Less than a day away from the ACC Championship and there’s a message Hurricanes faithful needs to hear, process and absorb before Saturday’s showdown; Miami has already won—and won big.

That’s not said in a defeatist manner; excusing a conference title game loss or lowering the bar. It’s a simple pre-game message and reminder for all to let wash over them before getting hyper-focused for a few hours tomorrow night in what is truly the the Hurricanes’ biggest game, stage, battle and high-stakes moment since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

Miami and a top-ranked Clemson under the lights in Charlotte; this has all the makings of a national championship-type environment.

STAKES NOW RAISED IN A COMEBACK SEASON

Had anyone gone crystal ball-style back in September, proclaiming that Miami would finish10-1, win the Coastal, end a seven-year drought to Florida State, manhandle Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in primetime, play host for a legendary College GameDay event and set up a conference title showdown against No. 1 Clemson—the defending national champions—with a win-and-in scenario regarding the College Football Playoffs … it’d have been the stuff dreams are made of.

Comeback victories against the Seminoles, Yellow Jackets and Cavaliers, while hanging on for dear life against the Orangemen and Tar Heels—any of those five showdowns could’ve gone the wrong direction, taking the luster and importance off the ACC Championship—but the find-a-way Canes delivered in 10-of-11 occasions this season, setting up a for-all-the-marbles, program-defining match-up.

Toss in the fact Florida and Florida State have a combined nine wins between them—the Gators missing the post-season, the Noles needing to reschedule a make-up game against a patsy for bowl eligibility and coaching changes taking place in both Gainesville and Tallahassee—it’d almost sound scripted, like some orange and green Fantasyland; yet that’s the reality as the first weekend of December is upon us.

Once that ball is kicked off at 8:00 p.m. ET on Saturday night in Charlotte; all eyes and hearts will be solely focused on the Hurricanes closing out what’s been a triumphant regular season run—hopefully culminating with an upset over the Tigers and jump into the coveted (and almost unfathomable) college football Final Four.

Between now and then; one final request to raise a glass to a this magical fall—compartmentalizing and appreciating what’s taken place thus far, independent of where Saturday night goes. These 2017 Miami Hurricanes deserve at least that.

STAGE IS SET FOR SOME MIAMI-STYLE MAGIC IN CHARLOTTE

All that schmaltz and preemptive psychology now out of the way—a focus on all things coming together in vintage Hurricanes fashion, setting the stage Miami-style for a potentially magical Saturday evening in Charlotte.

The regular season-ending loss to Pittsburgh did something to let the air out of the balloon as a 15-game win-streak came to a close in frustrating fashion; the Canes seemingly flat, missing opportunities and forced into a grind-it-out throw down against a four-win Panthers squad treating the post-Thanksgiving meeting like their national championship and de facto bowl game.

Getting a crack at No. 2; Miami was Pittsburgh’s everything—and the home team played like it. Welcome to the crazy emotions that surround this game; as well as a rallying cry regarding the dynamics in this year’s ACC Championship.

Life would’ve been theoretically easier for the Hurricanes had they found a way to close out against a mid-level conference foe the Friday after Thanksgiving; starting with Miami jumping to No. 1 after Alabama’s loss at Auburn. The Canes would’ve been front and center in all Playoffs talk, while given a much better shot against Clemson this weekend; but that wouldn’t have necessarily been a good thing by U-stanards.

Nick Saban called that type of chatter “rat poison” when talking about his Crimson Tide this season. For Miami, the positive accolades this season are better attributed to Xanax—the Canes dazed, confused and playing in a fog when expectations are at their highest.

BIG TIME PLAYERS NOT ARE BIG TIME IN LOW-STAKES GAMES

Florida State was on the ropes when Miami travelled to Tallahassee mid-October; all chatter surrounding the Noles being down and out and this being the year the Canes finally broke a seven-game losing streak.

Instead, UM trailed 3-0 at the half, 13-10 early fourth quarter and 20-17 with 1:24 remaining before a nine-play, 75-yard drive ended with an instant classic throw from Malik Rosier to Darrell Langham for the game-winner.

A week later, a 14-3 hole against Georgia Tech became 24-13 before Miami rattled off 12 unanswered en route to a 25-24 thriller was in the books.

Syracuse never led Miami, but the Orange overcame four first-half turnovers and cut the Canes’ lead to one with 5:23 remaining before Travis Homer ended the upset bid with a 33-yard game-winning touchdown run. Meanwhile, one-win North Carolina gave Miami all it could handle in Chapel Hill, before the Canes put yet another one away late.

Those nail-biters proved detrimental for Miami in the eyes of the public, which led to the Canes being home underdogs against both Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, under the lights. The result; two lopsided ass-kickings as Miami outscored the Hokies and Fighting Irish, 69-18, while forcing eight turnovers—that recipe itself, the key to success against Clemson.

For whatever reason this season, the Canes shine in primetime, while going through the motions in those matinee moments. Thankfully for one-loss Miami, the next two or three match-ups would all take place on the biggest stages the game offers.

Even better; throwing some gas on that fire in the form of national disrespect. One flat showing at Pittsburgh seemingly undid all Miami’s good the previous 10 games.

Where others got a pass for their lone season blemishes—Oklahoma falling at home to Iowa State, Clemson losing at Syracuse, Georgia getting tripped up by Auburn—the Canes took a huge image and resume hit losing to the Panthers; to the point where a Tigers win is fait accompli and Miami has completely fallen out of the national conversation.

