When Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC this year, most college football observers figured the conference's power line would stretch from South Beach to Tallahassee. Certainly not from Blacksburg to Charlottesville.
But with three regular season games remaining, Virginia and Virginia Tech are tied atop the ACC standings, with perennial powerhouses Florida State and Miami in third and fourth place, respectively, with two conference losses apiece. Virginia Coach Al Groh, whose No. 10 Cavaliers host the Hurricanes at Scott Stadium on Saturday, isn't counting out either of the Florida teams.
"Most of the predictors in July had two teams from the same state being on top," Groh said. "It just wasn't from this state. We'll see how it all turns out. There's a lot to go down before we can make a determination on that."
Miami has lost consecutive games to unranked opponents for the first time since 1984. Those losses, 31-28 at North Carolina on Oct. 30 and 24-17 in overtime to Clemson last weekend, dropped the Hurricanes from a No. 4 ranking to No. 18 this week, their lowest ranking since the end of the 1999 season.
But Miami can still win the ACC by beating the Cavaliers, Wake Forest on Nov. 20 and No. 16 Virginia Tech on Dec. 4. If the Hurricanes win those games, and Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech all end the regular season with two ACC losses each, the Hurricanes would own tiebreakers over the other three teams because of their head-to-head victories over each.
"I wouldn't put the word vulnerable on this team," Groh said of the Hurricanes, who have lost five games during the past four seasons. "They've lost two games in a row on the last play of the game. . . . They had back-to-back losses at one point last year and never lost again. That tells me their psyche isn't easily penetrable."
The Cavaliers have their own psyches to worry about after failing in their first meeting against a top 10 team this season, a humbling 36-3 loss at then-No. 7 Florida State on Oct. 16. Virginia was completely overwhelmed in that game, as the Seminoles outgained the Cavaliers, 470 yards to 281, and blocked a punt for a safety.
As imposing as the Seminoles may have seemed to the Cavaliers, the Hurricanes may be an entirely different animal, Groh said.
"To be a dynasty, you have to be pretty good for a long time," Groh said. "But if it's possible to define a dynasty in a 10- or 12-year timeframe, this team probably is as close to a dynasty as we've seen in organized sports over the last 12 years, colleges or pros. Maybe the Yankees and the Hurricanes."
Groh said speed is what has separated Miami from the rest of college football during the past decade. The Hurricanes have produced 40 NFL first-round draft picks since 1987, and a record six Miami players were chosen in the first round this past spring. Despite losing all that talent, Groh said, the Hurricanes are as fast as ever.
"The speed is tremendous," Groh said. "It keeps on coming and there are all sorts of guys who have it. There are all sorts of guys who can get up and go. . . . [Speed] dominates on special teams. It dominates on offense and dominates on defense."
But in the past four games, the Hurricanes' defense has been dominated, allowing an average of 465.8 yards and 30.3 points. Miami has been especially porous against the run during that span, surrendering an average of 196.5 rushing yards. The Hurricanes have played the past two games without defensive tackle Santonio Thomas, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
Since losing to Florida State, the Cavaliers have thumped Duke and Maryland by a combined score of 53-16, running for 643 yards in the two victories. Senior Alvin Pearman has done most of the work, running for 393 yards against the Blue Devils and Terrapins.
"Miami is an unbelievably fast team," Pearman said. "We know what to expect. They're a great football team, but we realize they're a beatable team."
Cavaliers Notes: Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who had two interceptions and a key fourth-down stop in Saturday's 16-0 victory over Maryland, yesterday was named ACC defensive lineman of the week. Senior center Zac Yarbrough was named ACC offensive lineman of the week. . . .
Miami tailback Frank Gore (sprained ankle), wide receiver Ryan Moore (sprained ankle) and cornerback-kick returner Devin Hester (leg) were injured against Clemson, but are expected to play on Saturday. . . .
ABC will televise Virginia's Nov. 20 game at Georgia Tech, but will wait until Sunday to announce whether kickoff will be at noon, 1 p.m. or 6 p.m. . . .
Cavs senior linebacker Rich Bedesem, who didn't play against Maryland because of a knee injury, wasn't listed on the team's depth chart released yesterday. . . .
Virginia backup quarterback Christian Olsen is preparing to play against his brother, Miami tight end Greg Olsen, for the first time. The brothers, from Wayne, N.J., started their college careers at Notre Dame.
Christian transferred after one season; Greg left after only a few practices. "He wasn't going to come with me," Christian Olsen said. "It didn't work the first time." Greg Olsen has caught 15 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown; Christian has thrown 12 passes in three games.