CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To hear players tell it, Miami is down, but not out. Bruised, but not beaten.
“We’re going to be back here again,” sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman said, full of confidence as usual.
Quarterman, speaking at Bank of America Stadium as Saturday night became Sunday morning, was referring to the ACC Championship Game. That’s where the seventh-ranked Hurricanes’ playoff chances crashed in a 38-3 loss to top-ranked Clemson. He may be right, since UM will return a strong collection of players next season and could be again favored to win the ACC Coastal Division. A return trip to the title game will be the expectation.
“Back there” is a long way off. For now, Miami will enjoy being back home.
The Hurricanes (10-2, 7-1 ACC) will play in the Orange Bowl, 8 p.m. Dec. 30 on ESPN. The game is at their home, Hard Rock Stadium. The opponent is Wisconsin (12-1, 9-0 Big Ten) which was unbeaten and ranked No. 4 before losing 27-21 to No. 8 Ohio State in the conference championship game.
The Orange Bowl takes the highest-ranked non-playoff team from the ACC, and the highest-ranked non-playoff, non-league-champion from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame. Wisconsin was sixth in the final CFP rankings. Miami was 10th.
The CFP semifinal matchups: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Georgia in the Rose Bowl. The other New Years Six games: Fifth-ranked Ohio State vs. eighth-ranked USC in the Cotton Bowl, in a battle of conference champions; and 11th-ranked Washington vs. ninth-ranked Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Miami, one of two ACC teams with double-digit wins and a conference finalist, had not finished ranked in the first three years of the College Football Playoff system. UM last finished with a top-10 ranking in 2005, when it was No. 9 before losing 40-3 to LSU in the Peach Bowl. That was also UM’s most recent appearance in a marquee bowl.
The Badgers and Hurricanes have played four times, most recently in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. The 15th-ranked Canes lost 20-14 to the 25th-ranked underdog, That game is most remembered for UM’s Graig Cooper blowing out his knee during a kick return, and a natural grass field in poor condition. The overall series is tied 2-2.
Coach Mark Richt said Saturday he would be “excited” to play in the Orange Bowl, should UM be selected.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “I mean, before the year started, you said we’re going to play for the [ACC] championship and get a chance to play in the Orange Bowl, I mean, we would not have been too happy about not winning the championship, but dang sure excited about the opportunity to play in the Orange Bowl, one of the classic bowl games in America.”
Senior wide receiver Braxton Berrios echoed that sentiment. The Orange Bowl, formerly a major BCS bowl under the old system, is in the rotation of playoff bowls. It will be a playoff semifinal next year, in 2021 and in 2024.
“At the time when there was a BCS, was one of the big BCS games,” Berrios said. “Still it’s one of the premier games in the country. Obviously, we got a shot to do something more, we came up short. But the Orange Bowl, it’s a home game. I think that will be really exciting for the team.”
“It would be unbelievable,” senior left tackle Kc McDermott said.
Miami, which was ranked as high as No. 2, lost its final regular-season game at Pittsburgh — which snapped a 15-game winning streak — and had a chance to make the top four with a win over Clemson.
“We can’t go out like that,” he said. “The fact we sent our seniors out like this, it’s a bad feeling for me. I didn’t want to send ’em out like that. None of us did on the team, so we have to come back. Our seniors don’t have another shot, but we will be back — with a vengeance.”
UM’s Orange Bowl bid is its first since 2003, when 10th-ranked UM beat ninth-ranked Florida State 16-14. Wisconsin, which is having arguably its best football season ever, stands in the way of UM’s first 11-win season since ’03.
For that reason, players didn’t sulk after the blowout loss.
“We’re the first team in — how long have we been in this conference, 14 years? — to get here,” said quarterback Malik Rosier, who also checked off the Canes’ streak-busting win over Florida State and first victory over Notre Dame since 1989. “I know the fans are disappointed. We’re disappointed. But the big thing is going back to Miami to play in the Orange Bowl for the first time in forever, and hopefully have the Orange Bowl rocking for us.”
Soon after returning home — with little sleep to be had — Miami’s coaches hit the road Sunday to recruit. Quarterman was asked what he would tell prospective players about his team.
“The only message I would send is, you see what’s happening,” he said. “Year 1, Year 2, we’re getting better and better. It’s a Miami Hurricane thing.”