The last time Dabo Swinney faced Miami, he was handing the Hurricanes the most lopsided loss in the 92-year history of their program.
That didn’t seem quite right to Swinney, 48. He grew up a diehard Alabama fan as Miami was rising in the early ‘80s. As the Hurricanes were changing the college football landscape later that decade, the Pelham, Alabama native earned a walk-on spot for the Crimson Tide. His team faced Miami twice for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl, losing once (1990) and winning once (1993).
So as up-close as he has been with the Hurricanes’ worst, he has also seen them at their best. To him, Mark Richt’s version conjures familiar thoughts.
“They look like Miami,” Swinney said. “When you think about Miami, there’s a certain image that pops up in your head, and that’s what they look like.
Florida State has been an elite program at times under Jimbo Fisher. Virginia Tech and Miami have surged under new coaches. But no ACC program has been a picture of success like Clemson (11-1, 7-1 ACC), the defending national champions and two-time finalist who enter Saturday’s game against the Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1) as a touchdown-plus favorite.
The Tigers are 100-29 the last 10 years under Swinney, but have picked up a head of steam. Clemson has won 10 games in each of the last seven years (81-14), have lost three games in the last three seasons (39-3) and haven’t finished a season with a loss since 2011.
Richt knows plenty about building a contender. He won two SEC titles in his first five seasons at Georgia (2001-15), won 10 games nine times and finished in the top 10 seven times in 15 seasons. He is fifth among active FBS coaches in winning percentage (.745), one spot behind Swinney (.775). The only coaches ahead: Urban Meyer (.850), Chris Petersen (.822) and Nick Saban (.780).
He knows how to prepare for a title fight — “I think that we’ve been preparing to play in a championship game all year long, quite frankly,” he said — but punted when asked if his team was ready to line up with anyone in America.
“We’ll find out Saturday, that’s for sure,” he said. “Clemson being the great championship-caliber team that they are and have been for a couple years, pretty much dominating our league and obviously winning the national championship a year ago. It’ll be a great measuring stick to see where we’re at, quite frankly.”
When Miami joined the ACC in 2004, many assumed the Hurricanes and Seminoles would battle for supremacy every year. UM didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, and is making its first ACC Championship Game appearance. FSU, which backslid at the end of Bobby Bowden’s tenure, went 59-9 and won a national title in Years 3 through 7 under Jimbo Fisher. But this year’s struggles (5-6) have brought turmoil to Tallahassee, and Miami’s rise makes it possible this Hurricanes-Tigers could be the first of several title-game meetings.
Why not? It’s how Richt’s former coach, Howard Schnellenberger, would have thought.
“He would always say that Miami was on a collision course for a national championship, and the only variable was time,” said Richt, the former UM backup quarterback (1978-82). “A lot of people just thought he was maybe a little bit crazy at the time, but he kept believing in it and he helped a bunch of young guys that didn’t know any better believe in it, too.”
Swinney, who went 1-1 against Richt’s Georgia teams, said he has “always had a lot of respect for him and how he handles his business and the type of man he is. … There’s no question when he got this job — he played there, you know he’s going to have a good understanding of the culture there and so forth. It’s been fun to watch him pull it together. I knew it wouldn’t take him long.”
Richt’s early thought on the game is that it may be low-scoring, which could benefit a Hurricanes side that struggled to score in last week’s loss at Pittsburgh.
“A lot of times you go into a game like this, and you’re like, it’s going to be 10-9,” Richt said. “You know, defenses score points sometimes, and special teams points happen. It’s just so hard to say what’ll happen in a game like this, but I know it’s going to be tough sledding for us offensively against their defense. They do a wonderful job, and it’s going to be a battle for sure for us, and hopefully it’ll be a battle for Clemson’s offense, as well.”
Swinney was complimentary of the Hurricanes’ attack.
“They’re running the ball well,” he said. “They’ve got a quarterback that’s played very well for them all year. They’ve hit some big plays at critical times. They’ve found ways to win games. And then defensively they’ve created a bunch of turnovers. They’ve earned it.
“I mean, it’s been a heck of a year for them, and we know it’s going to be a big challenge for us. But that’s the way it should be when you get in a championship game. Should be good-on-good, and that’s what you’ve got.”
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