Miami week is finally upon us, friends, and soon enough we will have an answer to that riddle that has bedeviled scholars for ages: is Da U finally back?
The Canes are in the top 10 heading into this one, and the road matchup could very well be Tech's biggest game of the season when it's all said and done. The hype for this game is certainly very real, what with it earning a primetime TV slot and all, but I think it absolutely has to be noted that there is a ton of skepticism out there about Miami, and I will heartily take part in expressing some myself.
As any listeners to the excellent podcast "The Solid Verbal" will note, the Canes have so far epitomized what the Verbal's hosts dub a "luck runs out team," given their variety of close calls thus far.
They needed a last-second field goal (set up by a miracle catch) to beat Georgia Tech at home, and a late rally to beat a thoroughly underwhelming Florida State team on the road. They never seemed in serious danger of losing Syracuse at home two weeks back, but they did let the Orange score 13 unanswered points to come within 20-19 before the Canes put them away with a late touchdown.
And, of course, last week they let the same UNC team that the Hokies trounced by 52 points hang around for the bulk of their 24-19 road win. Again, the Canes never seemed in any real trouble, but when the Tar Heels scored to make it 17-13 late in the third quarter, I (for one) was refreshing my ESPN app out of concern that it was malfunctioning somehow.
The point is: this Miami team has been wildly unpredictable. Plainly, Mark Richt's squad has talent. But how good are they, really, when they've never played a ranked opponent, and they don't have a true marquee win? When will that luck run out?
Don't get me wrong — you could ask many of the same questions about the Hokies, and I suspect Miami fans are doing just that right about now. But there is at least some reason to feel some cautious optimism before this one (to go alongside the gnawing feeling in my stomach I tend to experience before potentially season-defining games).
Part of all the uncertainty about the Canes comes down to their quarterback: Malik Rosier.
He has 17 touchdowns to just four picks, and he's powered Miami's passing attack to average 298 yards per game (good for 19th in the country). But he's also completed just 56.7 percent of his passes, and has been inconsistent early on in some of the Canes' closer contests.
While Duke and FSU are both fielding pretty solid defenses this year, the Hokies' top-10 bunch certainly represents the stiffest test for Rosier so far. Yet there seem to be some lingering questions about his health that could complicate matters.
Rosier left the UNC game for one series with some shoulder soreness after a big hit, and while he finished with three touchdowns, 356 yards and an interception, he only managed to complete 16 of his 38 passes.
Richt told radio station WQAM Monday that the quarterback "had to fight through the pain and finish the game for us," so there was certainly some consternation that Rosier might not be 100 percent for the Tech game. Richt told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that Rosier was "a little sore" but otherwise participated in all the team's drills, and he expects him to play Saturday.
Perhaps something to keep an eye on as the game progresses, especially if the front seven can deliver some big hits early on.
It also bears repeating that the Canes will be without top RB Mark Walton, who went out for the season a few weeks back. Justin Fuente told reporters Monday that he thought Walton was "the best player that they had," though the Canes certainly don't lack for talent at the position.
Travis Homer has rushed for 170, 95 and 40 yards since taking over as the starter, so plainly he's talented too. But it can't hurt Bud Foster's feelings, either, to see the Canes without perhaps their top weapon for this one.
Blind Side Uncertainty
All that being said, however, the Hokies have their own injury woes to worry about.
LT Yosh Nijman went out during the second quarter in the Duke game with some sort of lower body injury, and his status seems very much in doubt for Saturday.
"It's just going to be a day-to-day thing," Fuente said Monday. "We're hopeful that he will be able to go...Probably work out some and rest some and work out some and rest some and see how it goes."
Parker Osterloh filled in after Nijman went out against the Blue Devils, now that he's back from some injury woes of his own, and the Hokies may very well need to turn to him once more.
"I thought he did a good job, I really did. I was proud of him," Fuente said. "Obviously, we trust him. He's the first guy we grab to go throw in there."
All in all, Nijman's potential absence is a tough development for an offensive line that's really rebounded recently.
Fuente spoke frequently Monday about how he challenged the group to respond following the UNC game, and felt they lived up to challenge against Duke. The unit has certainly had its troubles run-blocking, but they've done a fine job of keeping Josh Jackson upright — in all, they've allowed 13 sacks, good to tie for 40th best in the country.
But the Canes have plenty of talent on defense (and their 24 sacks place them tied for 17th overall) so the line will be in for a test on Saturday, whether or not Nijman can play through the pain.
The "Fuente-to-Florida" Hype Train Leaves the Station
I bet some of you out there thought I was off-base in including a Tidbit about Fuente's buyout numbers last week, but lo and behold, there the head Hokie was on a list of potential Jim McElwain replacements compiled by Sports Illustrated's estimable Bruce Feldman.
Fuente is hardly a sure-fire choice for Florida, but he does fit the bill as an offensive-minded guy with plenty of shine on him after a solid 1.5 seasons in Blacksburg.
Feldman expects that guys like Dan Mullen or Scott Frost may get closer looks thanks to their SEC/Florida ties, but here's what he had to say about Fuente:
He's 17–5 with the Hokies after turning a downtrodden Memphis football program into a winner. That was impressive. Fuente is also not paid a fortune by FBS coaching standards, but has a very good situation in Blacksburg working for a well-regarded AD in Whit Babcock. He's got a good job now, but UF is an even better job. If you're the Gators, you've gotta kick the tires on this one.
As I said last week, I'm not expecting Fuente to go anywhere, and Whit Babcock has more than earned my trust to handle the whole situation.
But if you think Fuente's name won't keep coming up as the coaching carousel starts spinning, you're deluding yourself. We could see a whole bunch of SEC openings in the coming weeks (here's looking at you TAMU, Arkansas and Tennessee), not to mention some big jobs elsewhere, so steel yourselves for Fuente to appear on all manner of clickbait-y coaching wishlists in the coming days.
Babcock already moved to extend Fuente's deal out to 2023 after his successful rookie season — I wonder if this talk pressures him to do anything else, or if there's anything, financially, he can do.
I leave you this week by reminding you that can put a bet on just about anything, if you're willing to live with a little online gambling sloppiness.