Miami, Louisville and a Showdown for Respect in Clemson-Dominated ACC

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2020

Miami coach Manny Diaz
Miami coach Manny DiazBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

No matter the result Saturday night in Cardinal Stadium, neither Miami nor Louisville will suddenly be the ACC favorite. That title will belong to Clemson until proven otherwise.

But this prime-time clashthis lone Top 25 matchup in Week 3is a chance for both teams to make a statement.

Miami is desperate to shake a reputation of failing to meet expectations, and Louisville wants to show its rebuild is ahead of schedule. Yet every loss is a setback to whatever growth Miami touts, and only marquee wins can legitimize Louisville's vision.

This isn't a battle for the ACC. No, it's basically to see which program has a shot to contend with Notre Dameand maybe North Carolina or Virginia Techto appear in the ACC Championship Game and try to end Clemson's reign.

Progress, however, will always require a victory like this one.

The pressure is largely on Manny Diaz and Miami, which trudged a to 6-7 record in 2019 after a 7-6 mark the year prior. It's a familiar story for the Hurricanes, who regularly recruit at a high level but constantly have a destructive weakness.

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Lately, it's been the offense.

In 2018, they were tied for 116th in yards per attempt and ranked 111th in gains of 10-plus yards through the air. Last season, Miami finished 96th in red-zone touchdown rate, 128th in sacks allowed and 129th in third-down conversions.

That shortage of explosive plays and overall inefficiency is impossible to overcome in an offense-driven era.

The worst part for the 'Canes? According to yards allowed per play, they boasted the nation's third- and 12th-best defenses in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The unit has encountered some issues, but it has consistently played well enough to win. In the last two years alone, Miami scored 21 points or fewer in 10 of its 13 losses.

Is this finally the year it changes?

During the offseason, Diaz replaced Dan Enos and his methodical offense with high-tempo coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Miami pulled D'Eriq King from the transfer portal, and the former Houston star gives the offense a true playmaker at quarterback.

When a play breaks down, King is still a threat. Miami has never had a quarterback who can do this:

In the season-opening win over UAB, King finished only 15-of-23 with 141 passing yards and one touchdown. Yet it's fair to be patientbizarre offseason, new teammates, first game in 11 monthsand acknowledge King, Cam'Ron Harris and the running game is Miami's best asset anyway. At the same time, averaging 6.1 yards per passing attempt is not a sustainable way to win.

On Saturday, he'll be facing a secondary looking to make amends for last year's disaster. Even as Miami's offense struggled for much of the season, Jarren Williams tossed six touchdowns in a 52-27 win over Louisville.

The Cardinals opened 2020 with a 35-21 triumph over Western Kentucky, holding the Hilltoppers to 5.6 yards per pass attempt. There's a massive difference in talent between WKU and Miami, though. The 'Canes will likely push for 30-plus points.

However, Louisville has the firepower to respond.

Second-year coach Scott Satterfield has already established an identity that the players believe in. That's no easy task, but it's imperative to building a winning team.

The Cards want to focus on the zone-running game with Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall, who combined for 2,026 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Mix in play action and stress the defense both horizontally and vertically on passing downs.

While that may sound straightforward, many teams are just calling playsnot running an offense.

Junior quarterback Micale Cunningham is the key because he's an efficient passer and mobile threat. He finished 2019 with 11.5 yards per pass attempt and 22 touchdowns to five interceptions, and he added 482 yards and six scores on the ground. Zone reads, rollouts, scrambles, draws—he demands respect on all of them.

It helps to have these receivers, too.

Tutu Atwell is electric, having racked up 1,276 yards and 12 scores on 70 catches last year. Dez Fitzpatrick is closing on 2,000 receiving yards for his career, and junior college transfer Braden Smith had 110 yards in his Louisville debut last week.

Miami has another solid defenseespecially up front with Temple transfer Quincy Roche and UCLA transfer Jaelan Phillipsbut cornerback is an early problem area for the unit.

"I thought at corner we were average," defensive coordinator Blake Baker said after the UAB game, per Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the school's official site.

Al Blades Jr. is mostly dependable for the 'Canes, but DJ Ivey is inconsistent and the rest of the depth chart is inexperienced.

What wins out, King's creativity or Louisville's structure? Miami's defensive line or Louisville's playmakers? Both have superb running backs, shaky offensive lines and a special teams unit that committed errors in the opening week.

Neither side is perfect. Far from it, really.

If this were a normal year, Miami/Louisville would be a sidebar to the week's biggest matchups. But in 2020, prime-time eyes will be focused on a not-so-quietly important clash to programs aiming to be part of the national conversation every week.

Miami and Louisville can only start climbing toward Clemson and the highest rung of the ACC ladder by winning these types of games consistently.

           

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.