Miami preview: Hurricanes have their defenders, but do they have the firepower?

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In any recent preseason for Nick Saban’s Alabama, there is always that point when analysts – especially those suffering from extreme Bama Fatigue – find themselves combing Alabama’s schedule, looking for the team with the best chance at knocking off the Crimson Tide.

For most in 2021, that team is going to be Texas A&M if it’s anyone at all. LSU always has a chance, depending on the Tigers’ state of mind. And then there’s Auburn, which has frequently played spoiler for Saban.

But then there’s the University of Miami, “The U,” which for the decade or two, has more often been “The P.U.” Imagine Bugs Bunny saying that while holding his nose.

In 2020, Miami somewhat reversed its recent fortunes, but not before laying a pair of U-shaped eggs in the final month. It started with a jaw-dropping 62-26 pummeling at the hands of North Carolina, not exactly the first program that comes to mind when the word “juggernaut” is used. Miami then lost its bowl game 37-34 to Oklahoma State. The Hurricanes’ other loss was 42-17 at the hands of Clemson on Oct. 10.

Aside from a 48-0 waxing of Duke on Dec. 5 – the week before North Carolina lit Miami up like it was of Sonny Crockett’s neon suits – the Hurricanes didn’t beat anyone convincingly in 2020, other than a floundering Florida State program that ultimately finished 3-6.

And this is the team some prognosticators have pegged to upset Alabama.

It could happen, yes. And Alabama is, after all, replacing Mac Jones at quarterback and Patrick Surtain at cornerback and on the defensive line, among others. But does Alabama have enough holes that the Hurricanes can overwhelm the Tide?

More likely, Miami could find itself downgraded into a tropical depression.

OFFENSE

Both teams are three-wide, one-back base teams that run a fairly straightforward pro-style spread attack. Both will be triggered by dual-threat quarterbacks, and if Miami has an advantage, it will be here because of D’Eriq King’s experience. Miami had the 32nd-ranked offense in the country last year, with decent balance and good efficiency. The Hurricanes were very successful (17th) in red zone offense. Alabama, however, was better in every major head-to-head category.

QUARTERBACKS
There is a good chance Alabama’s Bryce Young could find himself in the Heisman conversation by year’s end provided he gets off to a reasonably quick start, and gets some help from a receiver group that had lots of turnover. Young has a strong, accurate arm, and he’s got effective pocket mobility as well as the ability to scramble. Young was expected to push Mac Jones for the job coming out of fall camp in 2020, but it never happened. It’s all his now, though, because backup Paul Tyson is well behind. Miami’s D’Eriq King will likely be a high draft pick next spring. He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes in 2020 and threw 23 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions. He then added 538 yards on the ground (729 before yardage lost to sacks), averaged 4.1 yards per carry and was the team’s second-leading rusher overall. He’ll be a handful for Alabama, which tends to struggle a bit against dual-threat quarterbacks. A pair of freshman, Tyler Van Dyke and Jake Garcia, are co-backups, so that’s a wash compared to the equally inexperienced Tyson for Alabama. More importantly, King has a huge advantage over Young in experience, and that’s what tilts this one to Miami. Advantage: Miami

RUNNING BACKS
Miami returns all three of its top backs from last year, headlined by Cam’Ron Harris. Harris averaged 5.1 yards per tote and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton combined for about 500 yards. The problem for Miami is in general, none of the three backs were able to generate much explosiveness. Long runs were at a premium, and the Hurricanes ranked 67th overall in rushing offense. Alabama will start last year’s backup to Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr., with Trey Sanders, Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams the backups. It will be a bit of running-back-by-committee for Alabama to start the year, but the raw talent is certainly there. Robinson is more of a straight-ahead bruiser than Harris was, but lacks Harris’ ability outside the tackle box. Sanders is trying to bounce back from a career-threatening car accident. McClellan was a revelation after Sanders went down in 2020, averaging around 10 yards per carry. The compact Williams has also shown flashes of big ability at times. Miami has the experience advantage here again, but this time the raw talent of Alabama can’t be overcome. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Miami has a veteran unit headlined by tight end Will Mallory and slot receiver Mike Harley, both of whom figure to be solid draft picks in the spring. Mallory is expected to be a big part of the offense in this game, both as a blocker and as a downfield threat. At receiver, Miami also added Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo, who struggled a bit last year but had a big 2019 season for the Sooners. The third wideout starter will be second-year freshman Key’Shawn Smith, who was well down the depth chart in his first season. The Hurricanes have one reserve player with experience, Dee Wiggins; the rest are freshmen. Alabama will start John Metchie, Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams and probably Slade Bolden, although true freshman JoJo Earle is pushing Bolden for time. Metchie is the biggest name on the list for either team. Tight end will be some combination of Cameron Latu, Jahleel Billinglsey and Major Tennison. Like Miami, Alabama will need to establish depth behind the starters. Traeshon Holden, Agiye Hall and Javon Baker are the most likely names, along with Jacory Brooks. Holden and Baker played in 2020, but neither made an impact. This is one of those cases where, if the comparison was being held in late October or November, Alabama would probably have the edge. But until Metchie proves he can be the bellcow, and until Williams or another newcomer can step up at flanker, Miami gets the nod due to the experience on hand. Advantage: Miami

