They've got third-stringers who would be all-Americans if they played elsewhere, second-stringers who might be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. The Miami football program is stocked with so many fabulous players that Saturday's game was tighter than it should have been essentially because the coaches didn't want one Heisman Trophy hopeful to get too far ahead of one his teammates.
Even though there was more drama than need be, Miami's 56-45 victory over Virginia Tech at the Orange Bowl enabled the No. 1 Hurricanes to go undefeated (12-0) for the second straight regular season. They haven't lost since Sept. 9, 2000, which is two engagements ago for Jennifer Lopez, and as a result will play again for the national championship Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl against an Ohio State team the oddsmakers already say has zero chance.
For the record, Heisman Trophy hopeful Ken Dorsey completed 12 of 20 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, and Heisman Trophy hopeful Willis McGahee carried 39 times for 205 yards and six -- yes, 6 -- touchdowns. If college football had a Lifetime Achievement Award, it would have to go to Dorsey, who is 38-1 as a starter with 34 straight victories. But this isn't the Oscars. The Heisman is supposed to go to the kid who has had the best season, and that's McGahee, plain and simple. He's rushed for 1,685 yards and 27 touchdowns. Penn State's Larry Johnson might have rushed for more than 2,000 yards, but he averaged only 70 yards against the best teams in his conference -- Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa. McGahee, in contrast, averaged 164 yards against Florida, Florida State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
Here's the killer: If a kid named Frank Gore hadn't torn his ACL in the spring scrimmage, McGahee probably would have started the season as a backup. When Miami beat Nebraska in the Rose Bowl for the national championship last January, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound McGahee was a fullback because he couldn't beat out Clinton Portis, now the Denver Broncos' starter. That's how insanely deep the talent pool is at Miami. Edgerrin James left Miami early, making way for Portis, who left early, making way for McGahee, who likely will leave early, thereby making way and having mercy on Gore. When McGahee needs a rest, Miami puts in Walter Payton's kid, Jarrett, who carried three times for 45 yards against Virginia Tech.
Dan Soldinger, Miami's running backs coach, said perhaps the most difficult thing for all these backs is that, "they all coexisted. It's difficult with that much talent. [Edgerrin James] flew me out to the Pro Bowl one year, and he told me, 'Coach, I hated it, I hated alternating, but ultimately the competition made me a better player.' "
It's not just running back, of course. The No. 1 wide receiver, Andre Johnson, is thought by some opposing coaches to be the most talented player on the Miami offense. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. -- and I know this is sacrilege to even suggest -- is better as a college sophomore than was his Hall of Fame father. There's a sophomore defensive tackle named Kevin Wilfork, who the Miami players have nicknamed "Baby Sapp" for a former 'Cane, the one and only Warren Sapp. Wilfork, at 6-2, 350 pounds, is bigger than Sapp and projected to be a first-round pick -- even though he's a backup.
Melvin Bratton, the former Miami running back who played and then scouted for several NFL teams including the Washington Redskins, was inducted into Miami's Hall of Fame on Saturday. When I asked him about the excess of riches at Miami, he said, "When I first started scouting I was with the [Atlanta] Falcons. I'd go to the Pac-10 and I'd be really hard [grading] the players. I'd think, 'These guys can't run, these guys can't play. They couldn't make Miami's third team.' I had to readjust the way I assessed talent. There are a lot of talented kids in Southern California. It may be close in talent, but there are so many other things in the lives of those Southern California kids. But down here, football is what we do. They live, eat it and breath it."
Bratton was standing on the Miami sideline late in the game when an argument broke out. "Somebody asked who was the best back at Miami," he said. "I'd say it's a toss-up between Edgerrin and Willis. Edgerrin was more elusive. He had the greatest pair of hips for shaking and baking. But Willis is patient, he sees everything and he runs with such power. . . . You know what's going to happen, don't you? Dorsey and McGahee are going to split the votes, and [Southern California quarterback] Carson Palmer is going to win the Heisman."
Ah, the Heisman. That's what nearly got the Hurricanes in trouble in the third quarter. With first and goal at the Virginia Tech 1, everybody in the stadium presumed McGahee would be called on to score his seventh touchdown of the day. But offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who played tight end at Miami, called a trick play. Payton's pass to Dorsey was intercepted and taken back for a Virginia Tech touchdown. Instead of a 56-21 lead, party on, the relentless Hokies were back to 49-27, and would get to 49-37 before Miami regained control.
The play, officially, is called a "tailback throwback." The Miami players call it "The Heisman Play" in part because a similar play was the snapshot moment that helped Nebraska's Eric Crouch win the Heisman last season. Not only that, the Miami players practice it all the time. Seems Chudzinski, sensing McGahee was so far ahead on points, wanted a little face time for Dorsey. Not amused, Coach Larry Coker called it "brain dead."
There should be no distracting attention from McGahee. He has eight plays of 60 yards or more; all eight led to scores, and four of the long plays came with Miami trailing at the time. The 'Canes were trailing Florida State 27-14 with 81/2 minutes to play when McGahee took a screen pass 72 yards. They trailed Boston College 10-6 when McGahee ran 70 yards, then scored on the next play. They were tied at 14 with Pitt when McGahee ran 68 yards for the touchdown and a 21-14 lead. Five of his touchdowns have been 50 yards or longer. On a team that has an embarrassment of riches, it's still not hard to tell that McGahee is not only the best player on the best team, but the case is easily made that he's the best player anywhere this season.
Please note, stupidly, and inadvertently, I forgot to include once-defeated Georgia in my eight-team playoff field. Of course the Bulldogs would be invited ahead of Notre Dame or the Big 12 winner.