Weekly college football column. Leads with item on Miami, Michigan, Washington and others showing strength they haven’t displayed in quite some time.
There they were in the eye of the storm on the night of Jan. 3, 2003, in the Fiesta Bowl.
A controversial pass interference call stopped a victory celebration that had already begun, and moments later a fourth-down pass fell incomplete, turning what had almost been a historic win - a second straight national championship - into bitter defeat for the Miami Hurricanes. Instead of a second straight undefeated season, it was Ohio State that was crowned national champion.
And then Miami disappeared.
The Hurricanes didn’t really go away, but there were two losses during the 2003 season, then three in 2004, three more in 2005 including a lopsided loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl, and six in 2006. They were a solid team for a little while after that night in Tempe, but no longer a contender.
And then things crumbled.
Larry Coker, who had coached Miami to the national championship in 2001 and to the title game against the Buckeyes after the 2002 season, was fired before the Hurricanes played their last game in 2006. Randy Shannon, who played on some of the glory teams of the 1980s, was hired.
His first two years had fits and starts. There was a 4-1 beginning in 2007 before six losses in seven games - the one win though was against Florida State. And there was a five-game winning streak last year before three losses to end the season.
But there were strong recruiting classes the last three years, and Miami is 2-0 right now.
It’s early. Very early. But the wins came against Florida State and Georgia Tech, two teams expected to be among the best in the ACC - and the Seminoles just whipped a BYU team that beat Oklahoma. The wins showed off offensive explosiveness under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple that hasn’t been seen in Coral Gables since guys like Ken Dorsey, Jeremy Shockey and Willis McGahee were at the U.
Miami may not be back just yet - 19 freshmen and sophomores are on the two-deep. The Hurricanes may not sit near the top of the rankings when the season is done, but a storm is brewing in South Florida.
“I think these guys have matured from the early stages of last year,” Shannon said Wednesday. “I think a lot of things that have happened to this university are from lessons learned last year. These guys know they have to keep focused and working on the little things and getting better each week.”
The Hurricanes are at Virginia Tech on Saturday, and next Saturday they host Oklahoma, which played for the national title a year ago. They may lose both games. But if they battle in both, if their offense challenges the defenses of the Hokies - always among the best in the nation - and Sooners, it’s more evidence that danger lurks, that a slumbering giant is stirring.
“I’ve always said that if the quarterback at Miami is playing well that there’s a lot of good players around him on offense and defense,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. “Harris is playing extremely well. They’re a very, very good football team coming in here.”
He added, “(Harris) is showing good pocket presence, he’s very much under control, he’s very much a leader of that offense. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Miami is not alone in showing signs of life that haven’t been seen in a little while. It’s not the only traditional power that fell on hard times, suffered through some embarrassing seasons, but is putting together a body of work in the very early season that shows the near future will be better than the recent past.
Nowhere is it more evident than at Washington, where the Huskies were a humiliating 0-12 last year but played LSU to the very end on opening weekend and then pulled off the upset of the year to date on Saturday afternoon against No. 3 USC. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Washington, now coached by former Southern Cal offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, suffer a letdown this week at Stanford. And games against Notre Dame, Oregon and California are out there.
The Huskies entered the top 25 in the AP poll this week but could very easily be far from the rankings by the end of the season. Doesn’t matter. There was no breath in the body of the football team last year, and not much in the four- and five-win seasons that preceded it, but it’s full of life now.
A similar tale is being told on the plains of Alabama, where Auburn was undefeated in 2004 but slid steadily from there, culminating in a 5-7 record last year that witnessed offensive coordinator Tony Franklin fired in the middle of the season and coach Tommy Tuberville not long afterward. Then came the shocking hiring of Gene Chizik, whose head-coaching resume was a 5-19 stint at Iowa State.
But the Tigers just beat West Virginia, and sit at 3-0.
There’s also 3-0 Michigan, two seasons removed from a loss to Appalachian State and coming off a 3-9 season.
They’re all on the rise. And they’ll soon threaten the supremacy of Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, USC and Ohio State - teams that have ruled the college football landscape with an iron fist since the early part of this decade.
But nowhere has the rise been more impressive than at Miami, where Harris is just a sophomore and has lit up the Florida State and Georgia Tech defenses, throwing for 656 yards and five touchdowns and completing 69.5 percent of his passes.
And given the storm the U has created over the last 30 years, winning five national championships - two more than Nebraska and Florida, which come closest - nowhere is the rise more dangerous to what has become the establishment.
Look out Gators. Beware Trojans, Tigers, Sooners and Buckeyes.
There’s a Hurricane brewing.
What We Learned
It’s such an obvious statement, but it’s so often ignored - personnel losses hurt.
USC lost another stunner on Saturday, falling 16-13 to unranked Washington (now 24th in the AP poll). It was the fourth straight year the Trojans, ranked at or near the top of the polls, suffered a loss to an unranked opponent and put their chance to win the national championship in serious peril.
