Greg Cote

Hurricanes thinking national title, and rightly, after epic night in Miami sports history

The Miami Hurricanes may have the best team in college football. Say it. Savor it. It might even be true. The national polls likely won’t agree. So what. For the first time all season -- for the first time in 15 years -- UM fans can say that and feel it because there is an argument now. There is evidence. It came Saturday night with a vengeance, with domination and a golden flash of Turnover Chains.

In an epic night for a storied program flexing its return to relevance, and in one of the most memorable nights in South Florida sports history, the still-unbeaten Canes throttled No 3-ranked Notre Dame, 41-8, at a partying, swaggering, sold-out Hard Rock Stadium.

“This to me is the natural order restored,” declared UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “This is the way a Saturday night in Miami should be.”

Near the end some Canes fans were shouting derision at the Fighting Irish, chanting, “Over-rated!”

Maybe they were, or maybe UM just made them look that way. Or, maybe the Canes were under-rated.

In any case make room for this night on your short list of games, big events, that have mattered the most to Miami. This felt that big, felt transcendant because after a decade and a half debating when UM would at last be “back,” Saturday night raised a fist into the night air amid joyous bedlam and shouted, “Now!”

Miami clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title even before the game kicked off, earning a spot in the ACC championship game vs. defending national champ Clemson. Now, beating Notre Dame the way they did should catapult the Canes up from No. 7 into the College Football Playoff's coveted top four.

“We weren’t ready before to talk much bigger than [the goal of winning the ACC],” Richt said. “After this game, it becomes a conversation about a playoff game. What a wonderfful night for our our fans, our players.”

No. 1 Georgia lost on Saturday, big. No. 2 Alabama won, barely. No. 3 Notre Dame got humiliated. No. 4 Clemson won. And No. 5 Oklahoma beat No. 6 TCU. It will be an embarrassment to the CFP if Miami isn’t in the top four in the next ranking. Saturday’s win put that long-elusive sixth UM national championship vitally in play.

Coach Mark Richt said he came to Miami “to enjoy coaching again. To have fun again.”

He’s 9-0. He’s beaten two straight ranked teams by a combined 69-18. That enough fun for you, Mark?

As for the next CFP ranking come Tuesday?

“We’ll see,” Richt said. “I know we just played two of the great teams and won, and we won in fashion people might be excited about.”

Richt’s Hurricanes dominated the Irish all over the field but especially on defense, where three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and a fumble recovery had that Turnover Chain all but smoking as it changed hands so many times. The defense’s quickness overwhelmed ND’s massive offensive line, and the sonic crowd noise rattled the Irish’s inexperienced quarterback..

“Was that four today?” Richt said when asked about the flurry of Chains. “That's beautiful. I think it’s awesome. We're not the first one to [celebrate takeaways]. We just got the best one, the one that gets attention.”

Has any assistant coach in the country, by the way, had a better year than the defensive chief and Chain-inventor Diaz? And isn’t it time to start mentioning Richt for national coach of the year?

Short of those five downtown championships parades (the most recent in 2001), Saturday had to be one of the biggest and best days in this program’s 82 seasons.

The day began with ESPN's three-hour College GameDay show on campus for the first time before the party rollicked a half hour north to the stadium -- with nothing at stake except just about everything.

Everywhere you looked, campus to stadium, you saw the bling-bling of those Turnover Chains, the greatest and most popular invention since the smartphone.

The rivalry with Notre Dame minted so fiercely in the 1980s lives on strong even as the meetings became rare, the opponent in their shiny-gold helmets only underlining the weight of this win. South Beach vs. South Bend is still a clash of two of the big, lightning-rod, love-'em-or-hate-'em brands in college football, both programs on the rise again. In 1988 the T-shirts read, "Catholics vs. Convicts." Not quite 30 years later it was "Chains vs. Rosaries."

The buildup to Saturday night? More than 15 years, really, since the last national title made UM and its fans so hungry ever since to get back all the way and once again own the swagger those T-shirts claim the Canes invented.

This night would be the affirmation of Back. The proof.

Canes Fever was the long simmer that reached the boil Saturday, as hundreds of fans waited before sunrise to get choice seats near the College GameDay stage, and by the time the three-hour show began at 9 a.m. thousands of sign-carrying fanatics filled the Lakeside Patio at the heart of the Coral Gables campus.

In the background sailboats lolled on the lake and the school's diving team made the 'U' sign from the pool's 10-meter platform. The weather? Idyllic. What a postcard-advertisement for UM with the Canes in the midst of recruiting what is currently the nation's fourth-rated class and best in the ACC.

CANES1112+CONVICT+CTJ
Miami Hurricanes fan holds a "Catholic and Convict" sign as the Canes play Notre Dame at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Nov. 11, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

(Our favorite fan creation among the hundreds of placards and signs? The one in which Notre Dame's own Touchdown Jesus raised both arms with hands coming together to form a 'U.' Runnerup: The Pope bedecked in a Turnover Chain. Honorable mention: The sign that read, "Brian Kelly [the Notre Dame coach] has baby hands." Biggest disappointment: The absence of a Paul Finebaum dummy hanging in effigy).

There were almost as many signs as Turnover Chains.

"It's fun. It's cool," ESPN host Rece Davis said of the Turnover Chain phenomenon, before the show. "Miami relevance is good for college football. They have a brand. They have a football-playing alumni that is second to very few, if any. For them to be good is very good for this sport."

UM athletic director Blake James was beaming.

"An awesome day for our university," he called it, and he wasn't lying. "For our university, for our football program and for South Florida."

At the stadium, the former great safety Ed Reed -- one of a record 300 former Canes players and coaches in attendance -- waved a Turnover Chain from midfield and hyped the already hyped crowd.

All it would take was a big, special night to properly finish Miami's perfect day.

Done.

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