Team: Miami Hurricanes
2012 W-L: 7-5 (5-3)
Head Coach: Al Golden (13-11; third season)
Returning Starters: 12 (8 Offense, 4 Defense)
Miami has consistently had a ton of talent on the roster for over 30 years now. Obviously, that’s resulted in a lot of wins, but since the school’s move to the ACC, the same can’t be said anymore. Despite the talent brought in every season, the ‘Canes have been fairly disappointing in their new conference, made worse by the ongoing Nevin Shapiro nonsense that has followed them like a black cloud. But maybe this year’s different. After two years of willfully missing the postseason, this Hurricanes team may finally be able to realize its potential and compete for a conference championship — like they were supposed to do all along. That doesn’t mean success is assured, however.
Last year’s offense was nothing short of spectacular at times last season. Seven different times they managed to score at least five touchdowns in a game. But three more times they couldn’t top 14 points. This was a unit that capitalized on subpar defenses and struggled against solid-to-great ones — and the key was balance. Despite having Duke Johnson as one of two primary ball-carriers (Mike James being the other), the team still only picked up 1,737 yards on the ground. Johnson — by all accounts a stud playmaker — was mostly underused and yet still put up monster numbers. That self-induced rushing inequity was offset by a bipolar passing game that folks should still be intrigued to watch this fall, because unlike previous Miami quarterbacks (hi, Jacory Harris), Stephen Morris actually has the talent to lead a team — most notably because the talent around him can actually produce. Again, this has not been the case in South Florida lately, which is why many (myself included) think this is the year they get back to being an upper-crust program in college football.
As proof of what Morris can do, see his record-breaking 566-yard performance against NC State last season. His accuracy was solid (58 percent) and when he started making some smarter decisions with the ball to end the year, you even saw attempts drop down to more reasonable levels, while accuracy was above 60 for each of his last three games. Now with a full year of starting under his belt, a full offensive line returning and his two top targets (Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott) also back in the fold, it’ll be interesting to see if he takes it as a cue to pass more, or be more efficient in passing the ball. He has a security blanket in Johnson, just like he did last year. Hopefully, the offense is designed to take advantage of it more so than it was in 2012. Getting the lion’s share of the carries this season (he only had 37 percent of the team’s runs last year), Johnson should be able to well surpass the 947 yards and 10 scores from freshman year — hence why he’s been climbing so many preseason Heisman lists.
If there’s one thing that can throw a wrench into the offense’s plans though, it’s the defense. They were 84th in points per game (30.5) last year, 120th in total D (486 yards allowed per game) and recorded just 13 sacks on the season. And all of that includes four games where they held opponents under 20 points. The best news is that most of those players are gone, making way for a mix of veteran and younger players anxious to put 2012′s misery behind them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include last year’s lackluster line. Anthony Chickillo is the best pass-rusher they’ve got (four sacks), and though he’s likely to improve since he’s still only a junior, that’s a lot to put on just one player. Fellow end Shayon Green is also likely to factor in, as will outside linebacker Denzel Perryman. All three players possess similarly big, tall builds, and will handle the majority of the stops up front. Miami’s front-seven allowed 217 rushing yards per game last year. So while the focus will certainly shift to getting more sacks, it might behoove them to make sure they lock down ball-carriers at the line first. You can’t win when allowing those sort of yards on the ground, and the Hurricanes often paid the price while letting both running backs and QBs roam free last year.
Back in the secondary, everybody’s new, and three players are sophomores. Things could admittedly look a little rough early on, but really, there’s nowhere to go but up. A better pass-rush will ease the stress on the young corners and safeties, as will a greater emphasis on tackling. Though Miami allowed tons of passing plays of 10 yards or more (124 on the year), they also failed to get beat for touchdowns a ton, letting up just 15 through the air all season. Obviously teams still got their points against the U, though a lot of that was on the ground and as a result of the secondary failing to function as a last line of defense after the front seven couldn’t make stops. None of these players — beyond maybe corner Ladarius Gunter — are well-regarded in coverage just yet. That means they’ll need to learn as they go, and just try and protect against deep balls to start.
Compared to 2012, Miami’s schedule lays out rather favorably for a resurgence into the national consciousness. An early contest against Florida will give us a glimpse of what they’re made of, and help downplay the passing defense’s inequities, and beyond that, the non-conference slate is a breeze. The season will ultimately come down to the meat of the schedule: Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech (with Wake Forest thrown in there for good measure). Come out of that stretch of four at 3-1 (especially if the only loss is to FSU) and Miami should be able to walk the rest of the way to their first Coastal title. They’ve got the talent to do so (yes, I know you’ve heard that before), but this time, it appears they’re going to deliver.
Prediction: (10-2) (7-1); Coastal Division Champions, Russell Athletic Bowl