Can Tennessee and Miami return to glory? Will Kiffin top Saban? What to watch in CFB’s Week 6

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

To suggest that success in college football is cyclical only understands half the picture. Yes, even the great programs such as Alabama and USC have endured their lean years. But getting back? That part isn’t guaranteed. For every Nick Saban (at Alabama) or Pete Carroll (USC) resurrecting a program from seemingly infinite mediocrity, there’s a Randy Shannon (Miami) and a Derek Dooley (Tennessee) that simply steered into the skid.

Which brings us to Saturday, when No. 7 Miami visits top-ranked Clemson and No. 14 Tennessee, winner of eight straight games, visits No. 3 Georgia. In both Coral Gables, Florida, and Knoxville, Tennessee, the phrase is well worn and, at this point, largely meaningless, but this weekend, we’ll dust it off once again.

Tennessee is back.

Miami is back.


“I hear the phrase constantly,” Miami athletic director Blake James said. “You heard people saying it quite a bit during our run in 2017 after we won some big games. … The question when we’re not doing well is, ‘When is Miami going to be back?’ The reality of it is, I don’t think we ever left. Have we had the success our program and our fans wanted? Not always. But there’s never been any less commitment to being at that level.”

Look around college football, and the list of blue bloods committed to scripting their own narrative arc, the long awaited return to glory, is a long one. Texas isn’t back. Nebraska could go to Uzbekistan but still not arrive at its 1990s glory days. Michigan, UCLA, Florida State — they’re all still somewhere on a curve that’s trending in the wrong direction.

But if F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested there are no second acts in American life, Saban proved there can be in college football, so here we get Miami and Tennessee — boats against the current, hopelessly drawn into the past.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a position where playing these games is not extraordinary for Miami anymore,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “This is how you build a program to be in these positions and have it feel natural and normal, as it does for Clemson.”

Indeed, these big games are the norm for ascendant programs like Clemson or consistent winners like Georgia.

For Tennessee and Miami, however, these moments in the spotlight represent a rare glimmer of a better time when these programs enjoyed a view from the mountaintop.

From 1980 through 2005, Miami won 82% of its games. It won 14 bowls. It finished in the AP top 10 in 15 different seasons.

Through roughly the same time frame, Tennessee won nearly 80% of its games. It went to 25 bowl games in 26 years. It enjoyed nine seasons in the AP top 10 and seven more in the top 25.

The last time both the Canes and Vols played in top-10 matchups on the same day was way back in 2004, when Tennessee played for an SEC title and Miami closed out its first season in the ACC with a loss to Virginia Tech. And the last time both programs were ranked in the top 15, as they are now, on the same weekend was Oct. 8, 2016. Both lost.

To suggest that is the likely scenario come Saturday would be reasonable. Miami has faced Clemson twice since 2015. The first game, in 2015, was a 58-0 embarrassment that resulted in Golden’s firing. The second was a 38-3 beating in the ACC championship game in 2017, a game that arguably represented Miami’s post-2005 high-water mark.

At Tennessee, what once was an annual heavyweight battle against Georgia has become a mismatch. The Dawgs have won each of the past three by a combined score of 122-26. And in games against top-10 opponents since the end of their respective halcyon days in the early 2000s, Tennessee and Miami have combined for a woeful 4-45 mark.

“We still have a ways to go to be the program we want to be,” Tennessee AD Phillip Fulmer said. “Culture is a big part of it. … We’ve been at the heights and we like it better there than fighting from the middle of the pack. I know we’ve turned a corner culturally. We’ve still got a lot to do to play for championships, but I can see a real difference in the way we look, how we line up and how we practice.”

So at least until Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence delivers his first 70-yard bomb against Miami or Georgia’s Richard LeCounte returns a pick-six to the end zone Saturday against Tennessee, there is hope.

Think where Tennessee was just a few years ago. The team carried a plastic garbage can on the sideline, earned the vaunted “Champions of Life” trophy and endured probably the most notoriously embarrassing coaching search in recent college football history before it hired Jeremy Pruitt.

The irony is that the road map so many SEC teams have followed is to hire a Saban protege and attempt to be an out-of-focus image of what has been built at Alabama. At Tennessee, Fulmer seems to have landed on the right mix of Saban-esque efficiency with Pruitt.

Think about the long road for Miami. The past 15 years are chock full of infamous characters and embarrassing defeats. In just the past six games, Miami has losses to Duke, Florida International and Louisiana Tech. Add a dose of new QB D’Eriq King and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, however, and now the Canes have themselves a contender.

Can these two teams placate needy fan bases?

