The Hurricanes are three wins away from a College Football Playoff bid that even the most ardent fan may not have seen coming.
So don’t expect a letdown here.
Third-ranked Miami (9-0, 6-0 ACC) almost certainly won’t be in the conversation if it loses to Virginia (6-4, 3-3), which visits Hard Rock Stadium at noon Saturday (ABC).
A look at the matchups:
When Miami passes
With former five-star recruit Quin Blanding at safety and linebacker Micah Kiser (ACC-high 106 tackles), Virginia has veteran talent. The Cavaliers’ pass defense is good, ranking 23rd nationally in interceptions per game (1.2) and 38th in sacks per game (2.4).
Malik Rosier has had a few mistakes this year (seven interceptions), but generally takes care of the ball. UM is second nationally in turnover margin; while the Turnover Chain gets the attention, Rosier and Co. don’t often give it away. Plus, UM has more playmakers than most ACC squads, and that holds true here. Edge: Miami
When Miami runs
Miami has found a running game. UM has risen to 17th in yards per carry (5.4) with a band of newcomers. Travis Homer, quarterback Malik Rosier and emerging freshman DeeJay Dallas didn’t play in last year’s Virginia game, when the trio of Mark Walton, Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards combined for 222 yards on the ground. Led by Homer (113 carries, 753 yards, six touchdowns), this group should keep the momentum going against a defense that ranks 75th in tackles for loss (5.6 per game). Edge: Miami
When Virginia passes
Senior Kurt Benkert has improved in his final go-round, tying for the ACC lead in touchdown passes (21) and keeping his interceptions to a respectable total (seven). Mark Richt called him “a really tough kid” as he reflected on last year’s game, when UM registered six sacks. Benkert threw a touchdown pass “knowing he was about to get hit” by a free rusher. “He’s my kind of guy in that regard.” Junior Olamide Zaccheaus (70 catches, 727 yards, four touchdowns) is a running back in name only. Senior wideouts Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling have combined for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns.
On a per-game basis, the Hurricanes are second nationally in sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions. They’re not a good matchup for anyone’s pass-protection. Edge: Miami.
When Virginia runs
If Miami keeps playing like it has the last two weeks, Virginia won’t get much on the ground. the Hurricanes shut down Virginia Tech (2.37 yards per carry) and stifled the vaunted Notre Dame run game (3.03). Virginia running back Jordan Ellis (183 carries, 786 yards, six touchdowns) is having a nice junior year, but Miami’s front seven should keep him in check. UM has allowed four rushing touchdowns, the second-lowest total in the nation.
Overall, Virginia’s offense is inefficient (115th in yards per play, 4.96). It ranks 84th in scoring (25.8), 114th in rushing average (3.49) and 97th in passer rating (121.80). It is also not a big-play team: 101st in plays of 10-plus yards (124), 113th in 40-plus (six). The Wahoos have just one carry of longer than 30 yards, worst among Power 5 teams. Only four FBS teams have yet to record one. Edge: Miami
One thing Virginia does particularly well: It is fourth nationally in kick return average (27.47), with one touchdown. The Wahoos are 35th in punting average (43.03), but 16th nationally in per-game punt frequency (6.2), which isn’t good.
As good as UVa is in kick returns, it is 104th in punt return average. Miami’s speedy Braxton Berrios (punt returns) and Jeff Thomas (kicks) have explosive ability. Edge: Miami
Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall, a self-admitted fan of the Turnover Chain, hopes he doesn’t see it Saturday. He deserves props for taking his team from 2-10 to bowl-eligible (for the first time since 2011). His team isn’t deep enough to challenge the Hurricanes for long, though. Edge: Miami
Now that Miami has turned it on, has so much at stake, and might even get a sizable crowd for senior day, it’s hard to see Virginia cooling off the Canes. The Cavaliers are plucky, but Miami is playing elite ball. Miami 31, Virginia 10.