ACC enjoys big wins to start season

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
7:22
PM ET

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The statement was made, and well, Miami simply could not contain its raw emotions, perhaps because this was all so new.

Al Golden sprinted across the field with 4.4 40 speed to shake Will Muschamp’s hand. His players gathered en mass in one corner of the end zone to celebrate with fans then sprinted across the field to the end zone on the other end of the field to celebrate some more.

In between it all, an inflatable alligator float lay deflating on the field, its snout taped shut.

“We’ve been through so much,” Golden said after his team’s 21-16 win over No. 12 Florida on Saturday afternoon. “It was almost cathartic, to be honest with you. It was just 26 months unleashed there.”

Miami, trying to take baby steps back to the top, had not been able to win a big game like this under Golden. The spotlight shined on the Canes last season in games against nationally ranked Kansas State, then unbeaten Notre Dame, then eventual ACC champ Florida State. Each time, Miami wilted or failed to show up, its defense exposed as a major liability, its toughness questioned.

Everybody inside the program knew it needed this win. But the Hurricanes were not the only ones who needed it badly. So did the ACC.

The league made a statement in Week 1 with Clemson beating Georgia, vaulting the Tigers to No. 4 in the rankings. Another win against a marquee team would send ACC officials dancing from press box tables. Especially a win from Miami -- a program that has underwhelmed despite the expectation it would enhance the league’s reputation when it joined in 2004.

The Gators went in favored and seemingly had the edge up front. Miami players heard all the talk and got more motivated, developing the proverbial and cliché chip on their shoulders. They didn’t need coaches preaching all week that they needed to be the more physical team. They knew.

They also knew this game meant more than suiting up against Florida Atlantic.

As linebacker Tyriq McCord said afterward, he came to Miami to play against a team like the Gators, to have the national stage, the national spotlight, a chance to begin Miami on its road back to a championship.

With a fired-up crowd filling Sun Life Stadium, the two rivals battled gamely in the final scheduled regular-season matchup between them.

Miami matched Florida hit for hit. For once, this team could believe in its defense. Florida racked up yards and first downs and owned time of possession but could not put points on the board. Because Miami was there to make the crucial play, time and again.

Florida turned the ball over four times inside Miami territory -- three times inside the red zone. The Canes had a crucial stand on fourth-and-inches from the Miami 16 in the second quarter. Florida kept driving, and Miami kept caving just a little bit. But the Canes refused to be broken.

Meanwhile, the Miami offense struggled for most of the game against the ferocious Florida front, a group quarterback Stephen Morris called “the best defensive line I’ve ever seen.”

[+] EnlargeMiami coach Al Golden and the Hurricanes beat Florida 21-16 on Saturday in their final scheduled regular-season matchup.
Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via Getty ImagesMiami coach Al Golden and the Hurricanes beat Florida 21-16 on Saturday in their final scheduled regular-season matchup.
Morris and running back Duke Johnson are the two best players on the Miami roster. But improbably, it was the much maligned Miami defense that won the game for the Hurricanes.

“Without trust, you don’t have anything,” Miami cornerback Tracy Howard said. “If you make plays, you can talk. Trust is a big thing. The offense trusts the defense. The defense trusts the offense.”

Perhaps as improbably, the ACC went 2-2 against the SEC to open the season. North Carolina and Virginia Tech, the two teams that lost to SEC competition last week, rebounded with wins Saturday the way everybody expected against far inferior competition. Virginia did not have the same success against No. 2 Oregon on Saturday.

But the focus for the first two weeks was on the big headliners against the SEC, a conference that has owned the ACC on the field and the recruiting trail. Every single ACC team went in as the underdog, including the Tigers and Canes at home.

Many believed Clemson and Miami had the best shot at pulling the upsets. In the end, what stood out in both victories was the way they won -- with an aggressiveness and physicality that most folks associate with the SEC.

The ACC essentially out-SEC’d its conference rival in both wins. Some 755 miles to the north in Clemson, coach Dabo Swinney noticed. He ended his postgame comments after Clemson’s 52-13 win over South Carolina State by saying, “How about that ACC? Spunky little old league."

He flashed "The U" sign and walked out of the room.

Swinney has reason to brag. The ACC won only two games over ranked nonconference teams in each of the past three seasons. In just two weeks, the ACC has matched that win total. Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman put it bluntly when asked what the league’s 2-2 mark over the SEC meant:

“We ain’t no cupcake league,” Perryman said.

Two big wins in two weeks does not completely change perception, but it’s a start. The ACC should have three teams ranked in the Top 25 come Sunday. Miami has a shot to start 4-0 before a tough ACC game against Georgia Tech on Oct. 5. Florida State and Clemson also have a shot at being undefeated when they play each other Oct. 19.

As much as Golden wanted to sound a word of caution, saying this was only one game and only one win, a giddy McCord could not hold back.

“We’re back,” McCord said. "That’s all I can say. We’re back."

It appears the ACC is too.

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