OFFENSIVE LINE
Given that Miami struggled both in run efficiency and pass protection last year, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Hurricanes can expect to take a big leap forward against the Alabama defensive line in this game. Miami ranked 98th in sacks allowed and a whopping 117th in tackles for loss allowed, and neither transfer the Hurricanes brought in over the offseason was able to crack the starting lineup. They’ll either get better with that they had, or not. Left tackle Zion Nelson is probably the best of the bunch, although Miami thinks it has a group it can run behind on the right in the form of guard Navaughn Donaldson and tackle D.J. Scaife. Corey Gaynor has ability at center. Left guard will be a freshman, Jalen Rivers, who held off UNLV transfer Justice Oluwaseun and JUCO transfer Ousman Traore for the job. Houston transfer Jarrid Williams will back up both tackle slots. Alabama may not know what it has just yet, due to camp injuries. Kendall Randolph appears to have won the vacant right tackle job, but while he’s been cleared to play, he may not be 100 percent. There is also still a battle going on at center between sixth-year senior Chris Owens and long-touted junior Darrian Dalcourt. Owens could also play right tackle if Randolph is out. The rest of the line is fairly set. Emil Ekiyor Jr. returns at right guard with Javion Cohen the new starter at left guard. Evan Neal moves from right tackle to the left side. If Randolph is out and Owens stays at center, the likely starter at right tackle could be a true freshman, J.C. Latham, or perhaps sophomore Damien George Jr. Tommy Brown will be the swing guard. This one is actually close due to Miami’s experience and Randolph’s injury, but the two best linemen wear crimson (Neal and Ekiyor) and Alabama has plenty of choices for the other spots. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Alabama will utilize its tried-and-true 3-4 over-under scheme, and is counting on improvements up the middle of the defense to help make it even more effective than it was in 2020. Alabama was 32nd in total defense and was only poor in one category, raw pass defense (70th). But lapses at the linebacker level tended to show up on several occasions. Miami ranked 67th in total defense, and didn’t excel in any category. The Hurricanes base out of a pure 4-3, sort of an anachronism in modern college football.