BACKS TO THE WALL; THE PREFERRED STYLE AT ‘THE U’

To that, any tried and true Hurricanes would say “good”—embracing that “us against the world” mentality that has ultimately fueled this program for decades. The examples are endless, but it’s hard not to think late 1998 in a moment like this.

Miami was a good-not-great squad that year, but certainly on the mend under Butch Davis and knocking on the door regarding being “back”. With a Big East title on the line the Canes trekked to Syracuse an were manhandled, 66-13—to the point where no eyes were on South Florida a week later when No. 2 UCLA trekked to the Orange Bowl for a hurricane-postponed make-up game from earlier in the year.

The Bruins were an offensive juggernaut; a notion that if the Orangemen dropped 66 on the Canes—the flashy crew from Los Angeles could likely double that.

Instead, Edgerrin James rolled for 299 yards, the Miami defense made some clutch plays late and the Canes overcame a 38-21 deficit with just over 15 minutes remaining in a nation-shocking, title game-altering 49-45 upset.

Comparisons to yesteryear are a bit trite, as present-day squads deserve to be judged on their own merit—but there’s something very Miamiesque about responding well to adversity and playing with a chip on one’s shoulder. Always has been the case and always will be; this season no exception.

As if the raised stakes aren’t enough to give this game next-level hype; the fact it’s the defending national champion and the new No. 1 after last weekend’s shake-up—it’s also the Clemson Tigers; the team that delivered the knockout blow to Al Golden and set the Canes on a path to land Mark Richt and start this serendipitous comeback.

TIGERS FIRMLY ON CANES’ RADAR FOR TWO SEASONS

Miami’s current juniors and seniors were freshmen and sophomores on October 24th, 2015—the day the Hurricanes suffered a humiliating, program-low defeat to the Tigers, 58-0. Brad Kaaya was knocked out of the game early—not that it’d have made a difference—while Rosier took the reigns, got smacked around, tossed a few picks and the Canes were manhandled in every sense of the word.

Golden was fired the morning after, Miami went 4-2 down the stretch and Richt was hired days after the regular season finale. Everything since then; it’s been leading to this moment—the Hurricanes’ biggest game and opportunity in way too long.

Those four regular season losses in 2016; fuel for Miami’s “revenge tour” this season—checking off all boxes with wins over Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Linebacker and mouthpiece Shaq Quarterman recently added Clemson to that list; a bigger moment that occurred the season prior, but one even more deserving of payback.

Backs to the wall without it’s three best offensive players—Mark Walton lost in Tallahassee months back, while tight end Chris Herndon and receiver Ahmmon Richards both suffered season-ending injures this week—the Canes will look to external motivators in effort to counter these personnel issues.

OVERLOOKED & UNDERVALUED; JUST HOW ‘THE U’ LIKES IT

Days back the All ACC squad was announced and despite a swarming defense and some key playmakers on offense, only one Hurricanes player made the first team—kicker Michael Badgley. Fitting as only 2% of voters gave Miami a chance to win the conference when the season kicked off.

Disrespected coming off a crushing loss, back to the drawing board, leaning on each other and earning a shot at the No. 1 team in the country—a win-and-in scenario versus the defending national champions (in primetime!) who destroyed these Hurricanes two years ago—could it set up any better for Miami?

These are precisely the moments U program lives for.

Clemson is 39-3 the past three seasons, back-to-back title game appearances, a ring and fighting to get back to the big show again this season. The Tigers are the most-accomplished program in the nation since their annihilation of the Canes in 2015. Miami couldn’t ask for a bigger moment, chock full of sub-plots.

All signs point to Clemson rolling on, but a would-be gimme opp for the Tigers isn’t as obvious when factoring in all Cane-related intangibles—starting with that loss at Pittsburgh last Friday; a game-changer and ultimately a blessing in disguise for a squad that needed a done of humility and to remember what losing felt like.

Best way to counter a loss; an immediate bounce-back win after a week of stewing.

Breaking down the Xs and Os for this one is pointless. Miami’s keys to success; the defense continuing its opportunistic ways, while Rosier puts this offense on his back and makes up for last week’s pedestrian effort. All chatter out of practice had the junior quarterback all the part of an up-tempo, verbal, energized leader—and that must carry over in Charlotte.

Make the big throws, know when to tuck-and-run, don’t cough it up and inspire your teammates. Conversely, the Canes defense must make Kelly Bryant do his best Rosier-at-Pitt impression (or send him to the sideline like Syracuse did in the Orange upset of the Tigers.)

All that said, one final reminder that tonight is gravy. The ahead-of-schedule Canes have an opportunity to shine on the game’s biggest stage Saturday night; one step closer to greatness and answering the proverbial “back” question.

Do it, and an unthinkable New Years Day showdown in Pasadena or New Orleans is in the cards—two wins from the program’s sixth national championship.

Fall to a loaded Clemson squad and it’s a 10-2 finish, with the Orange Bowl as a consolation prize; home for the holidays in a monster game against a quality foe—something Miami last felt after the 2003 season.

Imagine being “let down” by a 10-win run and Orange Bowl finale; that’s the position these Hurricanes have this program in today. Incredible.

Channel that old school Miami energy regarding disrespect. Play with reckless abandon and a chip firmly planted on those shoulders. Be smart, protect the football, create opportunities and seize the moment.

The Tigers have every reason to get the nod going into Saturday night’s showdown, but the Canes have played like a team of destiny this season; especially on the main stage, in those electric prime time moments.

Energy-wise, Saturday will be the antithesis of what Miami experienced in Pittsburgh—and with everything on the line tonight, as well as the Canes shining brightest under that spotlight—we’re going to keep hope alive around here for one final week.

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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