We know that lead image sucks to look at—the Tigers in celebratory fashion after taking the Canes to the woodshed. That said, it’s there for a reason—to serve as motivation, as well as reminder when looking back a few years from now.

Miami got smashed by Clemson in the Hurricanes’ first-ever ACC Championship game—and it was a true gut-punch. No other way to say it. As one-sided a football game to be on the wrong side of since mid-November, when the Canes rolled-up the Irish, 41-8.

There was a belief the Canes’ magic could continue; fueled by a recent loss at Pittsburgh and channeling that into a spirited performance in Charlotte with everything on the line. Instead, it felt like the fifth quarter of the recent road trip against the Panthers—cranked up a few notches.

A magical season was dealt two hard-hitting blows over an eight-day span; turning a 10-0 run with endless possibilities into a 10-2 finish—where an Orange Bowl consolation prize and match-up against Wisconsin, isn’t yet fully realized or appreciated as the foreign sting of losing has been difficult to process.

THE CHAIN GANG STOLE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES

The Canes were a fun story throughout the 2017 season; the Turnover Chain stealing college football headlines on a weekly basis, while Miami scrapped its way to a Coastal Division crown and was a true feel-good team year two under Mark Richt.

The U didn’t always win pretty, but close-calls earned the Canes a “cardiac” or “comeback” moniker, while providing some of Saturday’s best highlights this fall. No more fun team to watch—and the college football universe agreed, as primetime game ratings were through the rough and Miami was the “it” team for weeks on it.

Somewhat lost in all that hype; a true measuring stick for these Hurricanes and understanding just how far this team could go. Home wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame were thrillers, but both the Hokies and Irish finished 9-3, apiece—neither with a true signature-win that made them a legit contender, while both headed to average bowl games.

Conversely, any over-the-top belief in Miami after that Notre Dame win—it was quickly squashed out when Virginia went up 14-0 and 28-14 on the Canes a week later on Senior Day in the home finale. The home team rattled off 30 straight en route to a convincing victory, but there’s no doubt the bubble burst a bit that day.

Late in the season, it was rise-up time and the Canes needed to make a positive statement. Instead, the takeaway proved to be Miami peaking in their 41-8 dismantling of the Fighting Irish; the Canes going 1-2 since that magical, do-no-wrong evening at HardRock.

The energy and emotion that went into that primetime affair, the lack of a bye week since September 16th and the injuries that mounted up on both sides of the ball, going into the most-intense part of the season—the Hurricanes proved to be good, not great—and as much as that’s not what this fan base wants to hear, it’s all right based on where things have been this past dozen years.

HATE ON CLEMSON ALL U WANT; SHOULD BE MIAMI’S BLUEPRINT

Fact remains, Clemson is the real-deal and they proved it Saturday night in Charlotte—shining again in a big stage environment they’ve grown used to, while Miami was making it’s ACC Championship game debut after coming up short a dozen times.

Clemson had a no-frills, take-care-of-business type of season that the great ones tend to put together when levitating at that level.

The defending national champions came off a 14-1 season and bowl wins over both Ohio State and Alabama, hitting the ground running in 2017. The first true test; a showdown at Virginia Tech on October 1st, where the Tigers took a 31-10 lead into the final minutes before the Hokies punched in a late score.

A few weeks later; a stumble at Syracuse, where quarterback Kelly Bryant was knocked out with a concussion late in the first half, while the kicking game cost the Tigers in a 27-24—reminiscent to a one-point loss at home to Pittsburgh a year prior. Both were blips on the radar that were easily overcomeable down the stretch.

When looking at the Tigers’ resume and schedule these past three seasons, a tip of the cap is deserved as the Canes’ program knows that level of success.

Three ACC title game victories, two College Football Playoffs semifinals wins, back-to-back national championship games and one ring; a 6-1 record in some monster games that delivered some nice hardware.

DABO’S TIGERS HAVE BEEN BUILDING UP TO THIS FOR YEARS

Two years back, Clemson rolled up Miami, 58-0 in late October and sent Al Golden to the unemployment line—the Tigers in the midst fo their good-to-great transition.

7-0 on the season after wrecking the Hurricanes, the Tigers were coming off a 10-3 run a year prior where they suffered losses to Georgia, top-ranked Florida State and eventual Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech squad, before closing out with a convincing win over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, 40-6—as the Seminoles rolled to another ACC Championship, before getting knocked out in the College Football Playoffs semifinals.

A year prior; Clemson’s watershed moment; the fifth-ranked Seminoles destroying the third-ranked Tigers, 51-14 in Death Valley—a low-point in an eventual 11-2 season ending with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, while Florida State went on to an undefeated season and won the 2013 National Championship over Auburn.