DEFENSIVE LINE
This will be Alabama’s strength early on, especially if the Crimson Tide can find a replacement for Christian Barmore’s disruptiveness. D.J. Dale and Tim Smith will split nose tackle duties, while Phidarian Mathis, LaBryan Ray, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe return at defensive end. Jah-Marien Latham and Jamil Burroughs add depth outside, while Stephon Wynn Jr. adds depth at nose. The key is finding someone who could collapse protection packages the way Barmore could. Ray has the raw skills, but can’t stay healthy. Smith showed promise of doing it late last year, but he’s bigger than Barmore and perhaps not as adept at sliding outside in certain alignments. Miami doesn’t have Alabama’s depth, and the interior is far more pedestrian. Jonathan Ford and redshirt freshman Jared Harrison-Hunter will start at the tackles, with Nesta Jade Silvera backing up both spots. Jordan Miller is also listed as a backup, but might not play in crucial situations. Zach McCloud and another redshirt freshman, Jahfari Hunter, will start at the ends. transfer Deandre Johnson will be the primary backup, helped by another freshman, Chantz Williams. This unit was probably most to blame for Miami’s struggles in 2020, and they’ll need to prove themselves before Hurricane fans can expect anything different. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Miami is led here by senior Amari Carter, who is listed on the roster as a safety, but basically plays a hybrid position that finds him lining up as an outside linebacker. Linebackers in a true 4-3 are typically on the smaller side, and that’s true of Miami; Carter weighs 205 and the other outside linebacker, Keontra Smith, is somewhere between 205 and 210. Middle linebacker Corey Flagg Jr. is a more typical 230 pounds, but he is a freshman who played sparingly as a backup last year. Athleticism is decent across the board but this is a fairly average group, both by recruiting reputation and performance from last season. For Alabama, linebacker is its deepest unit and most accomplished. Outside linebackers Will Anderson and Christopher Allen developed into one of the most disruptive outside combinations in the conference last year. Christian Miller returns at weakside linebacker, and Alabama added transfer Henry To’o To’o to the middle. Jaylen Moody will back up both inside slots, while Chris Braswell and Drew Sanders bring some pop to the reserve outside spots. This one isn’t particularly close. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
A lot is expected out of this group for the Hurricanes in 2021, especially safeties Bubba Bolden and Gurvan Hall. Bolden, a USC transfer, is the focal point of the Cane secondary. At corner, senior D.J. Ivey is a solid, experienced player. The other spot will either be Te’Cory Couch, who improved steadily as a freshman and eventually grabbed a starting spot in the second half of the 2020 season, or Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson, a thick, physical cornerback who probably would be starting at Georgia this year had he stayed there. Al Blades Jr. adds good depth at corner, but the reserve safeties are young and untested. Alabama will have to replace Patrick Surtain somehow, and that will start with Josh Jobe stepping into the primary cornerback role. Jalyn Armour-Davis, Ga’Quincy McKinstry, Marcus Banks and Khyree Jackson are still holding somewhat of an active competition for the off-corner spot, with Armour-Davis the leader for now. At safety, Daniel Wright will likely have to start in place of DeMarcco Hellams at strong safety, as Hellams suffered a minor injury late in fall camp. Jordan Battle will start at free safety with Malachi Moore and Brian Branch splitting Star and dime safety. Both teams have solid personnel, but Alabama has more depth, even with Hellams potentially sidelined. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Alabama is expected to have solid special teams in 2021, but a lot of it is new, so we’ll have to wait to see it first. Placekicker is solid with Will Reichard returning. Reichard may also have to handle kickoffs, as Chase Allen was missing from the final fall depth chart entirely. Australian James Burnip won the punting job in fall camp. Jack Martin appears set to back up both positions along with Ty Perine. Kneeland Hibbett will be the new long-snapper, with Paul Tyson the new holder. For Miami, it’s another Australian, Lou Hedley, transferring in from City College of San Francisco. True freshman Andres Borregales won the placekicking job. Both teams will have new faces among the options on kick and punt returns. This one will be close, but Alabama has the edge at placekicker in regards to proven results. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Miami in two, and the Crimson Tide hold the edge in both OL-DL cross-matchups. While running back, offensive line and special teams are all close calls for the Tide, quarterback and receiver and close calls for Miami. Meaning, this could be an 8-0 edge to Alabama given the right circumstances.

Does Miami have a chance to upset the Crimson Tide? It’s not impossible. This is a good team, with a good overall talent level, and the current coaching staff seems to have a plan for making them better (and more importantly, is executing it). But there isn’t any area in which the Hurricanes clearly stand out as superior to Alabama – while there are a couple of spots on the field where Alabama is clearly in better shape.

What Miami lacks is the kind of explosiveness Alabama brings to the table, especially on defense. The Hurricanes are still trying to get back to those levels, but they don’t have Alabama’s depth, and the numbers just weren’t there in 2020 to justify the hype. While Miami did put up good numbers in tackles for loss and sacks, it didn’t translate into stopping teams consistently. And Miami got steamrolled defensively by its last two opponents.

Alabama has to focus on building yet another championship team. Complacency may be the Crimson Tide’s actual nemesis here. The major questions are all on offense, especially at quarterback and receiver. New players at the receiver spots will have to work hard to emulate departed stars like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.

But perhaps we should all just be thankful football is back, and in front of crowds. Playing to empty stadiums in 2020 felt strange and unnatural. A packed house in Atlanta will help dial in Alabama’s focus quickly in 2021.

Alabama 38
Miami 20

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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