Who would've thought this would be possible when the Miami Hurricanes were leaving Hard Rock Stadium at 3-4 on Oct. 19?
Coming off a disappointing loss to a Georgia Tech team – that entered the game with just one win – Miami's ACC Coastal Division hopes were merely an afterthought. The bigger question was whether UM would win three of its last five games just to get to the six victories necessary for bowl eligibility.
The Hurricanes got two of those wins in succession at Pittsburgh and Florida State, and suddenly, they return to Miami Gardens with much more to play for than just homecoming and Senior Day against Louisville in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
Miami (5-4, 3-3 ACC) enters only a game back in a crowded ACC Coastal. Six of the seven teams in the division have either two or three conference losses. Against two of the three teams with two losses, Virginia (6-3, 4-2) and Pittsburgh (6-3, 3-2), the Hurricanes own a head-to-head tiebreaker. Virginia Tech, which beat Miami, is 2-2 in the ACC with all four remaining games in the conference.
This week, a reporter prefaced a question to senior striker Romeo Finley by saying, "We thought – and everybody did – that you were pretty much dead in the water."
"Understandably," Finley interjected. "And then the Coastal, how crazy it is, there's still some scenarios. We win out, a couple of teams lose, and boom, we're there.
"That is amazing because that was our ultimate goal, and there's still a chance to be there (in the ACC Championship Game)."
There are still many permutations to determine how the Hurricanes can to get to Charlotte. They're running out of time for Virginia to get that third loss. The Cavaliers only have two conference games left and host 2-6 Georgia Tech on Saturday, so those hopes would likely come down to Virginia's finale, at home against Virginia Tech.
Rooting for the Hokies in that one would do the Hurricanes no good unless Virginia Tech loses before that, to either Wake Forest on Saturday, at Georgia Tech on Nov. 16 or vs. Pitt on Nov. 23. Pittsburgh also hosts North Carolina on Thursday and Boston College in the finale.
All the scenarios mean nothing if UM doesn't win against Louisville, of course. With a loss, the Hurricanes would be eliminated if Virginia, playing a 12:30 p.m. kickoff, beats Georgia Tech earlier in the day.
A Miami win also means the Hurricanes clinch bowl eligibility. It's something that probably should be a foregone conclusion going into any season, but before the last two wins, it was a major question mark at 3-4.
"It's of massive importance," coach Manny Diaz said. "No. 1, just from a player-development standpoint. Just the extra practice and the chance you have to get more reps for our freshmen, who are red-shirting or younger guys just to get more experience."
Beyond the benefit to the younger players, the seniors playing their final home game on Saturday would be assured one additional game in their college careers.
"More practices for the younger guys and just another game for us, too," said Finley, whose father from Fort Walton Beach will attend a home game for the first time on Saturday. "The more time I can be with them, we're going to enjoy it."
"It would mean so much to me just to wear the Miami Hurricanes helmet one more time," added redshirt senior special teams ace and former walk-on Jimmy Murphy. "Getting another chance to strap it up with these guys again, it's the best thing in the world."
Miami's seniors took various paths to Saturday's final home game. There are the stories of four-year starters in linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. There is the resiliency of someone like redshirt senior Robert Knowles, who has been criticized for his play during his first four seasons before playing a major role at safety in this his fifth year. Murphy's trek brought him from Wagner College to join Miami as a walk-on and earn a scholarship.
Then, there's redshirt senior K.J. Osborn, who is finalizing his lone season with the Hurricanes after transferring from Buffalo.
"It came really fast. I'm just getting closer with my teammates and developing an even stronger bond, but, you know, I'm about to leave," Osborn said. "It's just unique. It's not a normal situation, but it's definitely fun. These guys are definitely family. I'm going to miss them."
Miami will have to be on top of its game against Louisville (5-3, 3-2), which is coming off a bye.
"We play a very dangerous Louisville team that had a week off to think about nothing but the Miami Hurricanes," Diaz said. "All these guys playing for Louisville were all recruited when Lamar Jackson was there, and (coach) Scott Satterfield has done a great job of re-energizing that program and getting them to play the way that they're used to playing."
They Hurricanes will key in on stopping a Cardinals run game that averages 218 yards per game, but they'll also have to be on alert for the big play in the passing game.
"They fool you a little bit there," Diaz said. "They do a really good job of running the ball, but then you devote all your resources to stopping the run, stopping the run and then, all of a sudden, here comes the explosive pass."
Said Finley: "They're probably the best offense we've seen."