In 1987, a massively hyped Miami Hurricanes team came to the Fiesta Bowl widely expected to throttle a stolid Penn State team built around running and defense. Penn State won, 14-10. In 1993, another massively hyped Miami squad arrived at the Sugar Bowl, once again expected to throttle a stolid Alabama team built around running and defense. Alabama won, 34-13.
Tonight, an even more massively hyped Miami team returns to the Fiesta Bowl against a stolid Ohio State team built around running and defense. Once again everybody expects Miami to win easily. Why?
While the Hurricanes are certainly excellent, they are also overrated. This year, like most years, any of the top 10 teams could beat any of the others on a given day. But there is a tendency in college football for the media to exaggerate the greatness of whichever team is thought to be the best at the time. Before the season, it was thought that Oklahoma was so swift and strong that the Sooners might as well be playing in the National Football League. Right now it’s Miami’s turn to be described as a collection of Übermenschen.
There also certain specific attributes that tend to be found in overrated teams, and the 2002 Hurricanes happen to have all of them. One is that Miami is benefiting from a carry-over mystique from a previous year’s team—the 2001 Hurricanes. Another is that Miami has beaten up on some big name opponents such as Florida, Florida State, and Tennessee. None of those wins is actually terribly impressive: All those schools had their worst teams in several years. But because they have been so good in the recent past, beating them seems more difficult than it actually is.
Finally, Miami is an offensive juggernaut, and offensive teams tend to be more highly regarded than defensive teams. Miami has outstanding skill-position players who produce fabulous highlight plays. Miami’s 56-45 win over an imploding Virginia Tech team seems more impressive than, say, Ohio State’s 13-7 victory over Penn State. In truth, though, defensive domination is no less effective than offensive domination. It just doesn’t look as pretty.
Indeed, when you look closely at the Buckeyes, they resemble the Crimson Tide team that upset the Hurricanes 10 years ago as well as the 2000 Sooners team that used suffocating defense to knock off a heavily favored Florida State team. Ohio State gives up just 12.2 points a game (compared with Miami’s 18.1). But even that fails to capture the full strength of OSU’s defense. For the first half of the season, the Buckeyes had a good-but-not-quite-great defense, held back by their relatively weak cornerbacks. But in midseason they shored up that weakness by putting star receiver Chris Gamble in at cornerback. In the last five games, since Gamble has been playing both ways, OSU has surrendered an average of just 8.1 points. That places it among the great defenses in modern college football history.
Of course, Ohio State has a plodding, mediocre offense, which caused it to squeak through several late-season wins only with the benefit of some abnormally good luck. But one of the main reasons Ohio State’s offense sputtered was that it was frequently without star tailback Maurice Clarett, who missed three games with various injuries.
Clarett averages 6 yards a carry. His primary backups, Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall, average just 3.8 and 4.7, respectively. The difference between an OSU offense without Clarett and one with him is enormous. Clarett will be back for the Fiesta Bowl.
This is particularly significant because the one thing Ohio State does well offensively—run the ball up the middle—happens to be the one thing that Miami is not terribly good at stopping. The Hurricanes allowed 296 yards rushing to Florida State and 363 to West Virginia. Surrendering 300 rushing yards is the sort of thing that normally happens only to perennial doormats such as Temple and Baylor. It’s almost unheard of for national-championship-caliber squads. Miami beat Florida State and West Virginia only because the former missed a last-second field goal and the latter had a porous defense.
This year’s Miami-Florida State game, actually, is a perfect illustration of the silliness of college football hype. If the Seminoles’ field goal attempt was two feet further to the right, Miami might not even be playing for the national championship, let alone be considered an unstoppable powerhouse. This isn’t to say that Miami won’t beat Ohio State—the Buckeyes were also a few fortunate bounces away from a multiple-loss season. But if you think the only thing that can happen tonight is a runaway Miami win, you not only haven’t paid attention to this college football season, you’ve forgotten all the other seasons, too.