That’s the problem with those dreams of being “back.” Peyton Manning isn’t walking through that door for Tennessee, and Ed Reed isn’t playing safety for Miami.

So no matter what happens Saturday, it’ll be just one game. For a week, perhaps Miami or Tennessee will be back. Or, once again, hopes will be dashed and teeth will be gnashed, all in pursuit of nostalgia. Then Sunday comes, and the work begins again.

“Statement games are only statement games until there’s another one,” Diaz said. “That goal post of whatever statement you’re trying to make always moves.”

Game Day Q&A

Brent Venables is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country. D’Eriq King is arguably the most dynamic QB in the country. So, how will the Clemson coach scheme up a plan to slow down Miami’s offense this week? We caught up with Venables to find out a bit about his game plan.

ESPN: You coached against Lamar Jackson several times. How does King’s athleticism stack up, and is there anything you can take from game-planning for Jackson that could help against King?

Venables: They’re totally different systems, so that part’s hard. I know this, D’Eriq King can throw the ball really, really well, consistently, and he’s like a running back when he decides to run it. He’s got great poise, accuracy, electric running the ball, big arm. Those are the similarities. Very instinctual players, quick release, don’t get rattled. They’re very dynamic and difficult to defend.

ESPN: Do you like the challenge of figuring out how to slow down elite athletes like King or is it the type of thing that keeps you up at night?

Venables: You’re excited, absolutely. It’s a big challenge, make no mistake about it. Our biggest thing, I’ll be very honest, we’ve got to get better and improve so our schemes are as good as the players executing them. Yes, you have to have guys in the right spot and have answers for certain things, but really we’ve got to continue to improve in fundamentals, techniques, alignment, eyes, discipline, chemistry, cohesion.

But from a scheme standpoint, you have a big challenge. It starts with the run game and their ability to run the football really well — the guy receiving the snap and the guys he’s handing it off to and the RPO personnel behind them. It’s some of the most dynamic skill personnel in college football. It rivals anybody. That’s a challenge but one we’re incredibly excited about. They’re hungry, and they’re playing as well as anybody right now.

ESPN: Tight ends have had some memorably big games against Clemson — O.J. Howard in two national title games, Nick O’Leary in the Florida State blowout in 2013, Scott Orndoff in Pitt’s stunner in 2016. Miami has two pretty good ones, including Brevin Jordan. What has your defense done differently in the past couple of years to slow down elite tight ends?

Venables: We’ve made a lot of adjustments and just gotten better. We’ve put ourselves in better calls. I don’t know if it’s been a concerted adjustment. If they use them as a weapon, I think it’s important that you do things to help you defend them well and take them out of — if they’re one of the first options, you want to take them away for sure. There have been some tight ends that have had some excellent games against us in the past. We’ve been a little bit better, but I think that’s just improving defensively over time and probably a little bit cyclical. But we better be ready this week, I know that.

What to watch for

The Sun Belt’s battle of unbeatens: The Sun Belt matchup we weren’t anticipating was Coastal Carolina vs. Louisiana. Both had Week 1 upsets, against Kansas and Iowa State, respectively, and now will play a week early, with the winner being the last undefeated team in the conference.

Louisiana hasn’t played since Sept. 26, when it shocked Georgia Southern with a winning 53-yard field goal. The Ragin’ Cajuns were slated to play Appalachian State on Oct. 7, but the game was postponed due to coronavirus precautions. Coastal, meanwhile, comes into this one fresh off a 52-23 win over Arkansas State at home.

Florida State’s third starting QB of the season: Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell announced Monday that Jordan Travis would start for Florida State on Saturday against Notre Dame. Travis led Florida State’s comeback over Jacksonville State last week, completing 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. The redshirt sophomore has been dealing with injuries since fall camp that never gave him much of a chance to win the starting quarterback job.

Unless there are some unforeseen circumstances, Florida State isn’t winning this football game. Whether you’re a fan of the Seminoles or not, seeing how Travis does is going to be worth your time, just so we can gauge how difficult the rest of the season is going to be in Tallahassee. Going up against the No. 5 team in the country is difficult for a first start, but that’s just how bad things are right now for Norvell’s squad.

Ole Miss’ defense … and Alabama’s offense: Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin have their first matchup with Kiffin as Ole Miss’ head coach. And if the Rebels’ defense plays the way it has the first couple of weeks, Alabama’s offense might feast.

Replacing Tua Tagovailoa is a tall task, and so far, Mac Jones has done better than some anticipated. Against Texas A&M, Jones threw for 435 yards and four touchdowns, and had one interception.