Clemson’s overall record since that late-season loss to Georgia Tech in 2014; a whopping 43-3—their stumbles against Syracuse and Pittsburgh the past two seasons, as well as the 2015 national title game loss to Alabama.

As Miami faithful looks for silver linings amidst a two-game losing streak; focus on the Clemson blueprint and ascension into the upper echelon of college football—opposed to obsessing over the recent loss and Playoffs dream dying.

LOW POINTS ARE WHERE TREMENDOUS GROWTH HAPPENS

Great teams on impressive runs don’t just wake up pissing excellence. There’s a process and trajectory—as well as a statement game loss usually pinpointed as a turning point.

One year after the Tigers took that 37-point loss to the Seminoles; the first of three ACC crowns soon followed.

Two years after; the first of back-to-back title games. Three years later; national champs. Find inspiration in that journey and muster up some belief that Richt can do something in that vein with Miami over the coming seasons, as year two was the giant leap forward this program has clamored for.

Oft in the wake of a loss, a disconnect regarding “excuses” and “explanation”.

Message boards and social media featured a segment of this Hurricanes fan base talking about “lowered expectations” regarding any of those who chose to see the positive in a 10-2 season, Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl berth—serving as proof that many have forgotten how far this program had fallen; giving no credence to the baby steps one must take to reclimb that hill.

Five years ago, Miami was two years into the awful Al Golden era—celebrating the in-over-his-head coach’s “loyalty” as he stuck by the program after being blindsided by the Nevin Shapiro scandal and NCAA-fueled fallout that ensued.

The Canes were putting together lackluster .500 seasons and self-imposing bowl bans in effort to get ahead of any punishment that was coming down the pike. Depth issues were abroad and recruiting was average; Miami with the 33rd-ranked class in 2011, 10th in 2012, 14th in 2013, 12th in 2014 and 27th in 2015; Golden’s last.

Local superstars were heading elsewhere and in the case of ballers like Dalvin Cook in his three years at Florida State; making the Hurricanes pay dearly year after year.

FINAL FOUR: GOOD-TO-GREAT DOESN’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT

When looking at this year’s final four that includes Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama—nobody in that mix is truly new to the party. The Tigers and Crimson Tide have won recent national titles, while both the Sooners and Bulldogs are powerhouse programs arguably in the thick of things every season.

As much as Miami wanted to crash that party this year and ride a momentum-filled season into greatness; the Canes simply didn’t belong; proven by the inability to respond at Pittsburgh, as well as getting outplayed, out-hustled and out-talented by Clemson—which is acceptable and understandable year two under a new-look Richt.

Miami overachieved their way to a 10-win season, Coastal title and Orange Bowl berth. The Canes also ended a seven-game losing streak to the Seminoles, while exacting revenge against their arch-rival—as well as taking out the Tar Heels, Hokies and Fighting Irish; batting for the cycle regarding four squads that topped UM last season.

As injuries mounted down the stretch, easy to play the “next man up” card theoretically—versus truly dealing with surviving the in-game ramifications of losing key players.

Chris Herndon going down at Pittsburgh hurt as Miami lacks depth at tight end, while the loss at Ahmmon Richards closed out a tough season for the sophomore; hampered by injuries and never coming close to reaching his freshman phenom status of 2016. Both were huge blows to an offense that already lost Mark Walton mid-October at Florida State—as was the forced-embracing of junior Malik Rosier, under center.

For all the knocks Brad Kaaya took for never reaching gamer-status at Miami, his stronger arm, overall accuracy and general consistency were sorely missed once Rosier was exposed as the player Richt went on record as never seeing as the leader of his offense.

No. 12 certainly proved to be a more mobile threat than the former No. 15—but routine balls that sailed over, under, behind or around wide-open receivers these past two weeks; all erved as a reminder that Miami needs better quarterback play to compete on the main stage.

A similar sentiment regarding Travis Homer being forced to step in for Walton—most-notably in an animated leadership role. Homer proved a tough runner and notched a handful of plays that were the difference between 10-2 and 8-4, but Walton’s alpha, in-your-face personality, flash and bursts of speed and breakaway moments were sorely missed.

The Canes attempted to work freshman DeeJay Dallas into the fold with Homer—while leaning on freshman receivers like Mike Harley and Jeff Thomas to counter Richards’ issues this season. While serviceable, each attempt served as a reminder that depth remains an issue and until Miami is deeper, injuries are going to cut much deeper than they would with Playoffs-caliber programs.

