MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- If you had taken a glance over at the Miami sideline after the first quarter ended Saturday afternoon, you would have never known the Hurricanes trailed 17-7.
Everybody was calm. Nobody was flustered. The team leader on offense, Stephen Morris, stayed positive and smiled. The team leader on defense, Shayon Green, stayed positive and smiled. Their attitudes carried over to their teammates, who kept their poise, weathered the adversity and survived Georgia Tech’s upset bid, 45-30.
Could they have done the same a year ago? The fact that is even a question shows just how much this team has grown up in the span of 12 months. On this same weekend in 2012, unranked Miami hung close with No. 9 Notre Dame, trailing 13-3 at halftime. But the Hurricanes got blown out in the second half and lost 41-3, one of three double-digit defeats to ranked teams on the season.
Today, the No. 14 Hurricanes stand 5-0 and proved something to their coaches, and even to themselves with the way they won their ACC opener.
“We kept saying to the team -- you don’t have any leadership until you have a bead of sweat and the [stuff] hits the fan,” coach Al Golden said. “And that’s what happened. We learned a lot about our team and we had great leadership throughout that. We had great poise.”
Miami remains the favorite to win the ACC Coastal, but it has company atop the division standings, as longtime nemesis Virginia Tech also remained unbeaten in league play with a 27-17 win over North Carolina. It became exceedingly obvious over the course of Saturday that it is Miami, Virginia Tech and then everybody else in that division.
No. 3 Clemson and No. 8 Florida State did the same over in the Atlantic, showing just how wide the gulf is between themselves and everybody else. But the key difference between the front-runners in the Atlantic Division and the front-runners in the Coastal Division is the way they won in Week 6.
Those wins embody what these teams have become to the ACC.
Miami and Virginia Tech are the survivors, the teams that find ways to win, that overcome mistakes and keep grinding until the final whistle blows. Think about the way the Hurricanes beat Florida, the way they beat Georgia Tech. Think about the way Virginia Tech has won every game this season.
Florida State and Clemson are the glitzy attention grabbers, the teams with the Top 10 rankings, the Heisman hopeful quarterbacks and the score-at-will offenses that make you dizzy with all the possibilities. The Noles were one of the best offenses in the nation last year. They are even better this year with redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston leading the way. Just check the 63-0 demolition of No. 25 Maryland if you are unconvinced.
Clemson, meanwhile, went up to Syracuse and showed the Orange how far they have to go to compete with the best in their new league. The Tigers and Noles ended up posting 1,238 yards of combined offense. Winston and Tajh Boyd went a combined 43-of-59 for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns (with two interceptions for Boyd).
Morris, playing with a sore ankle, had his own 300-yard day against Georgia Tech, and the Hurricanes needed every bit of those yards as they clawed their way back from the early deficit. Georgia Tech caught Miami off-guard early in the game with formations it had not used at any point this season. When the Hurricanes got into the locker room at halftime tied, coordinator Mark D’Onofrio made the necessary adjustments and Miami essentially stymied Georgia Tech.
“What they did at halftime was phenomenal,” Golden said.
Miami reeled off 17 straight points in the second and third quarters to take the lead. But Georgia Tech took a fumbled punt by Phillip Dorsett and scored a touchdown, poised to tie the game early in the fourth quarter. Harrison Butker missed the extra point, and Miami reeled off three straight touchdowns to put the game out of reach.
“Last year would have been different,” Morris said. “The team would’ve been a little more immature. This team, though, we looked each other in the eyes and said, ‘Nobody said this was going to be easy.'"
Nothing has ever been easy in the Coastal, either. But the way the rest of the division has looked -- Virginia losing to Ball State, North Carolina dropping to 1-4, Georgia Tech nearly out of it at 2-2 in ACC play -- you can envision a scenario now where the Virginia Tech-Miami game Nov. 9 will determine the division champ.
They just have to keep winning.