Another season is here—and for the first time in a long time, Miami is getting thrown into the fire, taking on a traditional power and quality opponent in LSU, right out the gate.

It’s a game that was agreed upon years back—when the Canes had bottomed-out and the Tigers were still a quality SEC West squad under Les Miles. In the time since, Miles has moved on, Ed Orgeron has taken over and Miami brought on an alum and proven entity in long-time head coach Mark Richt, all of which give this match-up a different look than most would’ve expected at the time of it’s announcement.

Miami and LSU don’t have a rich history. The Canes and Tigers have met 12 times—10 of those match-ups coming between 1958 and 1969. The last regular season showdown; 1988, where Miami rolled into Baton Rouge and waxed LSU, 44-3. The next meeting; the 2005 Peach Bowl—where the eight-ranked Canes were rolled by the ninth-ranked Tigers, 41-3.

LSU finished the 2017 season with a Citrus Bowl loss to Notre Dame, falling 21-17. The Tigers also topped No. 21 Florida and No. 10 Auburn back-to-back mid-season, on the heels of a head-scratching home loss to Troy, 24-21. Embarrassing as the loss to the Trojans was, the Tigers dug in and fought for Orgeron, notching three SEC wins in a row—including one over their leader’s one-time employer, Ole Miss.

Like many others last season, Alabama got the better of LSU in Tuscaloosa, 24-10, before the Tigers rebounded and beat Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M to close the regular season.

Miami’s journey had less bumps and bruises along the way, but also ended with a thud. The Canes leapt out to a 10-0 start year two under Richt—who had to settle for quarterback Malik Rosier under center after Brad Kaaya skipped out on his senior season; the same Rosier who Richt said would never play for him, early on in their teacher-student dynamic.

Rosier had his rough moments, but also rose up big for Miami—which seems to get lost in the criticism of the senior—as big throws directly led to comeback wins against Florida State and Georgia Tech, as well as guiding the Canes through challenging conference games against Syracuse, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

When Miami as a city, team and program rose up for Notre Dame, Rosier did enough to help the cause, without getting in the way—throwing for a touchdown, running for one and not turning the ball over.

The fairy tale came to an end in the ACC Championship against Clemson, on the heels of a loss at Pittsburgh where Rosier had a pedestrian outing—throwing for 187 yards and two scores, but missing some key throws that would’ve been difference-makers. The Tigers ate No. 12’s lunch, while Wisconsin didn’t prove to be any kinder in the Orange Bowl—the Badgers picking off the then-junior three times in a Canes’ loss.

Miami finished the season ranked No. 13 and LSU wrapped their four-loss campaign ranked No. 18—while the Canes open this season No. 8 and the Tigers squeak into the mix at No. 25.

KEYS TO VICTORY — MIAMI

Protecting the ball, while taking it away from the other guys’ seems like the most tried-and-true formula from last season—the Canes ranked third in the nation regarding forced turnovers.

The world was introduced to the “Turnover Chain” last September, but the defensive revamp by Manny Diaz started as soon as the 2016 season ended; a push for Miami to get more aggressive in their attempt to force more cough-ups from opponents.

The Canes need to win the turnover battle—for momentum-sake and to get that chain around someone’s neck, as much as for the sake of swaying the game.

Rattle the new kid, proper. LSU is starting Joe Burrow at quarterback; an Ohio State transfer who saw mop-up duty in Columbus the past two seasons, with no big game, first half action. The Canes defense must do to Burrow what solid, opposing defenses did to Rosier down the stretch last season—force him into bad decisions that result in turnovers.

Miami won’t get another look at a more inexperienced quarterback all season, so hone in on Burrow’s inexperience and use it to the Canes’ advantage. Too many times last season UM struggled in pass protection and made average quarterbacks look great, while making good quarterbacks look like All-Americans.

Virginia’s Kurt Benkert and Syracuse’s Eric Dungey both played huge against Miami, while Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook—an interception machine, throwing 15 picks during the regular season—earned Orange Bowl MVP honors with a flawless, four-touchdown performance. (That still stings.)

The Canes can’t let Burrow find a groove. Dial in on his inexperience, rattle him early and make him LSU’s downfall. This is a lay-up opportunity for Diaz’s squad and Miami’s front seven. Hit the kid.

Find stability in the ground game behind Travis Homer—both Rosier and the Canes’ reshuffled line will breathe a sigh of relief and come into their own.

Conversely, should Miami’s offense find themselves struggling to run the ball—as they did at Pittsburgh in the regular season finale—panic could set in, putting the Canes in a position where there’s no flow and they’re forcing everything on that side of the ball.

Homer doesn’t need to shoulder the entire burden as DeeJay Dallas is an options, as are designed run played for Rosier to help stretch things out. Whatever it takes, find a way to move the ball on the ground.

Set up for the big play and then take that shot. Miami has speed galore, so get the match-up and use it. The Tigers have Greedy Williams in their secondary and welcome back Kristian Fulton, who sat out all of last season for tampering with a drug test. (What convenient timing!)

