Through three double-digit wins, No. 7 Miami looks different than the recent mirages that pop up every few years in Coral Gables.
The Hurricanes have added a high-powered offense to go with a reloaded defense. Their running attack is explosive. Their passing game is efficient. They’ve replaced one of the nation’s worst field-goal units with, according to advanced metrics, the country’s top special teams.
If these 'Canes really are different and not just another Hard Rock Stadium illusion, they’ll prove it Saturday. They’ll beat No. 1 Clemson. Or at least remain competitive for four quarters in Death Valley.
“If you really want to see how good you are, this is kind of the team to play,” Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker said.
In the last measuring-stick matchups against the mighty Tigers, the 'Canes learned they weren’t good enough yet.
In 2009, Dabo Swinney exposed No. 8 Miami in a 40-37 overtime win — Swinney’s first victory as a head coach against a ranked opponent.
Six years later, Miami’s 58-0 home humiliation eliminated any doubt about whether Al Golden would ever be able to revive the U. The 'Canes fired him the day after its worst loss ever.
Golden’s dismissal led to Mark Richt’s arrival and the next big Clemson matchup, for the 2017 ACC championship. That 38-3 blowout wasn’t the beginning of the end of Richt’s tenure, but it did show that, for all of the strides the program had made, The U was far from back.
That brings us back to this week for Miami’s first top-seven matchup since that night in Charlotte three years ago. Once again, mighty Clemson is the measuring stick. And once again, we’re left wondering whether these 'Canes are for real.
“This is a great opportunity for us in terms of what we’ve done over the first few weeks to go test ourselves against a team who is very comfortable in these settings and had to earn the right to be there,” coach Manny Diaz said. “They weren’t always this way.”
Diaz is right. Swinney was 10-6 in his first 16 games as Clemson’s head coach. Diaz is 9-7. Swinney’s 2011 Tigers had a lot in common with 2017 Miami — a hot start that artificially inflated expectations before a double-digit loss in the Orange Bowl.
Clemson grew from there to the point where a potential earth-shifting game at Miami is just another week for the best program in the country.
“This is just what they do,” Diaz said. “We’ve got to get our program where it’s the same way.”
Maybe this team is finally ready to get there. The defense remains powerful. Quarterback D’Eriq King has starred on an offense that’s on track to set a school record with 499 yards per game. A rushing attack that was No. 103 nationally last year is averaging 5.9 yards per carry — almost half a yard better than the school record.
The program has gained experience, too. A handful of key players, including captains Zach McCloud and Amari Carter, played in the ACC championship loss. The 'Canes have the College GameDay spotlight for their third consecutive game.
“Building a program, you’ve to get into these types of games to get your sea legs, where the ball’s kicked off, it doesn’t take you a couple rounds of the boxing match to really feel like you can throw a punch…” Diaz said. “The only way to do it is, you’ve got to earn the right to get into these games, which is what we’ve done over the first month of the season.”
And if this is truly a different Miami team, the 'Canes will do more than earn the right to play in these games.
They’ll prove, finally, that they belong in them.
No. 7 Miami (3-0, 2-0 ACC) at No. 1 Clemson (3-0, 2-0)
7:30 Saturday, at Clemson, S.C.