The University of Miami will have another opportunity this week when it plays 20th-ranked Texas A&M to not only beat a nationally-ranked opponent, but play on national television. Canes fans once took these matchups for granted because UM always seemed to playing on national television. But these days with Miami out of the Top 25 poll, UM fans have to realize how important it is to not only have a game like this, but win a game like this considering where Miami is now compared to where it once was.
Winning games like these is what used to help Miami land other big-time recruits in state's like Texas and California. This week, a few potential Miami recruits including Texas safety Victor Johnson (who UM in his top 3) will be watching. The nation, like Johnson, knows its been a while since the Canes have won a big game. Beating an undefeated team at home in the OB on ESPN would go a long way in not only helping lifting the Canes out of their current "rebuilding stage," but help coach Randy Shannon have more in his back pocket when he goes into the living room for guys like Johnson and others Miami used to pull out of other states with regularity.
That being said, no matter what Las Vegas is saying about this game (Miami is a three-point favorite), I think we all can agree Miami should be the underdog in this game considering recent history and not distant history. Texas A&M comes in with one of the nation's most potent run (Aggies are ranked 5th) and scoring offenses (they've scored 14 TDs -- twice as many as UM) and have a dual-threat quarterback in Stephen McGee which looks a lot like the type of athlete that has caused Miami's defense problems in the past (READ SARAH ROTHCHILD'S STORY). The Canes offense, meanwhile, seems to be still stuck with a bad case of cantfindtheendzone. On paper, the Aggies should roll over Miami. But I'm going to try to give you five ways Miami can win this game.
1. GET THE OB ROCKING AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: I hate to point out stats like this considering Miami's rich history, but the Canes are actually 1-7 against ranked opponents since losing to LSU in the Peach Bowl season. The good news, the last time Miami played at home against a Top 25 team, it won, beating 18th-ranked Boston College 17-14 in last year's season finale. But this being the final season in the OB and all, Canes fans ought to have the OB rocking. If Miami can keep their fans in the game, the Canes' 12th man should be loud enough down the stretch to get the Aggies a little nervous -- maybe enough to help Miami spring the upset.
2. SLOW DOWN THE RUN: OK, so No. 1 had nothing to do with what UM has to do on the field. But this one is the No. 1 issue for Miami on the gridiron in this game. If A&M runs the football like it has all season (they average 296.3 yards a game), the Canes are going to get blown out of the OB. So far, Miami's run defense is ranked 25th in the country this season (giving up an average of 51 yards a game). But they haven't faced a team like A&M before, which operates out of an option, quarterback zone read with McGee usually in the shotgun and running backs Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodman with him in the backfield. Defensive end Calais Campbell told me the closest comparison he could make was to Georgia Tech. Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said each of Miami's opponents have run a package with of it, but not to the obvious extent A&M does. "They're disciplined. Their offense does a lot of different things and they hope you make mistakes out of it," Campbell told me (TO LISTEN TO CAMPBELL AND HURTT BREAKDOWN A&M FOLLOW THE LINK TO OUR AUDIO SECTION).
- The good news is UM will be aided this week by the return of its three best defensive tackles -- Teraz McCray, Antonio Dixon and Dwayne Hendricks, who have been hampered by injuries. Hurtt told me their return should help Campbell and Miami's defensive ends not feel like they need to carry the burden and allow them to play balanced, a key to stopping this running game. I'm not going to set any goals this week as far as rushing numbers are concerned, but rather first downs and third down conversions. If UM can keep A&M around 12 to 15 first downs (the Aggies average 23.5) and keep their 3rd down conversion percentage below 40 percent (A&M averages 55 percent) then the Canes should have a chance to win this game.
3. MIAMI MUST MOVE THE CHAINS AND PROTECT THE BALL: I haven't totally given up on Miami's passing game. But I just not going to expect much from them until proven otherwise. That being said, A&M's defense isn't spectacular. The Aggies have given up more than 383 yards a game -- mostly on the ground (A&M's run defense has given up 151 yards a game). The key for the Aggies has been creating turnovers. They currently are +4 in the turnover battle. UM quarterback Kyle Wright had three turnovers himself last week. If he can stay error-free in this game and Javarris James, Graig Cooper and Shawnbrey McNeal, who I'm told will get some PT in this game, can help Miami's run offense, which is averaging 172 yards a game, run right around that total and pick up at least 10 first downs, then Canes could have a shot to win this game.
4. WIN ON SPECIAL TEAMS: This is one you can say every week. But the truth is the Canes haven't really proved much here yet. A&M has one of the best kick returners in the country in senior Kerry Franks. The Big 12’s top kick returner in 2006 has continued to enhance his reputation as the league’s most dangerous return man. With most teams kicking away from him, Franks is still averaging 36.7 yards on three returns this season. Miami as we know hasn't been spectacular on kickoffs or punts of late. In a game like this where the defense is going to be most responsible for a Miami win, they need some field position help.
5. GET THE BIG PLAY: Last week against FIU, Lance Leggett broke free for an 80-yard touchdown pass. It was his only catch of the game. Miami really didn't have any other similar plays against Oklahoma. But against Marshall, they did get a Tavares Gooden interception to the 1 that setup a touchdown and a 50-yard run by Graig Cooper which setup another score. If Miami is going to win this game against A&M, they're going to need at least one big play -- a momentum changing turnover -- or a big run or pass on offense to help them to an easy score and give the offense a boost.
MY PREDICTION: Miami 22, Texas A&M 20. My head is telling me to pick A&M, that Miami simply isn't ready to win a game like this against an opponent that on paper clearly appears better. But the fact the Canes are at home, in their final season at the OB and the defense is getting three big weapons back makes me think this will end up being Randy Shannon's first big win in his coaching career. A&M, after all, hasn't exactly played a tough schedule. They beat Montana State 38-7, Louisiana Monroe 54-14 and needed triple overtime to beat Fresno State 47-45, a team that is 1-2 after getting blown out by Oregon 52-21 last week. This also A&M's first road game of the season. I'm thinking James, Cooper and McNeal tally more than 200 yards rushing and Francesco Zampogna kicks a career-high 5 field goals and UM holds on behind its defense and a last-second missed field goal by A&M to win.