It was a win. Not pretty, but necessary. Miami beat Virginia Tech in consecutive years for the first time since winning three in a row from 2000-2003. While that three-game winning streak featured some of the best teams in the country, this game was a mess.

Although, Al Golden did manage to prove me wrong…

He proved the age-old adage, it is better to have a bad coach than a senile coach. And Frank Beamer handed that win to the Canes by first starting his backup QB when his starter was healthy and then never having his offensive coordinator adjust to the fact that the Canes’ defense was getting shredded by the run, instead allowing QB Brenden Motley to throw (and fumble) the game away.

In a way, it was Golden’s gameplan working to perfection. His conservative tendencies rely on the other team’s mistakes. And sure enough, when Virginia Tech executed a play successfully, there was nothing the Canes even attempted to do to stop it. The Hokies ripped off several big runs and hit a few big pass plays.

But to the Canes’ credit, they were there to take full advantage of the Hokies’ mistakes.

  • When Motley had a pass slip out of his hands, the Canes were there to pounce on it (of note, it didn’t show well on TV, but Motley had — if not a TD — a massive gain on this early fumble because the Canes fell for the reverse fake and half the field was wide open).
  • When VT jumped offside (insanely, given the circumstance) on 3rd and 20 from the 11, Kaaya hit the deep ball to Waters for a huge play which lead to a TD going into the half.
  • When VT’s quarterbacks (both Motley and Michael Brewer) threw late passes, Artie Burns was there to snatch the ball.

Burns is now third in the NCAA, averaging 0.8 Interceptions per game. And Miami leads the nation in turnover margin at +2.17 per game.

Turnover Reliant

That the Canes are able to force mistakes and capitalize on them is their greatest strength. This was on full display on Saturday, as both teams repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with stupid penalties and poor line play. But it was Miami who turned Virginia Tech’s mistakes into game-winning plays.

The problem? While it is good to be able to take advantage of mistakes, Miami has gone a step further. The Canes are dependent on the other team screwing up. Without a spate of turnovers and mistakes (both forced and unforced), Miami is unable to operate at a high level. It’s why they lack the “consistency” that Al Golden keeps searching for. A team will never be consistent when they rely on the other team to make mistakes. A look at the Canes’ first six games shows just how much Miami needs turnovers to succeed:

Opponent Turnovers Gained Turnovers Lost Turnover Margin Result
Bethune-Cookman 2 1 +1 W
Florida Atlantic 5 0 +5 W
Nebraska 3 1 +2 W
Cincinnati 1 0 +1 L
Florida State 0 0 even L
Virginia Tech 4 0 +4 W

If you take out the FCS opponent (BCC), the Canes are 3-0 when winning the turnover margin by more than two turnovers and 0-2 when winning the turnover margin by one or less.

The Business End

Miami will gratefully take any win, including a sloppy affair against the Hokies, because we’ve arrived at the sink or swim portion of the schedule. I said before (and after FSU) Golden won’t get fired or save his job based on one game. He has been here five years and will be judged on a five-year tenure.

But this week is probably the beginning of a resurrection or the beginning of the end. Here is Miami’s schedule (F+ rankings taken from Football Outsiders):

Opponent Record F+ Ranking Result
Bethune-Cookman FCS FCS W
@Florida Atlantic 1-5 92 W
Nebraska 3-4 38 W
@Cincinnati 3-3 67 L
@Florida State 6-0 14 L
Virginia Tech 3-4 54 W
Clemson 6-0 1 N/A
@Duke 5-1 24 N/A
Virginia 2-4 89 N/A
@North Carolina 5-1 31 N/A
Georgia Tech 2-5 58 N/A
@Pittsburgh 5-1 36 N/A

For reference, Miami’s F+ ranking is 40th. Removing FCS Bethune-Cookman, the average F+ of team’s Miami has played is 53, while the average of future opponents is 39.8.

Miami is heading into a much tougher part of the schedule. They’ve only played one team with a winning record so far, Florida State. Four out of the six remaining games are against teams with winning records, and those four opponents have combined for three losses total, which is the same total as the second best team Miami has played (and lost to), Cincinnati. From a win percentage standpoint, the teams the Canes have played so far have gone .500, while their remaining opponents have gone .676.

The ACC Coastal standings complete the picture:

Rank Team Conference Record Overall Record
1 Pittsburgh 3-0 5-1
2 Duke 2-0 5-1
3 North Carolina 2-0 5-1
4 Miami 1-1 4-2
5 Virginia 1-1 2-4
6 Virginia Tech 1-2 3-4
7 Georgia Tech 0-4 2-5

While this looks like a five-team race, it is actually a four-team race (Virginia has no chance and will probably finish in last) and the Canes are in much worse shape than the standings portray for two reasons:

  • Clemson and FSU are far and away the best teams in the ACC Atlantic. And this year, they both play Miami and Georgia Tech. That means that the Canes are competing with three teams that have much easier crossover games.
  • Miami has to play the three teams above them in the Coastal on the road.

Which brings us back to this Clemson game as the pivot. If the Canes lose, they’ll have to make up two games on each of the three teams in front of them, with a game remaining against each on the road. That means they’ll likely have to win three road games where they are underdogs AND get help.

Clemson represents Golden’s last opportunity for his elusive “signature win.” But winning this game probably represents his last, best chance at competing in the ACC Coastal as well.

It’s a tall order, especially given that Miami’s only conference loss to put them in this predicament was a close game at Florida State. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what brought us to this point, which is four-plus years of complete failure. The mountain to climb is a mountain Golden built himself.

Follow Vishnu on Twitter (@VRP2003)