During his 14 seasons as an NFL assistant and head coach, Virginia Coach Al Groh was often involved in the evaluation of college prospects. During the offseason, Groh would travel to college campuses around the nation that had become hotbeds for football talent. Groh would spend one day at Michigan, one day at Southern California — a few minutes at Notre Dame — and another day at Texas.
But when it came time to evaluate the University of Miami's players, one day wasn't enough to finish the job. Groh and other NFL coaches would spend two or three days in Coral Gables, Fla., watching many of the nation's best players.
Groh, like most college football coaches, hoped to emulate the Hurricanes when he left the New York Jets to return to his alma mater four years ago. "Our goal was to someday make this a two-day stop," Groh said.
The Hurricanes' excellence — their 218-44 record since 1983 is the best record in Division I-A — is why Virginia tailback Alvin Pearman says of today's game, "This is the biggest opportunity in my life, and for a lot of guys on this team. Miami is one of the greatest teams to ever come to Scott Stadium. We know that."
Miami's stockpile of talent isn't what it used to be, as the No. 18-ranked Hurricanes have lost consecutive games, to North Carolina and Clemson, entering today's game against No. 10 Virginia in sold-out Scott Stadium. A record six Miami players were chosen in the first round of last spring's NFL draft, and the Hurricanes have produced 40 first-round picks since 1987.
Even though Miami has struggled to replace those players this season, the Hurricanes are still the benchmark when it comes to talent, Groh said. Earlier this week, the Virginia coach compared the five-time national champions to the New York Yankees, saying the Hurricanes are "probably as close to a dynasty as we've seen in organized sports, colleges or pros, over the last 12 years.
"It's really incredible to think that much talent could reside at one place at the same time," Groh said. "The number of first-round picks Miami has produced is really incredible."
But the Hurricanes, who beat the Cavaliers, 31-21, in the 1996 Carquest Bowl, the team's only previous meeting, are still looking up at Virginia and Virginia Tech in the ACC standings. The Cavaliers and No. 18 Hokies have a half-game lead over Florida State and one-game lead over the Hurricanes. Despite losing consecutive games to unranked opponents for the first time since 1984, Miami can still win the ACC title and the Bowl Championship Series berth that comes with it by beating the Cavaliers, Wake Forest on Nov. 20 and Virginia Tech on Dec. 4.
"Our backs are extremely against the wall," Miami Coach Larry Coker said. "We need to beat somebody good. To say we're not down and disappointed would be a gross, gross, gross understatement. But from the standpoint of being where we are, to have lost two conference games and still have a chance to go to a BCS bowl game, that's pretty amazing. We still have an opportunity for something special to happen."
Virginia also seems on the verge of something special. If the Cavaliers can beat the Hurricanes and win at Georgia Tech next week, something they haven't done since 1994, they could set up an intrastate showdown against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Nov. 27. The Hokies play Maryland on Thursday night, before hosting the Cavaliers. If both teams keep winning between now and then, the winner of the regular season finale will win the ACC.
But Virginia must first beat the Hurricanes, who haven't lost three games in a row since losing to No. 2 Penn State, East Carolina and No. 1 Florida State in September 1999. Miami has lost three consecutive games only twice in the past 24 years; the Hurricanes lost four games in a row in 1997.
"We just have to keep believing in ourselves and not lose confidence," Hurricanes quarterback Brock Berlin said. "Our backs are against the wall and we have three games left that we need to win."
Virginia also is looking for redemption against a perennial power, after performing miserably in a 36-3 loss at Florida State on Oct. 16. The Cavaliers seemed completely overwhelmed in that game and couldn't match the Seminoles' speed on offense and defense.
"I think we have to prove we're a good team," Virginia tailback Wali Lundy said. "A lot of people say we haven't beaten anybody good and we're overrated. This game can prove we can beat good teams."
Virginia senior Elton Brown said the Cavaliers, who will play Miami each season as members of the Coastal division in the newly expanded ACC, know what to expect this time around.
"We have a great team coming into Scott Stadium," Brown said. "We just have to be on top of our game. These guys are coming to win. They have a great tradition. National championships to back it up. Great team. Team speed. Athletes. Well-coached."