USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Miami's last piece of conference hardware came not just more than a decade ago – way back in 2003, to be precise – but in a different conference. It came in a conference that no longer exists, in fact: Miami shared the Big East crown with West Virginia, taking the title on the head-to-head tiebreaker to reach the Orange Bowl – the program's last postseason appearance of consequence, but let's stay on track.
That's the funny thing about Miami being picked to win the Coastal Division, ahead of Duke, last year's winner, and ahead of North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech: Miami has never won the Coastal Division.
Not once, and don't count that asterisk next to 2012, when Miami was one of the three teams – one of two not participating in the postseason – to tie for first atop the division. In total, the Hurricanes' ACC existence has included zero seasons with double-digit wins, one losing season, one bowl win and not even the faintest sniff of national contention.
Think of it this way: Duke has more 10-win seasons and Coastal Division titles than Miami as members of the ACC. The Blue Devils have one and one, respectively; the Hurricanes have zero and zero, respectively.
It's a decade-long trudge made more painful by a rival's resurgence: Florida State, though not hampered by NCAA sanctions and penalties, has charged back into familiar ground behind Jimbo Fisher and friends, claiming last year's national title and setting itself up for another run of unparalleled heights. Miami doesn't merely suffer in comparison; there is no comparison.
The worry is simple: Miami could have a blueprint for getting out of the wilderness – coaching, recruiting, player development – but there is an expiration date on this, as there is on most things. Eventually, Miami needs to follow the Seminoles' lead or embrace its newfound place in the national pecking order.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
This offense, along with some improvement on defense, makes Miami a top-25 threat and a strong ACC contender. I think the Coastal returns to Virginia Tech in 2013, but not without a fight: Miami's baseline is eight wins, an impressive feat considering this schedule, but the Hurricanes easily have the potential for double-digit victories during the regular season.
In a nutshell: Miami hit the mark in the standings, claiming nine wins for the first time since 2009 and just the third time as a member of the ACC – but something was missing. That would be the marquee win: Miami dropped games to FSU, Virginia Tech, Duke and Louisville – combined record: 44-10 – and notched eight wins against Football Bowl Subdivision competition with a combined record of 40-59. It wasn't a rock-solid nine wins, in other words. But it was nine wins nonetheless, and achieved despite some injuries, some inconsistencies, some flaws and some young contributors thrust into major roles. It could eventually be a building-block season, in fact, though that'll only be evident in hindsight.
High point: Beating Florida's always nice. So is closing the year strong, offsetting that three-game losing with victories against Pittsburgh and Virginia to head into the postseason on a high note.
Low point: Midseason losses to FSU, Virginia Tech and Duke. The latter pair ended the Hurricanes' hopes of a divisional title.
Tidbit: Miami is 19-1 under Al Golden when tied or ahead at halftime, with the lone blemish coming in a 24-17 loss to Boston College on Nov. 25, 2011 – a game the Hurricanes led 14-10 at the break. On the flip side, the Hurricanes are 3-14 under Golden when trailing at halftime.
Tidbit (10-win edition): Twenty-two programs won a national title between 1980 and 2002. Of those 22 programs, Miami is one of three without a 10-win season during the last decade: Miami, Colorado and Washington.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Players in Warriors' history
1. Wilt Chamberlain
2. Rick Barry
3. Chris Mullin
4. Nate Thurmond
5. Paul Arizin
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: When healthy, Duke Johnson is one of the best players in college football. We saw this a season ago, when Johnson rolled off 920 yards in eight games before suffering a year-ending injury in October. We saw something else: Miami has identified not just a potential All-American – this without a doubt – but an offensive leader, the stoked engine that propels this entire attack forward; Johnson is the go-to option in any situation, and his ability to make something out of nothing and reel off big plays on the ground is of enormous, substantial, nearly incalculable importance to a group breaking in a fresh-faced starter under center. If Miami exceeds expectations, Johnson must be considered a strong factor in the Heisman Trophy race.
