Miami Hurricanes football at its absolute apex, at its full, preening power back when UM was so good it was feared — Ed Orgeron has seen that. He lived it. Felt what it was like to be so dominant.
Orgeron, now the LSU head coach whose Tigers face Miami on Sunday night in the neutral-site season opener in Arlington, Texas, was UM’s defensive line coach from 1988 to 1992. Those Canes teams went 55-5, won two national championships and never finished lower than No. 3 in the final polls. Orgeron recruited Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson and coached the likes of Cortez Kennedy, Russell Maryland and Warren Sapp.
It was his big break in coaching. He had been Arkansas’ assistant strength coach before Jimmy Johnson brought him to Miami and dropped him in a diamond mine. He developed as a protege under Dennis Erickson. Orgeron would eventually be dismissed of his own demons -- alcohol issues, domestic abuse, a bar fight — but not before experiencing some of the greatest teams in college football history.
“Coach [Mark] Richt has brought The U back,” says Orgeron.
We’re going to find out, aren’t we? We’re going to find out fast.
UM, a five-time national champion, is measuring itself against greatness again, against what Alabama and Clemson are today.
Sunday night will be the latest indication how close Miami is to that greatness, to reprising its halcyon days, as the No. 8-ranked Canes take on No. 25 LSU as slim favorites.
Orgeron, in a unique position to gauge that, will see it for himself.
So will Richt.
“Until you play somebody, you really don’t know,” as UM’s third-year coach puts it. “There are no warm-up games here.”
Expectations for a Canes season have not been this great in around 15 years. Hype is high. Fans are feeling the swagger. This is a once-nationally elite program feeling its muscle again.
All that stuff is fragile, though.
It gains traction and steam with a marquee opening win Sunday.
But with a loss?
Canes fans have been teased before.
The 2009 team under Randy Shannon was 5-1 at midseason and ranked No. 8 with three wins over ranked opponents, but fizzled.
In 2013 under Al Golden the team was 7-0 and ranked No. 7. Remember all the frat boys at games dressed like Golden in white dress shirts and orange ties? Then came the fade.
Even last year, a 10-0 record, No. 2 ranking and dreams of the College Football Playoff got crushed under three straight losses to close the season — only increasing the urgent imperative to win Sunday’s opener.
The 2018 Canes seem better, poised at least to reach the ACC Championship Game again. ESPN’s computerized Football Power Index has UM favored to win all 12 regular-season games, for what that’s worth.
The Turnover Chain should be flying again on a defense with playmakers like linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney, safety Jaquan Johnson, cornerback Michael Jackson and end Joe Jackson.
The offense looks solid behind quarterback Malik Rosier, top targets Ahmmon Richards and Lawrence Cager and running back Travis Homer, whom I see having a huge season. UM’s bridge from really good to great figures to be the play of Rosier, who faded at the end of last season and must be more accurate than last year’s 54 percent.
Most fundamentally, UM’s resurgence under Richt seems sustainable thanks to a really strong coaching staff and an excellent run of recruiting that has substantially grown Miami’s depth.
There is a lot to agree with when LSU’s Orgeron says, ““Coach Richt has brought The U back.”
But there is even more left to prove, and it starts Sunday night.
Postscript: Miami and LSU last met to end the 2005 season. It was a humiliating 40-3 Canes loss in the Peach Bowl that symbolically ended UM’s championship-era run. The Canes would go 7-6 the next season.
Now, 13 years later, the opponent that ended the Hurricanes’ finest era of football is the opponent Miami must beat to prove a new great era has begun.