the coverage it deserves. It’s mostly off the national radar. That’s how you get a player like Hartman remaining in the shadows, despite excelling on the field, for years.
▪ I think UNC-Pitt has become the Coastal’s most consistently important (and arguably most fun) game. Since Pitt joined the ACC, all of its games against the Tar Heels have been decided by a single score. UNC won the first six of those; Pitt the past two. Their meeting in Kenan Stadium this weekend is very likely to decide the division — especially if UNC wins, given Pitt’s surprising loss against Louisville on Saturday.
▪ I think whoever replaces Healy in Charlotte is in for one of the most difficult jobs in FBS college football. This isn’t like trying to build something from scratch back in the day at, say, UCF, right in the middle of a talent-rich state. Charlotte became North Carolina’s seventh FBS program. The four in the ACC have found it difficult enough to compete over the years. The best players in and around Charlotte will go to UNC, N.C. State or out of state. It’s fair to wonder whether there’s enough of a recruiting base for Charlotte to ever become what it aspires to be.
This story was originally published October 24, 2022 5:15 AM.