All that to say, no reason Jeff Thomas or Mike Harley can’t burn either with the right play call. The Canes also have Ahmmon Richards and Lawrence Cager to provide match-up problems, so Rosier must tap into all of his big time threats. (True freshman tight end Brevin Jordan should also get some looks on Sunday night.)

Get off to a fast start. This is not the type of game Miami wants to be in a second half dog-fight. This is not a Miles-coached LSU squad. This is year two under Orgeron and thing are still somewhat in disarray. Lean on the Canes’ more-experienced coaching staff—Richt and Diaz—and put the Tigers on their heels. Dave Aranda is a very solid and coveted defensive coordinator, but Steve Ensminger running the offense—it reeks of the type of moves the Canes were making late in the Larry Coker era; older retread-type coaches, opposed to proven entities, or solid up-and-comers.

Stacked Canes squads used to out-talent, while Miami hasn’t always had top-notch staff who could out-coach the competition. This is a chance to do the latter as Richt has no business losing a chess match to Orgeron and an LSU program that’s lost a step from their glory days.

KEYS TO VICTORY — LSU

Rattle Rosier. Study Pittsburgh’s game plan and follow what Pat Narduzzi did to shut down Miami’s offense—starting with stuffing the run, in order to get to the quarterback.

The Tigers need to impose their will early and not let the Hurricanes have a big first half. Play for the second half, keep it close and use home field advantage in the fourth quarter to keep Miami on their heels, while willing LSU to some big plays.

Create an offensive game plan where Burrow doesn’t have to the be the hero—he just can’t be the goat. Move the chains. Keep Miami’s offense off the field. Convert where you need to. Pick up points. Don’t give the game away. Easier said than done, but that should be Ensminger’s modus operandi.

Neither squad needs their quarterback to put the team on their back, carrying them to victory—but there’s even more pressure on Burrow, than Rosier, to not give the game away on a silver platter. LSU’s offense must be calculated and play with precision as any mistakes will prove costly due to inexperience at quarterback, which will weigh heavy if down a few scores, with backs to the wall.

Challenge the secondary to make Rosier pay and with the battle against Miami receivers. LSU always has great corners, and that doesn’t change this season—with Williams on one side and the reinstated Fulton on the other.

One of these guys needs to make a play, or two. Jump a route. Frustrate UM’s receivers, Whatever it takes—but haul one in and take points off the board for the Canes. Bonus if they can do it and flip the field, giving Burrow confidence where at worst the Tigers settle for a field goal. Win the turnover battle against a squad that thrives on forcing others to make mistakes.

THREE MOST-IMPORTANT PLAYERS FOR THE CANES

Malik Rosier — Goes without saying. When Rosier was on last season, the Canes rolled. When he unraveled, his squad followed. No better example of the loss at Pittsburgh, where the Panthers’ defensive dictated the flow of the game. Miami was 4-of-15 on third down—stifled early each possession as the ground game was taken away, setting up too many third-and-long situations Rosier couldn’t get the Canes out of.

Rosier needs to protect the football, use his legs where it makes sense, keep Miami’s offense on the field and to hit the big play when it’s there—again, something that didn’t happen in the loss at Pittsburgh. The senior also needs to show what type of leader he’s supposedly become this off-season. Lots of quotes and summertime soundbites where players and coaches talked about Rosier’s maturity and command of the huddle. No better stage to show this growth than Sunday in Dallas.

Travis Homer — Without a ground game, Miami will be dead in the water against LSU. Much like Rosier, the Canes’ offense also goes where Homer goes. 170 yards against Georgia Tech and 146 in the route of Notre Dame; Homer could do no wrong. Again Pittsburgh; seven carries for 12 yards—and not much better in losses to Clemson (14 carries for 41 yards) or Wisconsin (12 carries for 64 yards.) Should Homer find himself stifled, a safe bet Canes’ coaches will lean on the versatility of Dallas to shake things up, much like the did early against the Badgers in the Orange Bowl.

Zach Feagles — The sophomore punter returns for another go-around—and here’s hoping the freshman shanks are no more. Feagles dropped bombs at times and flipped the field for the Canes. Other times; a liability that put the defense in a bind when giving up field position.

Being this is a season opener against a quality opponent, have to believe there are going too many of those three-and-outs that plagued the Canes the past few seasons. Feagles can’t add insult to injury with some bad punts.

Can’t think of too many better scenarios for Miami’s defense than Feagles pinning LSU deep and Burrow forced to throw in the shadow of the goalpost. Ramp up the pressure for a newbie quarterback by doing one’s job in the kicking game. Special teams will play a huge role in this game, one way or another. Here’s hoping Miami’s boys are the ones on the right side of things.

(Honorable mention here for freshman kicker Bubba Baxa who is replacing Michael Badgley. Like Feagles, Baxa can be a huge asset or a liability on special teams.)

THREE MOST-IMPORTANT PLAYERS FOR THE TIGERS

Joe Burrow — No one on the field Sunday will have more pressure to deliver that Burrow; a newbie that can’t singled-handed win this game for the Tigers, but does have the sole ability to lose it.