Depth in the backfield takes a slight hit with a position change – more on that below – but Miami clearly feels a degree of confidence in Johnson's primary reserves. One will be sophomore Gus Edwards (338 yards), who took on an increased workload on the ground following Johnson's injury. Edwards has the size to embrace a tight-quarters role for the Hurricanes, freeing up not just the position change but also giving Johnson a breather – something he'll need at time during the regular season. Miami should also give touches to incoming freshman Joseph Yearby, a four-star recruit with the athleticism and big-play potential to excel in certain packages and situations. Any group led by Johnson is going to be terrific.
The Hurricanes are banking on sophomore Stacy Coley (33 receptions for 591 yards) stepping forward and replacing Allen Hurns' lost production. That seems like a safe bet: Coley has the skill set to flourish in a top-receiver role, with speed to stretch the field, especially in unconventional scenarios, and still-growing consistency and reliability on crucial-conversion down and distances. Don't doubt the ability; for now, just question whether Coley's ready to star when matched against the ACC's top cornerbacks. There's good depth across the board: Coley is joined by senior Phillip Dorsett (13 for 272), junior Herb Waters (28 for 406), junior Malcolm Lewis, senior Rashawn Scott and all-conference tight end Clive Walford (34 for 454), so Miami's new quarterback – yet to be decided – will have tools at his disposal. Better yet, it's possible to envision a scenario where one or two of Miami's incoming freshmen make an immediate impact.
The offensive line ranks among the top four in the ACC. This is a welcome sight: Miami is strong at the point of attack, which helps this ground game, and a healthy running attack – along with the options at receiver – will help ease the new starter into a groove under center. The big moves come on the strong side, where the Hurricanes will promote Taylor Gadbois into the starting job at right tackle while sophomores Danny Isidora and Alex Gall battle at right guard. Although the inexperienced strong side is troubling, I don't believe it will have an obvious impact on Johnson's production. The rest of the line is solid: Ereck Flowers is back at left tackle, Jon Feliciano at left guard and Shane McDermott at center. That Isidora is in place at right guard does give Miami the option of moving Gall into the starting role in the middle.
Defense: This is a good defense, better than last year's version, but Miami needs this defense to be great in order to have a realistic shot at the Coastal Division championship. There are strong individual players, as we'll see at each position; what there is not is a sense of cohesion, as we saw nearly across the board a season ago. Say one thing, however: Miami has depth up front. For the first time in Golden's tenure, the Hurricanes can tout – with a straight face – a line that rolls seven or eight deep, thanks to a solid mix of returning talent and incoming assistance. For example, one newcomer, JUCO transfer Calvin Heurtelou, adds much-needed heft and size along the interior of the line.
Look for Heurtelou to even start at some point this season, though he'll enter fall camp running alongside junior Earl Moore at one tackle spot. At the other, Miami can team this pair with the trio of junior Jelani Hamilton, sophomore Corey King and senior Olsen Pierre. This is a theme: Miami lacks star power, pretty much, but the group seems stronger than the sum of its parts. The one potential all-conference pick is senior end Anthony Chickillo (46 tackles, 7.5 for loss), even if we must admit he's yet to match his potential. Chickillo, junior Ufomba Kamalu, sophomore Al-Quadin Muhammad and junior Tyriq McCord form the Hurricanes' top four on the outside, though there will certainly be opportunities for true freshmen Chad Thomas and Trent Harris – Thomas one of the nation's top recruits – to shine in certain packages. It's not a great line, barring a major breakthrough by Chickillo; it's a good one, however, and good enough to lead by example for a defense planning for a huge improvement.
The Hurricanes' most devastating defender is senior Denzel Perryman (108 tackles), a good-old-days middle linebacker with the potential for All-American honors in his final season. With Perryman entrenched in the middle, ranging from sideline to sideline and running with the best ACC can offer, Miami can look for some specificity on the weak and strong sides. That could mean a role for Jermaine Grace, a slightly undersized sophomore who could fit into a productive role on passing downs. But consistency on the outside is Miami's biggest thing: Thurston Armbrister (33 tackles) needs to do more on the weak side, as does junior Raphael Kirby on the strong side. Perryman is going to lead by example; the rest of this group needs to follow.
