In several ways, Miami and Clemson are similar.
Both have first-year, dual-threat quarterbacks who have made their share of mistakes throwing the ball. Both have talented playmakers and inconsistent offensive lines. Both have top-flight defenses with rugged fronts and loads of speed.
But Clemson has more depth. More talent. More experience.
Because of that, the Tigers present more of a challenge than Miami has seen in the Mark Richt era, and will likely be more than a modest favorite in the ACC Championship Game next Saturday in Charlotte (8 p.m., ABC).
As the second-ranked Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 ACC) watched from South Florida, licking their wounds after Friday’s 24-14 upset loss at Pittsburgh, third-ranked Clemson (11-1, 7-1) dominated its rivalry game at 24th-ranked South Carolina.
In a 34-10 win, the Tigers left no doubt who should be No. 1 when the new College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday. Top-ranked Alabama and UM are sure to fall out of the top four, which is likely to include Auburn, which beat the Crimson Tide; Oklahoma, which outgunned West Virginia; and Wisconsin, which pounded Minnesota. Georgia and Alabama could be ranked ahead of Miami, with Ohio State and TCU behind.
Leave the calculations aside. It’s simple: If Miami wins the ACC title, it will be in the playoff. A win over Clemson would be that impressive. If not, it will be in the Orange Bowl, as the best non-playoff team from the ACC.
The league’s best team overall, as of this week, is the defending national champion.
The Tigers got rolling Saturday with a play Miami fans would recognize. Cornerback Ryan Carter, looking like Jaquan Johnson in the third quarter of UM’s win over Virginia, jumped in front of a Jake Bentley pass and strolled into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. It was the third pick-six for Clemson’s defense this season, one more than Miami. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen, a Coconut Creek product Miami tried to recruit, registered a pick in the third quarter up 27-0.
That was too much for the Gamecocks, who couldn’t move the ball (207 total yards, many of them with the game well out of reach) and went down 34-0 before turning a fourth-quarter interception into a field goal.
Miami will try to force Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant to throw under pressure, which South Carolina mostly failed to do. Bryant (23-of-34, 272 yards) fit a 4-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow into a tight window, then let Renfrow make a dazzling play on a 61-yard screen for another score. Tee Higgins, a 6-foot-4 true freshman, was a major threat (three catches, 84 yards).
Miami should be worried about stopping Clemson, but not about summoning the emotion needed to play for the ACC title. Players were asked standard questions Friday about rebounding — “We can’t lose two games because we lost one,” Braxton Berrios said — but c’mon. This is the biggest game of the year. Expect their best in Charlotte.
Being flat, as they were in Pittsburgh, should not be a concern. Clemson chief among them, Miami has more than enough of those already.
The run blocking and pass protection are concerns, especially against a Clemson front that includes large, mobile Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Malik Rosier’s inaccuracy is a concern. The Hurricanes’ lack of depth at running back is a concern; Travis Homer, phenomenal against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia, never got going against Pitt.
The Hurricanes are also concerned about standout tight end Chris Herndon, who departed near the end of the third quarter Friday with what ESPN reported was a left knee injury. Sophomore Michael Irvin II replaced him, and recorded one catch for seven yards. Without Herndon, UM would be down to Irvin (five catches this year), true freshman Brian Polendey and converted defensive end Scott Patchan as scholarship tight ends.
For a team already playing a hobbled Ahmmon Richards, missing star running back Mark Walton and several contributors on defense, the loss of Herndon could be too much for the Canes to withstand. The defense can only get so many stops.
“We can’t worry about what may happen,” linebacker Shaq Quarterman said Friday, when asked about what the Pitt loss did for UM’s playoff standing. “We make it happen.”
Though Pitt was 4-7 and out of bowl contention, Miami couldn’t win, and make happen a perfect, 11-0 regular season. Quarterman’s belief was unshaken.
“I know you always learn more from losses than you do wins,” he said. “We definitely learned a lot about ourselves. … We just learned that unless we play how we’re supposed to play, like Miami Hurricanes play, from the jump, we can’t wait until the second half to play like ourselves.”
Clemson has a few injury concerns of its own. Star tackle Dexter Lawrence has been dealing with a foot issue, though he played Saturday. Starting middle linebacker Tre Lamar missed the game with a back injury, and backup Chad Smith (calf) couldn’t go, so Clemson played third-stringer James Skalski, a sophomore.
But those were mere footnotes. The Tigers were so much better than South Carolina it didn’t need them, or special-teams trickery it showed early. Clemson’s punt returner, Ray Ray McCloud, twice called for fair catches in the first half, even though he knew the punt was over his head. South Carolina was twice duped, surrounding him both times as the punts rolled into the end zone for touchbacks.
The Canes have hope of making the playoffs — “Obviously,” Berrios said Friday — and a win over Clemson would all-but-certainly get them there. A one-loss ACC champion is a sure shot.
It will not be the Canes if they help Clemson with turnovers and mental mistakes. Won’t be the Canes if Rosier misfires as often as he did Friday. Won’t be Miami if there’s no running game. Probably won’t be Miami without a few turnovers.
“We believe the Lord’s going to help us,” defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said, commenting on UM’s well-earned belief in its ability to come back in games.
Divine intervention? Sure couldn’t hurt.