Under better circumstances, the Canes are redshirting the likes of Dallas, Harley, Thomas and a handful of other true freshmen—or at best, saw them in complimentary roles and broken in behind current greats. Instead, all were thrown into the fire and expected to perform for Miami when the injuries piled up.

APPRECIATE AND RESPECT THIS RUN & HUGE STEPS FORWARD

The silver lining in all this; again, what these Hurricanes were ultimately able to accomplish in one of those mini-magical seasons Miami hasn’t seen in way-too-long.

Listing the season’s accolades might get a bit redundant—10-2, Coastal Division champs, first ACC Championship game in program history, wins over Florida State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, as well as an Orange Bowl showdown with sixth-ranked Wisconsin—but the message needs to be driven home to help those struggling with back-to-back losses; ready to throw away what was truly a special season, due to the way it closed out.

Greatness wasn’t on the docket this year in Coral Gables; general improvement and next-steps forward were.

When rattling off a to-do list, Miami wanted to finally with the Coastal (it did), needed to end a losing streak to Florida State (it did), hoped for a double-digit win total (done) sought “revenge” against the four squads that beat them last season (check off those boxes) and looked for relevancy, while taking a giant step forward as a program.

Mission accomplished.

The ultimate bonus on top of that would’ve been actually winning the ACC Championship—though never truly fathoming being a one-loss team going into that match-up, to a point where the College Football Playoffs were actually a reality in early December.

Last order of business; a solid month of practice before the bowl game—and ending the season with a win, bringing momentum into recruiting season and ultimately next fall.

Rattling off 15 wins in a row over a one-year span; it changed expectations within the fan base—but those victories never truly improved Miami’s chances of achieving ultimate success this year.

Division champs and a slot in the conference title game was really all this team was designed for, based on depth, talent and circumstances. Next year, start to dream bigger.

MIAMI TURNED A CORNER IN 2017; 2018 IS NEXT-LEVEL TIME

To that point, what does 2018 look like for these Miami Hurricanes as Richt and staff look to take another step forward year three?

For starters, not a stretch to predict an open quarterback race come spring—N’Kosi Perry ready to challenge Rosier after a redshirt season on the bench as a true freshman; stacking on some man-weight, learning the playbook and getting used to the speed of the game.

The Hurricanes will bid adieu to some key players; seniors Braxton Berrios, Chad Thomas, Trent Harris, Michael Badgley and Herndon the cream of that crop; as well as key role players in KC McDermott, Trevor Darling, Dee Delaney and Anthony Moten.

Walton has already let it be known he’s bouncing early—though it stings less knowing 5-star running back Lorenzo Lingard is headed to town and will be ready to go by next fall. Miami currently has 20 commitments for the third-ranked, 2018 recruiting class and the Canes are in good position to flip some others down the stretch in a year when both Florida and Florida State struggled, while making head coaching changes in Gainesville and Tallahassee.

All those years the Seminoles and Gators poached State of Miami talent; it’s payback time. Kick those rivals while their down. Poach their commitment list. Steal a few future superstars down the stretch. Miami owes both programs a little payback on that front.

Should Richt be able to keep this year’s juniors on board; Jaquan Johnson, Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, most-notably—depth will improve and the losses minimal going into next season.

The NCAA also introduced a new early signing period late December, where incoming freshmen have 72 hours to get on board with a program, allowing early enrollees to get a little National Signing Day fanfare, while getting a jump on next fall’s starting job. A safe bet Hurricanes coaches are saving their best sales pitches to convince a slew of new incomers to skip the early February noise and to get to work earning starting jobs.

Walking before one runs; easier said than done. Miami flirted with greatness this season, but wound up having to settle on “good”—the ACC Championship serving as an ultimate litmus test between pretender and contender; and again, that’s just fine in a year the Canes reached the goals they originally set out to accomplish.

Next year; aim higher. Take advantage of Florida and Florida State backsliding, in a race for in-state supremacy and keeping local talent home. Up the ante with sights set on winning the conference, not just the division—while learning how to play with the same intensity in big home games, as well as mid-day road showdowns against inferior competition.

Growth is the key for a program that spent over a decade wallowing in irrelevance. This season grades out as a welcomed success. Close strong and next year, push to surpass this year’s goals—then deliver.

Greatness is around the corner and Miami is on the right path—finally. Continue the fight and the Canes will soon reclaim that spot atop the college football mountain.

Chris Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties and launched allCanesBlog.com soon thereafter. After being poached away by BleacherReport as a featured columnist, Bello launched ItsAUThing.com to scratch that orange and green itch. In his day-to-day Bello works with icon Bill Murray and humor website theCHIVE on the William Murray golf apparel line—but all free time is spent reminding the masses that it’s a Canes thing and they wouldn’t understand.

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