MIAMI – Bright lights, prime time, Thursday night. It's forever been a winning formula for Virginia Tech and Miami.
This time, it'll only work for one of those clubs.
The Hokies and Hurricanes meet in Miami on Thursday night, and though neither team is ranked — at least one has been in 12 of their most recent meetings — it's still a colossally important game for both sides. The winner will remain a major contender and quite possibly become the favorite for the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division title. The loser will be 4-5 with three games left and still need two wins just to earn bowl eligibility.
"Everything in the ACC is still available for both of us," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "So you get to this time of year and still have that opportunity, you know, I think you look forward to that. Starting off, at this time of year you want to be playing for something and both of us certainly are."
The ACC Coastal is jammed at the top right now, no one having earned any separation.
Duke is 3-2 in league play, as is North Carolina and Miami. The Tar Heels aren't eligible for postseason play, and the Hurricanes — still under NCAA investigation — would in theory have the option of self-imposing a postseason ban for the second straight year because of what may loom when that inquiry ends. And Virginia Tech has already beaten Duke, giving the Hokies (4-4, 2-2) a tiebreaker edge if needed.
For Virginia Tech to win the Coastal again, beating Miami would be huge. For the Hurricanes to win it for the first time, it would seem like they would need to prevail on Thursday.
"We know this division has gone through Blacksburg, and we've never won the division," Miami coach Al Golden said. "So clearly, if you want to have an opportunity, you have to beat Virginia Tech. They're the reigning champion, so I think everything starts and stops right there. If we can do that, then we can start to move forward. But this game clearly is our focus right now. Really, nothing beyond that."
It's an unusual time for both teams.
Virginia Tech's streak of eight straight 10-win seasons is in serious jeopardy, and could only be extended if they prevail in their last four regular-season games, then the ACC title game and finally the Orange Bowl. The Hokies went 6-0 in road games last season (losing two neutral-site contests), but are winless in all four games played away from their fabled home Lane Stadium this year.
Meanwhile, Miami went 0-for-October, wherever it played.
The Hurricanes got off to a 4-1 start and were flying offensively. But in their three October games, against three strong opponents — Notre Dame, North Carolina and Florida State, clubs with a combined 22-4 record — the Hurricanes sputtered, losing all three and doing so by a combined score of 92-37.
"We just need to play Thursday night," Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said. "We need to put it together, put our run game and our pass game together in the same night. I just feel like we're due for one of those type of games."
When they happen, they seem to happen on Thursday night. Miami is 15-3 in Thursday games, Virginia Tech is 19-5 on that day of the week. For whatever reason — Fisch and Beamer both said their respective players liken it to the NFL's version of Monday Night Football — the lure of being probably the only big game in the nation on those nights just seems to sit well with both clubs.
"We haven't beaten them in a long time and they're a great team, very well coached," said Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who said the left ankle he twisted nearly three weeks ago is no longer much of a concern. "It'll be a great opportunity for us to play, especially on Thursday night. But it doesn't matter what their record is, doesn't matter what our record is. It's still an ACC Coastal game."
Both teams figure to be healthier after nearly two weeks off.
Miami running back Duke Johnson said he's benefitted from the break, after dealing with ankle and toe issues in recent days and seeing his numbers slow from his fast start — something that's probably also due to the level of defenses the Hurricanes saw in October. And Beamer said his team is now "fairly healthy" overall after getting a few extra days off.
"It'll be a tough, physical football game," Beamer said. "That's what I expect. I've been impressed with how hard they play and I see them getting better. I think their last outing with Florida State, they were very good. When you play a lot of young guys sometimes with that you get a lot of inconsistencies. I see them being the best that they've been ... so we've got to get ready to go."