Saban is undefeated against his former assistants, which Kiffin is well aware of: “If you working for him gives you an advantage, you’re not a very good gambler because 20-0 is a pretty strong record,” Kiffin said.

Cade Mays returns to Georgia: Mays, whose father was an All-SEC guard and offensive captain for the Volunteers in 1994, transferred to Tennessee after last season.

Mays played every offensive line position for Georgia last season, and has been an important piece of Tennessee’s line this season. He’ll certainly have his hands full against Georgia’s daunting defense.

The other ranked ACC game: Miami vs. Clemson is in everybody’s viewing plans for Saturday, but there’s another ranked ACC battle going on between undefeated teams — No. 19 Virginia Tech vs. No. 8 North Carolina.

This game serves as the first real test for both teams. Up to this point, Carolina has faced Syracuse and Boston College, and Virginia Tech has participated in a couple of offense-heavy battles with NC State and Duke — going without 23 players and three coaches against the Blue Devils.

It has been hard to find a legitimate challenger to Clemson. We’re going to find out if Miami is one on Saturday, but another could appear from this game as well.

Long-awaited debuts: Houston and Temple are both finally playing their opening games. The Cougars have had five openers canceled — against Rice, Washington State, Memphis, Baylor, and North Texas. If all goes right, they’ll be playing Tulane on the road Saturday.

Temple was expected to play Sept. 26 against Navy, but head coach Rod Carey worked to move the game to this week, given restrictions that prevented the Owls from having proper practices that would have them feeling prepared to start the season.

That rust we’ve seen from teams having an inconsistent schedule this summer? It’s fair to give Houston and Temple the benefit of that doubt Saturday.

Players to watch

Lyles: Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert

The Hokies have had their fair share of absences because of COVID-19, as noted above. But Herbert’s has been a big part of the offense so far, and will need to be again this week against North Carolina, because the passing game hasn’t been one that Virginia Tech can lean on up to this point.

Hale: Alabama’s Mac Jones or Najee Harris (or maybe both)

In its opener, the Ole Miss defense gave up 400 yards and six passing TDs to Kyle Trask. In its second game, the Rebels gave up three 100-yard rushers against Kentucky. So, what treasure will Lane Kiffin’s D deliver to a Heisman hopeful this week? Jones is already looking like a potential winner, averaging nearly 14 yards per pass so far and putting up Tua Tagovailoa-type numbers through two weeks. But here’s betting Harris puts on a show of his own, too. He has scored five times on the ground so far but is also one of the most dynamic backs in the country, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hook up with Jones for some big plays in the passing game this week. Apologies in advance for providing Alabama with so much rat poison this week.

Under-the-radar game of the week

Lyles: Pittsburgh vs. Boston College

This game is — at best — the third-most watchable game just in the ACC this week. But given what we’ve seen out of both teams, this matchup has the potential to be a good one. It’s fair to raise an eyebrow at Pitt this week after it lost to NC State last weekend, but Kenny Pickett had a great game, throwing for 411 yards and a touchdown. Plus, he added two rushing touchdowns. Boston College, meanwhile, was a failed two-point conversion away from tying North Carolina late last week.

Hale: Coastal Carolina at Louisiana

Who doesn’t love an epic Sun Belt showdown? Seriously though, this game should be a ton of fun, with two teams that are both 3-0, both with wins over Power 5 competition and both with emerging star QBs going toe-to-toe. Louisiana’s rise is not particularly surprising. The Ragin’ Cajuns have battled for the Sun Belt title each of the past two years. But how about Coastal Carolina? In just its fourth year as an FBS program, the Chanticleers have blossomed into a conference power, led by QB Grayson McCall, who is averaging nearly 12 yards per pass so far.

Upset picks

Lyles: Kansas State over TCU

This is a matchup perhaps nobody anticipated being as intriguing as it is. The Wildcats opened up with a loss to Arkansas State, then with wins over then-No. 3 Oklahoma and Texas Tech. TCU on the other hand, has a narrow loss to Iowa State, and just upset Texas. My logic here is much less about the X’s and O’s on the field, and more of a gut feeling that maybe all the teams in the Big 12 are just going to beat up on one another in this strange season. Why not?

Hale: Vanderbilt over South Carolina

Consider this a rip-the-Band-Aid-off moment for Will Muschamp. The South Carolina coach has not been blessed with a manageable schedule to start the season, and at 0-2, the calls for his job have only become louder. It’s not hard to understand why. In his tenure, the Gamecocks are averaging just 24 points per game, 112th nationally in that span, and they’re just 15-19 in SEC play. Yes, this should be an entirely winnable game against another SEC foe with a coach on the hot seat, but with Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M up next, why delay the inevitable?

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