But this one is a little different than the other ones. In truth, expectations for USC were a bit unfair.
The Trojans lost quarterback Mark Sanchez to the NFL, where he just led the Jets to an upset win over the Patriots. They lost linebacker Rey Maualuga, and defensive end Clay Matthews, among tons of other talent on defense. They also lost Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt, also to the Huskies. Beyond that, quarterback Matt Barkley was injured and couldn’t play, as was All-American safety Taylor Mays.
USC was ranked third in the polls not so much because of real expectations but because of reputation.
A team missing that much talent will lose.
“We once again learned the game can get you,” USC coach Pete Carroll on Tuesday. “It rears its ugly head sometimes and you’re reminded how you lose football games by turning the football over, and causing penalties and not making the plays you have to make. ... The good part about it is we have a chance to come back and get back on track and get rolling.”
But it’s not just USC. The same is true for Oklahoma, which won the wild Big 12 last year and put up a fight against Florida in the BCS Championship Game last January. The Sooners were the first team to occupy the No. 3 ranking in the polls this year, but after losing four of five starting offensive linemen to graduation it was unrealistic to expect Oklahoma’s offense to have the same explosiveness it had last year when it often outscored teams to win.
Sure enough, on opening night the Sooners sputtered, scoring only 13 points in a loss to BYU.
It was the same tale at Georgia last year. The Bulldogs opened the season at No. 1 after winning their last seven games in 2007, including a pasting of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. But Georgia suffered serious losses to graduation on both its offensive and defensive lines, and despite the presence of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, lost three games.
No one expected USC to lose to Washington. And there’s no way the Trojans should have lost to the Huskies. But to expect a team that lost so much talent in key positions to never slip is unfair and unrealistic.
It’s a simple statement, but personnel losses hurt.
Game of the Week
Naturally, it’s the ‘Canes.
Miami at Virginia Tech will not only teach a whole lot more about how soon the Hurricanes will return to national prominence - this year or the very near future - but has huge conference implications.
A win over the Hokies would give the Hurricanes not just a 3-0 start against three ranked opponents, but a 3-0 record in the ACC, including wins over their two biggest competitors in the Coastal Division - Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Games against Clemson and North Carolina remain, but victory would make Miami very hard to catch and after just three weeks propel them toward a spot in the ACC Championship Game with a berth in the Orange Bowl on the line.
“Virginia tech and Miami have always had great games together, and predominantly they come down to who can run the ball and who can stop the run,” said Shannon. “Both teams have great returners, and I think that’s going to be pivotal in a game like this.
“Coach Beamer has done a great job running Virginia Tech for many years, and it’s going to be a big-time test for our program and the kids on this football team.”
Conversely, victory by Virginia Tech would tighten the Coastal Division race, likely meaning nothing will be decided until the final weeks of the regular season.
“This is an important game for both of us,” said Beamer. “We’re on the same side (of the ACC) and they’re coming in here with a lot of confidence and playing very, very well. There’s no question about the importance of this game.”
Beyond the ACC standings, the winner will continue to lurk in the national rankings, waiting to move up as other teams get picked off as the year progresses.
Meanwhile, there’s real intrigue in the matchups.
Virginia Tech’s defense is likely the best Miami will face all season, and if the Hurricanes can abuse the Hokies the way they did the Seminoles and Yellow Jackets they establish themselves as a group that will put up serious points against anyone. Virginia Tech’s offense, meanwhile, is not prolific, but if quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies are able to move the ball against Miami it’s both a warning sign for the Hurricanes and shows that the Hokies have balance.
If I Had a Ballot ...
1. Florida (3-0): The 10-point win over Tennessee was ... disappointing.
2. Texas (3-0): The Longhorns have two more easy games before the season gets real against Oklahoma.
3. Alabama (3-0): SEC play starts with an Arkansas team that showed some offensive explosiveness.
4. California (3-0): The Golden Bears survived Minnesota, and now travel to play an Oregon team that looks a whole lot better now than it did at the start of the season.
5. LSU (3-0): The win at Washington suddenly is significantly more impressive than it was at the time.
6. Penn State (3-0): If Michigan should slip, the Nittany Lions won’t play a ranked team until Ohio State in November. That’s embarrassing scheduling.
7. Mississippi (2-0): This team remains a mystery, a hot pick based on last season’s finish but one that hasn’t been tested yet this year.
8. Miami (2-0): Perhaps No. 8 is a bit high, but maybe it will soon prove too low.
9. Virginia Tech (2-1): It’s a make-or-break week with Miami coming to Lane Stadium.
10. USC (2-1): The Trojans should bounce back easily against Washington State, but then there’s a showdown at Cal on Oct. 3 that could decide the Pac-10.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.