Miami had exploded onto the national stage in 1983 when they won a stunning national title over Nebraska. The mastermind behind it, Howard Schnellenberger, immediately left to the United States Football League, a fledgling organization that had a brief splash in challenging the NFL.
Jimmy Johnson took over and 1984 was a little more trying. The Hurricanes made a major bowl, the Fiesta, but defensive problems down the stretch led to high-scoring losses against Maryland, Boston College and to UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl. The 1985 Miami Hurricanes were unranked to start the season and had a lot of work ahead to regain national respect.
Vinny Testaverde took over at quarterback for the departed Bernie Kosar. Testaverde threw for over 3,200 yards, averaging 9.2 YPA and completing 61 percent of his passes. He finished with a 21/15 TD-INT ratio in leading the most pass-oriented offense of all ten teams that reached major bowl games.
Sophomore Michael Irvin is the big name among the receivers, and he finished with 840 yards, joining Brian Blades as a big-play threat on the outside. Irvin averaged over 18 yards a catch, while Blades was almost at 22 yards per catch.
But the best target in 1985 was tight end Willie Smith, who caught 48 passes for 669 yards and was a consensus All-American selection. In the backfield, Alonzo Highsmith and Warren Williams gave some balance to the attack.
Miami still lost 35-23 to Florida to open the year and there was no reason to think this would be a big year in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes got themselves back on track with a rout over lowly Rice 48-20. Miami blew out Boston College 45-10, which was nice payback for Doug Flutie’s legendary desperation pass a year earlier, but Flutie was gone and BC wasn’t very good. Miami beat two more sub-.500 teams in East Carolina, 27-15 and Cincinnati, 38-0.
October 19 would be one of the most significant days in football history. Miami, still unranked, traveled to Oklahoma to play the third-ranked Sooners.
Midway through the first quarter, Testaverde hit Irvin with a touchdown pass. Oklahoma answered, when their sophomore quarterback Troy Aikman hit tight end Keith Jackson on a 50-yard pass that set up the tying touchdown. Later in the second quarter came the play that altered the course of history.
Hurricane defensive tackle Jerome Brown broke through and sacked Aikman. The quarterback broke his ankle and was gone for the year. Because of this, Oklahoma would revert to its wishbone, option-oriented attack of years past. Aikman would transfer to UCLA and play in a pro-style scheme, turning into the #1 pick in the draft.
Aikman would be picked by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and their rookie head coach named Jimmy Johnson. Aikman won two Super Bowls for Johnson, playing with Michael Irvin. Then he won a third, after Switzer took over the Cowboys. And all the while, Jerome Brown was with the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, playing several big games against Johnson, Aikman and Switzer.
In the short-term, Oklahoma was a mess for the rest of this game. Testaverde threw for 270 yards and Miami pulled away to a 27-15 win. They moved to #15 in the polls.
A 45-7 win over lowly Louisville set up a trip to 10th-ranked Florida State. Miami trailed 24-14 at the half and 27-21 with a little more than eleven minutes left. Testaverde was in the groove though, throwing for 339 yards. He threw the go-ahead touchdown with 9:55 to go, and then added another TD pass with three minutes left. Miami won 35-27 and cracked the Top 10, at #8.
The ‘Canes traveled to Maryland, to whom they had blown a 31-0 lead and lost a year earlier. This was a good Terps team, one whose only other losses were to Penn State—who would conclude the regular season undefeated—and Michigan, who lost just once.
Add Miami to the list of excellent teams that beat Maryland, this one 29-22. It moved the Hurricanes to #4 and they followed it up by beating Colorado State 24-3.
In the season finale at home, Miami brought a miserable end to the Notre Dame coaching career of Gerry Faust, beating the Irish 58-7 and drawing a national media backlash for running it up (something Faust does not blame Johnson for and for which the charge is unfair). Either way, the negative media coverage didn’t’ prevent Miami from being ranked #2 going into the Sugar Bowl against Tennessee.
The buildup to New Year’s Night had Johnson on the campaign trail. Penn State was #1, the nation’s only undefeated team and would be a clear #1 if they won the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. The Sooners were #3 and the media hype was saying that OU would vault to the top spot if they beat the Nittany Lions.
How could that be, Johnson wanted to know, given the head-to-head result in Norman? The odds are good that in such a scenario there would have been a split national title, something that makes no sense in light of Miami’s decisive win over Oklahoma. But there was never a chance to find out. Because all of Johnson’s campaigning was finding a receptive audience—in the Tennessee locker room, where they found the presumptiveness of a Hurricane bowl win to be insulting.
Miami started well, taking a 7-0 lead on the first possession, keyed by a successful fake punt conversion. Then Tennessee and their fans took over. The Superdome was packed to the brim with gaudy orange, and the crowd noise, along with Tennessee’s constant blitzing, something Testaverde had not been subjected to all year, gave this game an unexpected turn.
Tennessee tied the game early in the second quarter and took the lead at 14-7 with five minutes to go before halftime. Miami couldn’t run the ball, gaining only 32 yards on the ground. Testaverde threw four interceptions. The Vols were able to get the running game going and their second quarter momentum turned into an avalanche. Miami lost 35-7. Oklahoma did beat Penn State in the Orange Bowl, but it wouldn’t matter to anyone in New Orleans.
But neither the Hurricanes nor their head coach were going away. Under Johnson, Miami won the national championship in 1987 and came within one play of doing so in 1986 and 1988. Johnson would go to the NFL and win Super Bowls. Miami rolled on to two more national titles in 1989 and 1991. All’s well that ends well and the 1985 Miami Hurricanes were the team that re-established the program in the national elite.