Four Downs: Miami, Mark Richt and Manny Diaz Back! Alabama Never Left

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No matter when your college football fandom began in the last 35 years, it coincided with an era of Miami Hurricanes greatness — well, unless you became a fan in the past 12 years.

From the 1983 season — when Howard Schnellenberger led a previously moribund Miami program to a national championship — and for the subsequent two decades, The U factoring into the national conversation was a given.

Bernie Kosar to Vinny Testaverde, Michael Barrow to Ray Lewis; Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee, Ed Reed and Andre Johnson. The names are the stuff of college football, the memories etched into the collective college football consciousness.

Hence, pundits have asked repeatedly over the past 12 years: Is Miami back?

The answer, time after time, has been an unequivocal and emphatic no. But memories spanning two decades beget the question. Before this stretch of roughly 12 years of Miami playing ever un-The U-like football, the program’s longest previous exit from the national spotlight lasted roughly five years, spanning from The Whammy in Miami (Washington’s win at the Orange Bowl to end Miami’s home winning streak in 1995) and ending at differing points, depending who you ask.

Ricky Bobby types who insist that, in college football, if you ain’t first yer last might mark the 2000 season as the end of The U’s brief lull. For me, it’s December 1998, when Edgerrin James ran all over a UCLA team harboring BCS Championship aspirations to deny the Bruins a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.

Miami may be “back” in 2017. It may not, depending if you set the benchmark at a New Year’s Six bowl or College Football Playoff invitation. At the very least, Saturday’s thorough deconstruction of Notre Dame resembles that late-season defeat of UCLA.

Not only did Miami deny a national championship contender its dream, but the Hurricanes served notice that the program is on the precipice of restoring the standard so many of us remember.

Put on your Turnover Chain, crank that Trick Daddy, and tip your cups to another edition of Four Downs.

FIRST DOWN: MARK RICHT’S REVENGE

Popular opinion isn’t always, or even often, correct. In the case of Miami’s revival, however, it was spot on. After all, popular opinion dictated The U needed a head coach steeped in the Hurricanes’ lofty tradition.

Mark Richt’s tenure as a Hurricane player predates The U swagger popularized in the latter half of the 1980s, and again in the 2000s, but having played for Schnellenberger perhaps gave Richt better perspective into how best to build Miami after a long lull.

Saturday was Richt’s masterpiece: a defensively dominant performance in which the Hurricanes flew around the field, beat the Fighting Irish to every spot and welcomed them there with hard hits. Juxtapose the complete dressing down of the previously rolling Notre Dame offense with the struggles Richt’s former program, Georgia, faced at Auburn, and the narrative is obvious.

This is Mark Richt proving his naysayers at Georgia wrong, correct? Well…it’s certainly the easy narrative, but it’s not necessarily accurate.

Richt produced one good team after another in his tenure at Georgia. The anxiousness with which the athletic department’s power brokers showed him the door speaks to the high, if not unrealistic standards that have sabotaged much of the SEC. Despite Saturday’s blowout loss to Auburn, however, it’s unfair to suggest Georgia erred hiring Kirby Smart.

Today’s result aside, this Georgia team has been as good as the best Richt-coached Bulldogs team of recent years — including the 2012 squad that very nearly usurped Alabama’s BCS Championship bid. The 2017 Bulldogs have a real opportunity to do the same, should the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide meet in Atlanta next month.

Meanwhile, Richt’s Miami team plays with an energy that Georgia was frankly lacking after that epic 2012 SEC Championship. Whether it’s a haircut, an apartment, sometimes even job, reliability can hamper one from striving for true greatness.

A change of scenery has seemingly done Mark Richt good, as the Hurricanes play with more creativity and excitement than many of Richt’s Bulldog teams. If anyone on this Miami coaching staff thumbs his nose at the past with every ‘Cane win, it’s defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

The Turnover Chain has become the talk of this college football season. It symbolizes the excellent play of this Hurricane bunch, it’s a nod to the swagger of The U teams past, and it’s a reminder of the acumen Diaz has demonstrated throughout his career.

Well, through most of his career, anyway.

Diaz was one of the hottest up-and-coming young coaches in the ranks less than seven years ago when Mack Brown hired him to pull Texas out of the immediate and steep tailspin the Longhorns were in. To deem Diaz a scapegoat isn’t entirely true; the Texas defense was awful in Diaz’s time there, bottoming out in a loss to BYU. The next day, Diaz was fired.

No, scapegoat isn’t the right term; maybe canary in the coal mine. Diaz’s failed run in Austin was less reflective of his ability as a defensive coordinator, and more an indicator of just how much the well is poisoned for Texas football.

Texas hit reset yet again, at the same time Diaz began a career rehabilitation at Louisiana Tech. All he did was help build a Conference USA championship contender. He spent a brief spell at Mississippi State before recapturing Miami’s magic — and Saturday was his masterpiece.

If there’s any instance of living well being the best revenge, it’s Manny Diaz’s overhaul of the Hurricane defense.

