Brad Kaaya wasn’t stumping for Miami, just reviewing the year. But he clearly thinks the Hurricanes would be an attractive pick for any bowl.
“It was bumpy in the middle of the season, but we finished strong and I think our coaches have gotten to understand our personnel and which guys are playmakers,” he said after Saturday’s 40-21 win over Duke, which closed the regular season. “The players have grown accustomed to the system and I think we’re peaking at the right time.
The Hurricanes (8-4) can win their fifth game in a row next month, which would lock up the program’s first nine-win season since 2013. That year, which began with a 7-0 start, was Miami most recent five-game winning streak.
UM hasn’t ended the year with a bowl win since 2006, when it beat Nevada 21-20 in the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
This year, Miami won’t be traveling as far.
It has played itself into one of the ACC calls its “Tier I” bowls. Those games are the Russell Athletic (Orlando), TaxSlayer (Jacksonville), Pinstripe (New York City) and Belk (Charlotte). That group also includes the Sun Bowl (El Paso), but Miami played there last year (and in 2010) and is unlikely to be selected again.
The ACC’s bowl process works like this: After the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six games are set, the Russell Athletic Bowl has its pick of ACC teams. After that, the ACC and its affiliated bowls set matchups for the “Tier I” games before moving onto “Tier II.” Their main goals are high TV ratings, full stadiums and busy tourist areas.
If Clemson (11-1) makes the playoff — a certainty if it beats Virginia Tech in the ACC championship on Saturday — either the Hokies (9-3), Louisville (9-3) or Florida State (9-3) would seem to be candidates for the Orange Bowl. Another thing to consider: the ACC would pick up a bid to the Citrus Bowl if the Orange picks a Big Ten team instead of an SEC team.
The Russell Athletic Bowl, picking next, could nab one of those teams. Or perhaps Miami, a hot in-state program with a name-brand coach, could be a fit.
Speaking Monday on WQAM, Mark Richt called Orlando “about as good as it gets, as far as for your players and family members.” Miami has played in that game (formerly the Champs Sports Bowl) twice in the last seven years. It lost to Wisconsin 20-14 in 2009, and was smoked by Louisville 36-9 in 2013. The game will select teams from the ACC and Big 12.
There’s a chance the Russell could pair Pittsburgh (8-4), ranked No. 24 this week’s Associated Press poll, with West Virginia (9-2) in a resurrection of the Backyard Brawl rivalry last played in 2011.
Depending on what the bowls above do, Miami could be in a “Tier I” pool with one of the above teams, plus North Carolina (8-4) and Georgia Tech (8-4).
The Pinstripe has yet to take UNC since the ACC signed its contact with the game in 2013. Perhaps this is the year the Steinbrenner connection pays off for the Tar Heels. It’s hard to see Coastal division champion Virginia Tech slipping past the Belk, which is about two and a half hours by car. Because the Sun likely wouldn’t take Miami again, Georgia Tech could be El Paso-bound.
Though Miami has a large alumni base in New York City (Pinstripe) and plenty of supporters strewn across the South (Belk), the most appealing destination for UM fans could be Jacksonville — especially because of the potential opponent.
The TaxSlayer Bowl (11 a.m. on Dec. 31) chooses an SEC team to face either an ACC or Big Ten team. The game is likely to go ACC this year, because of its contract with another game. In 2014, it signed a six-year deal with the Music City Bowl (Nashville), in which each game must choose three ACC teams and three Big Ten teams in that period. The TaxSlayer went Big Ten the last two years, so it must go ACC three of the four years.
That means Miami-Florida is a possibility. Or Miami-Tennessee, or Miami-Georgia.
“I wouldn’t doubt that somebody would try to get that matchup,” said Richt, who coached Georgia for 15 years before he was fired last Nov. 30, and introduced as UM’s coach four days later.
Though many would likely tune in to see Richt face his former team (which is 7-5), Miami squaring off against hated rival Florida (8-3) would no doubt draw national attention, and fans from both teams.
The last Hurricanes-Gators game was a 21-16 win by UM at Sun Life Stadium in 2013. The next scheduled meeting is the 2019 opener in Orlando. The teams first met in 1938 and faced off every year from 1944 to 1987, but have played six times since then — twice in bowls.
Auburn (8-4), Tennessee (8-4), LSU (7-4) and Texas A&M (8-4) could also be SEC-side options for the TaxSlayer. If Alabama (12-0) makes the playoff, as expected, one of those teams will play in the Sugar Bowl (similar to the Orange; it takes the highest-ranked non-playoff SEC team).
Miami has a good enough record that it is unlikely to play in one of the ACC’s “Tier II” bowls, which are, in selection order, the Military (Annapolis, Md.), Independence (Shreveport, La.) and Quick Lane (Detroit). North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Boston College, all of whom are 6-6, are candidates for those games.
The Hurricanes played in the Independence Bowl in 2014, losing to South Carolina 24-21 to finish the year 6-7. This year, they can dream of sunny weather and a big-name opponent, rather than the snowy Sun Bowl or drizzly, dreary Independence Bowl.
“It’ll be fun to not be in Shreveport, freezing,” redshirt sophomore tight end David Njoku said. “We’re excited.”
The latest national projections for Miami:
Athlon Sports (Steven Lassan): TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Tennessee, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Campus Insiders (Dave Miller): Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia, Dec. 28 at Camping World Stadium, Orlando
CBS Sports (Jerry Palm): Belk Bowl vs. Arkansas, Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
College Football News: TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Georgia, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
College Sports Madness: TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Florida, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Fox Sports (Stewart Mandel): Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia, Dec. 28 at Camping World Stadium, Orlando
SB Nation (Jason Kirk): TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Tennessee, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Sports Illustrated (Colin Becht): TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Arkansas, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
Sporting News (Bill Bender): Belk Bowl vs. South Carolina, Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
*ESPN (Mark Schlabach): TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Florida, Dec. 31 at EverBank Field, Jacksonville
*ESPN (Brett McMurphy): Pinstripe Bowl vs. Minnesota, Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.
*ESPN (David Hale): Russell Athletic Bowl vs. Big 12, Dec. 28 at Camping World Stadium, Orlando
*USA Today (Erick Smith): Belk Bowl vs. Arkansas, Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
*not updated after games of Nov. 26