It's safe to be excited about the potential of this secondary – and only fair to be a bit cautious in heaping praise upon a talented group with issues regarding experience. The situation as a whole would be far more appealing should junior Tracy Howard (35 tackles, 4 interceptions) continue his development into an all-conference cornerback; he's almost there, but not quite. With Howard locked in as a starter, Miami could hand the other side to senior Ladarius Gunter, a 12-game starter last fall – but Gunter missed the spring, giving sophomores Artie Burns and Corn Elder the opportunity to run with the first-team offense. Come fall, look for Howard and Gunter on the outside and junior Brandon Crawford in the slot. Now, that position change: Miami shifted running back Dallas Crawford (558 yards and 12 touchdowns) to safety, where he quickly assumed a starting role. He has the athleticism to excel on the back end. Alongside Crawford, the Hurricanes will continue to audition both junior Deon Bush and sophomore Jamal Carter for the starting role. Four incoming defensive backs will make for even stronger competition in August.
Special teams: Miami's ability to control field position is a concern. For one, the Hurricanes must replace punter and kickoff specialist Pat O'Donnell, who flew under the radar as a senior. Two, Miami is hit-and-miss in the return game, where speed exists in spades but consistency, unfortunately, does not. Then there's the idea that for all its inherent speed and athleticism, Miami should be even more successful in coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: Ryan Williams' ACL tear will cost the senior at least the first month-plus of the season, if not the wide majority of the entire year – he's aiming to get back in time for Nebraska in September, but that's a tall order. This springtime injury seemed to hand the job to redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, the pre-August starter, but a newcomer, Kansas transfer Jake Heaps, could conceivably stake claim to the starting job with a solid fall camp. But that's another tall order: Heaps doesn't know the system, for one, and has developed no rapport with the Hurricanes' receiver corps; Olsen is also working behind the curve in developing an on-field relationship with Coley, Lewis and Dorsett, but he had the opportunity to work with the first-team offense during spring camp. At worst, Heaps gives Miami adequate depth at the position. At best, he finally realizes his mammoth potential and asserts himself as a one-and-done starter. I'd bet on the former, since the latter seems like – yes, once again – a tall order.
The issue, in order of increasing concern: one, Miami's contenders are unknowns; two, Miami has to throw Heaps into a crash-course fall camp; three, Heaps has done nothing thus far to inspire confidence; four, the timing of Williams' return is in doubt; and five, Olsen has never taken a college snap.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Louisville: Losing to the Cardinals in the opener would set a very bad tone for the rest of the season – and perhaps be a harbinger of bad weeks to come. In the first month, the Hurricanes take on Louisville, Nebraska and Duke; in the second half, the Hurricanes take on Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State. There is no time to break for air.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's not going to be easy, all preseason expectations aside. But these are unfair, to a degree: Miami isn't ready to claim the Coastal even if the division remains as undecided as any in the FBS, seeing that the Hurricanes are not just battling a few personnel woes but dealing with one of the rowdiest schedules in the ACC. This isn't a perfect situation; it may be a perfect storm, in fact, one that leads Miami not to first place in the Coastal but into a position behind the league's top group – Duke, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, in one order or another.
It's hard to ignore the schedule. There's Louisville on the road to kick things off. There's Nebraska on the road three weeks later, at which point the floodgates open: Nebraska is followed by Georgia Tech, Duke, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State. That's as brutal a stretch as you'll find in and out of the ACC – and let's recall that Miami is set to start a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Is that a dream situation? Obviously not. It's also a situation where a year that starts slowly runs off the rails entirely in November. That probably won't happen, but it could.
I'm just not sold on this team. The offense should be fine if Johnson remains healthy, but starting Olsen or Heaps essentially negates a good part of Miami's strength at receiver. The offensive line is sturdy, the backfield and receiver corps good to great … but the Hurricanes have one of the worst quarterback situations in the ACC. The defense has strong individual pieces but does not yet inspire confidence; it'll be on this defense to step forward, and it's too soon to project any major improvement until we see what each level brings to the table in September. The bottom line? I don't think Miami has what it takes to build upon last year's nine-win finish. This is a bowl team and a Coastal contender, due in large part to the division's unsettled nature, but Miami has issues to address.
Dream season: Miami loses to Florida State, as expected, and drops a tough one at Nebraska. But the Hurricanes break through the nine-win mark to capture the Coastal Division championship.
Nightmare season: The Hurricanes finish outside the postseason for the time under Golden.
Who's No. 48? This team scored 681 points and allowed 681 points from 2011-12.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014