The quarterback last played against Illinois last November, mop-up duty as Ohio State rolled, 52-14. On the season, Burrow saw “action” in four games where he was a combined seven of 11 for 61 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. Should Burrow make a mistake, will he respond? Where is his resolve and moxie on such a grand stage? Is he ready for the moment, or will adversity break him?

Greedy Williams — Another in a long line of LSU cornerbacks that can change a game on a dime. Most-likely matched up against the talented Richards, Williams needs to shut down No. 82, while ready to make a big play anytime a ball is thrown his way. Disrupt the Canes’ passing game, get in Rosier’s head, create a turnover and Williams will have done his job.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire -or- Nick Brossette — With Derrius Guice taking his talents to the NFL, the Tigers will have to settle on a go-to back quickly. Edwards-Helaire and Brossette are pretty much 1a and 1b on the depth chart, so a safe bet both get carries and the hotter hand will keep things moving.

LSU always has great backs and runs the ball well, but in a season-opener against a quality Miami defense—a tall order for whichever new guy gets the nod. Someone needs to step up and take some heat off Burrow, early on.

INTANGIBLES & MISCELLANEOUS

This game feels like it’ll start slow, will be a low-scoring battle and that defenses will dictate the pace of things early—before somebody makes a big play. If comparing to anything, it’s almost like a watered-down version of No. 1 Alabama taking on No. 3 Florida State in last year’s season opener. The Tide struck first with a field goal in the first, the Noles took a brief 7-3 in the second. Alabama went back up, 10-7—where things stayed at halftime, as FSU had a field goal blocked in the waning moments of the second quarter.

Bama knocked down a field goal late in the third to pull ahead, 13-7—on the heels of a blocked punt. Matters were made worse when Noles fumbled the ensuing kickoff on their own 10-yard line and the Tide punched it in a play later, extend the lead to 21-7 after a two-point conversion attempt. Alabama tacked one more field goal on for good measure and got out of Atlanta with a 24-7 victory.

FSU’s unraveling aside, it was the type of low-scoring outing one would expect between two powers in a season-opener—both sides feeling the other out, biding their time and getting ready to strike, by way of their own big play, or capitalizing on the other’s mistakes.

THE PREDICTION : HOW IT SHOULD ALL SHAKE DOWN

This game feels like it can go one of a few different ways for the Canes; a 2018 coming out party where UM clicks on all cylinders, Rosier silences his critics and Miami shows the world they’re truly a Top 10-caliber squad—or the type of game where the Canes get in their own way, take a while to get going, make some boneheaded mistakes and put themselves in a bit of a hole, needing to turn it on late. The latter scenario; precisely what LSU would love as the Tigers look to start their season on a strong note, upsetting a team 17 spots higher than them in most polls.

There’s also the in-between scenario which seems most-likely—Miami’s coaching staff wins the battle of the two staffs, putting it’s players in position to succeed, while knowing LSU’s weaknesses and exposing them.

Richt and crew know that a bullseye is on Rosier’s back—so a game plan that allows him to succeed, eliminating risk, seems appropriate. Hurricanes coaches also know that the run must be established early, so a heavy dose of Homer and Dallas—whatever it takes to get something going—seems to be logical.

On defense, the Canes’ pass protection had its flaws last year—so a safe assumption this is an area defensive coaches have challenged Miami against the likes of fresh meat like Burrow. Would also expect Diaz to ramp up that aggressiveness, getting after the quarterback, with the belief it’ll pay off and mistakes will be made.

The Canes ended 2017 with a three-game losing streak, after a 10-0 start and a lot of hype after some big wins. Stumbling down the stretch; it cast a lot of negativity on a season that started out with such excitement and optimism. That can’t have sat well with anyone involved with this organization.

Miami knows if it can do what it needs to do to get this win, it gets a breather over the next few weeks—a couple of home games and a trek to Toledo before starting ACC play the last weekend of September against a lesser foe (re: North Carolina.) Translation; beat the Tigers and the Canes have a great shot at being a Top 5, undefeated squad when welcoming Florida State in early October.

Conversely, a loss on Sunday opens the program up to next-level criticism—a four-game losing streak, chatter that “The U” isn’t *back*, that the No. 8 preseason rank was too high and that Miami isn’t the program people thought it was—which is a step backwards as year three of the Richt era gets underway.

It’s strange to call a season-opener against a non-conference foe a “must-win” game—but because this are the Canes, because of how last year ended, because of this year’s expectations and because so many are ready to jump all over Miami should they lose—there is sort of an underlying get-it-done current.

Only game on Sunday; nationally-televised—half the nation rooting for Miami to lose, the other half wanting it to smack up the SEC. All eyes on them Canes; just how this program likes it.

Based on Miami’s recent trajectory and rise from the ashes under Richt, coupled with LSU still working to find their identity under Orgeron—seems a tailor made opportunity for a prepared Hurricanes squad to show up and take what’s theirs. “The U” is ready and will come to play.

Miami 24, LSU 19


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