SECOND DOWN: WHEN WINNING HURTS

Alabama trailed almost throughout its 31-24 win at Mississippi State, teasing the very chaotic possibility of Nos. 1, 2 and 3 all losing on the same Saturday. A missed field-goal attempt in the late fourth quarter felt all-too perfect to set up the Bulldogs’ Cinderella upset.

Memories of 2007 weren’t so much an echo in Starkville as a redundant CLANGA CLANGA CLANGA!

Even despite gagging the ensuing possession, a feisty defensive effort for the next few plays seemed to at least position Mississippi State for overtime. And then, Jalen Hurts went legend.

First, let’s set the table for Jalen Hurts’ game-winning drive. I have a theory that Alabama football has been so dominant for so long under Nick Saban, the butterflies, thrills and heartbreak inherent with an autumn Saturday for most fans have been erased in Tuscaloosa.

Yes, Alabama has lost game in the past decade; but not many. The Tide typically destroy all comers, making a game like Saturday’s slugfest in Starkville rare — and that’s the kind of breathtaking game that reminds you why you love this sport.

Alabama has historic rivals, but no contemporary rivals. Thus, from my observation, the Alabama fan base at large manufactures rivalry and turmoil. It’s the reason Crimson Tide faithful have the earned reputation as the sport’s most vocal against media: Pundits who suggest Alabama might have cracks in the foundation are the closest thing Tide fans have to a worthwhile nemesis.

And, if we’re being 100, I suggest most media hint at Alabama weakness disingenuously. It’s more wishful thinking, longing for a competitive national scene.

Anyway, manufactured turmoil spills into the armchair coaching associated with any program. I have come across enough suggestions Jalen Hurts is a liability this season to deem it a trend among some of the Alabama fan base. Tua Tagovailoa’s passes in garbage time invite criticism of Hurts any time he misses a throw.

Hurts didn’t miss the big throws on Alabama’s game-winning drive. After taking a sack, Hurts rallied for one of the most impressive, clutch drives I have seen this season.

THIRD DOWN: BILL CLARK A CLEAR CHOICE

Upsets to No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday inject further uncertainty into the College Football Playoff discussion. The teams that below in the top four of the next ranking likely differ, depending on perspective.

The only certainty in this college football season is that UAB Blazers head coach Bill Clark is the only choice for Coach of the Year.

In their first season back from a two-year layoff after a brief budgetary closure, the Blazers improved to 7-3 with their 24-19 defeat of UTSA.

Clark’s 2014 team deserved a bowl bid, given the extenuating circumstances circulating at the end of that season, but it was denied.

Saturday’s win ensures the 2017 Blazers will not be passed over for the postseason. That’s noteworthy, because UAB has been to only one bowl previously in its history. More indicative of the remarkable job Clark has done is that this marks the first 7-3 start for UAB ever.

Bill Clark has already established himself as the only logical choice for Coach of the Year, but next week could seal it. UAB is the customary pre-Thanksgiving paycheck game for an SEC opponent, only the Blazers are headed to The Swamp to face a Florida team that has been treading water for nearly two months.

Should UAB improve to 8-3 in SEC Country, the trophy might as well be presented in Gainesville; forget waiting until the season’s end.

If there’s any other candidate who deserves consideration approaching Clark’s resume, it’s a Conference USA counterpart: North Texas head coach Seth Litrell.

Litrell’s Mean Green sealed their first Conference USA Championship Game appearance ever with a 45-10 rout of UTEP on Saturday, coupled with UAB’s defeat of UTSA. North Texas takes a break from C-USA action next week, but not for an SEC buy game: The Mean Green face Army in one of the best Group of Five matchups on the entire 2017 calendar.

North Texas enters at 7-3, Army at 8-2 following the Black Knights’ win Saturday over Duke. If we’re going to make the Coach of the Year chase a three-man race, Army’s Jeff Monken factors in.

FOURTH DOWN: PLANK

The Miami Turnover Chain is a fantastic gimmick, because it feels so natural. Tennessee’s Trash Can? It’s perfectly indicative of the final season of the Butch Jones era, but otherwise, comes off as corny and forced.

Plenty more sideline props will surface in the seasons to come, and most, if not all, will be more akin to the Tennessee Trash Can than the Miami Turnover Chain.

But at Kennesaw State, the only sideline swag approaching a level of greatness on par with the Turnover Chain got national love Saturday. Meet the Turnover Plank.

Now, I was disappointed to see amid the flood of aggregation praise heaped on Plank that there very little mention of its source material: Ed, Edd and Eddy. The late 1990s animated series was one of Cartoon Network’s originals of the era. Some were forgettable; Cow & Chicken was a less clever Ren & Stimpy, for example.

But the rest of the lineup produced strong offerings like Ed, Edd and Eddy and true classics Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory. Though technically children’s cartoons, I contend the CN originals hold up for their mature humor and references much stronger than most of the Adult Swim lineup.

The vast majority of Adult Swim fare confuses weird with clever and obnoxious with funny, which is why Shutdown Fullback would have been a fit on A|S.

Regardless where you might fall on the CN originals vs. A|S debate, you have to give props to Plank. Bonus points that Kennesaw State is located in the Atlanta area — home to Cartoon Network.

The ball is in your court, Georgia State: Get cracking on a Rasslor mask and title belt combination for turnovers.