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Can The Miami Hurricanes Keep This Up?

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The Miami Hurricanes are flirting with college football’s most sacred, exhausted status: back from the brink.

With entire power conferences yet to take the field, no team has capitalized on an up-for-grabs national spotlight more than Miami. In his second season at the helm, head coach Manny Diaz has his team 2-0 and firmly ranked in the top 15 in the AP and Coaches polls. The Canes opened the season with a 17-point win over Conference USA-favorite UAB and a 13-point win over Louisville in College GameDay’s game of the week. The GameDay crew will be in attendance again this weekend for the team’s matchup with Florida State. With No. 1 Clemson on tap two weeks after that, a win Saturday might secure a third showing.

Less than nine months ago, Diaz was putting the final touches on the program’s fourth losing season of the past 40 years with a bowl performance so dispiriting that the university’s athletic director had to issue a vote-of-confidence statement shortly after. On Saturday, Diaz led his team to its first road victory over a top-20 opponent in more than a decade.

So how did Diaz resuscitate the Canes?

He started by firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos the day after Miami was shut out by Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl and replaced him with Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee is a member of the Gus Malzahn coaching tree and most recently worked alongside Sonny Dykes, a follower of the “air raid” offense, to vault SMU to its first 10-win season since 1984. “Maybe we can turn things around quicker than people think,” Lashlee said this offseason. He’s off to a promising start.

Preaching the up-tempo, power-spread gospel and a more manageable playbook than his predecessor, Lashlee has injected life into a Miami offense that ranked outside of the top 80 in expected points added per play in each of the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. With Lashlee calling the shots, the offense ranks 16th.

For a program synonymous with speed, when it comes to snapping the ball, previous seasons look downright lazy compared with 2020.

Outside of personnel, the most obvious transformation is in tempo, where the Hurricanes have swapped out Fred Flinstones’s car for a Bugatti. Last season, Miami huddled before 93.5 percent of offensive snaps, one of the highest rates nationally. This season, that clip has fallen to 27.3 percent, one of the lowest in the nation and in line with the rate at which SMU operated under Lashlee.

The air raid doesn’t get its name from plays that generate three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, but Lashlee recognizes the value of a balanced offense. And in two games, he has demonstrated a malleable game plan, designed to target the soft spots of the opponent. For example, in Miami’s season opener against UAB, the Canes faced a defense that featured four returning all-conference defensive backs and a secondary coming off consecutive seasons ranked in the top 25 in expected points added on pass defense. So Lashlee spent 66 percent of his offensive snaps on carries, and the Hurricanes accumulated the program’s fifth-most single-game rushing yards since at least 2000.

Week 2 brought a less formidable secondary to scheme against, so Lashlee dropped the rush rate to 50 percent, and the Canes finished with 325 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air..

It also helps to have D’Eriq King — by far the most dangerous QB Lashlee has worked with — running the show.to within a few plays of a national championship.

“>1 In King, Lashlee has a Heisman contender who transferred from Houston after he piled up 81 touchdowns, ran for nearly 1,500 yards and threw for nearly 5,000 despite having four different offensive coordinators.2

King is proficient at rolling outside the pocket to buy time for receivers or scrambling for chunk yardage when the play breaks down. He has already run for 97 yards after first contact, which leads all FBS quarterbacks. Only three Miami QBs since 2011 have produced more over an entire season.

“The good thing about D’Eriq is the play is never dead,” offensive line coach Garin Justice told Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post. “The bad thing about D’Eriq is the play is never dead.”

His decision-making has been Dean’s List-worthy so far. Among QBs who have started two games, Pro Football Focus noted that the only two who haven’t produced a turnover-worthy play are King and presumptive future No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence. With King flying around the field, Miami’s team quarterback rating (QBR) both inside and outside the pocket is the highest it’s been in the team’s first two games of any season since at least 2011.

Is ‘Quarterback U’ back?

Miami’s team QBR in the first two games of each season by location in and out of the pocket

QBR by location
Season In pocket Out of pocket Total QBR
2020 87.3 98.7 79.6
2019 70.9 14.3 43.1
2018 50.6 12.9 43.4
2017 84.4 37.3 75.6
2016 38.5 31.6 16.6
2015 81.7 3.5 62.7
2014 22.8 74.1 37.4
2013 31.8 20.9 49.2
2012 46.3 32.3 48.1
2011 62.2 19.9 52.8

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

To optimize King’s talents in mobility and split-second decision-making, Lashlee is serving up huge portions of zone-read, a play he’s called 45 times already, tied for the second most of any team in the country. Last season, Miami called it 11 times all season. It’s been good for 8.44 yards per play, the third-highest mark nationally

King has a number of threats in the passing game, including Brevin Jordan, one of the nation’s best tight ends, who leads his position nationally in receiving yards (171) and forced missed tackles (three), and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns (two).

It can’t be overstated that in King, Miami has a wrinkle it hasn’t had in years: an elite, dynamic QB.

There was a time when Miami was referred to as “Quarterback U.” Those days died a long time ago, as the most important position in the sport has consistently failed the program for nearly two decades. Miami has produced 119 NFL draft picks since 2000; two of them were QBs, and only one (Ken Dorsey) saw game action. It’s astonishing that a team with such a strong recruiting tradition has been unable to find a serviceable option under center for so long.

But things have changed with King, who has helped the Hurricanes to their highest total efficiency (86.4) through two games since at least 2005. As a team, Miami ranks 12th in the country in Total QBR (79.7) and seventh in expected points added on passes. They ranked 106th and 88th in the metrics last season and since at least 2004 have never finished a season ranked in the top 25 in Total QBR.

And as evidenced last weekend, King has unquestionably unlocked a big-play offense. Miami opened the second half with two 75-yard touchdowns and already has more plays of 60-plus yards from scrimmage (two) than it did all of last season (zero). “The explosive plays, it was who we wanted to be,” Diaz said after the game.

It’s helping Miami dominate the opposition. Through its first two games last season, the team logged 15 offensive snaps with the lead. This season, the team has 108, more than it’s had through two games in any season since at least 2004.

What’s scary for ACC defensive coordinators is that the Hurricanes offense is likely to get more effective. For one, the team missed most of spring ball because of the pandemic and was working in a new QB to boot. For another, the level of receiving polish is lacking: Miami receivers have dropped six passes, representing the team’s highest drop rate through two games since at least 2011.

This spot is a familiar place for The U, which opened the 2013 and 2017 seasons with encouraging starts only to flounder down the stretch. But it looks like the ACC isn’t going to be a one-horse conference in 2020, and Miami fans are desperate for a return to the program’s old form. From 1983 to 1992, The U went 107-14 and won four national championships. The 2001 outfit, which ran the table behind six All-Americans, has a claim to make as the greatest team ever.

The players on Manny Diaz’s rosterpunter Louis Hedley.

“>3 were too young to experience the program’s heyday. But they do have a say in its resurrection.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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