The Bearcats are in the midst of what is, unquestionably the golden era in the history of the program. Miami on the other hand is trying to crawl their way back into the ranks of the elite again. After nearly two decades in the sun Miami has fallen on hard times since . Its been over a decade since their last BCS appearance. They have had their moments since then, rising as high as 8th in the polls during the 2009 season, unquestionably the high water mark of the otherwise disappointing Randy Shannon era, but nothing sustained.
Al Golden inherited the program from Shannon and immediately the clouds above the program turned black and ominous when the Nevin Shapiro scandal exploded forth from the bowels of Yahoo! sports investigative journalism lair. The years long investigation from the NCAA spawned from the Yahoo! reports was botched to a hilarious degree, and the Hurricanes escaped major sanctions. Just now the cloud that Golden and his staff lived under for three years is starting to clear.
On the field Golden's teams have steadily improved each season. In three years Golden's Hurricanes have gone from 6 to 7 to 9 wins. The advanced numbers say that his best team might just have been his first. Last year's group won a lot of games, but they weren't particularly good. They raced out to a 7-0 record and a number 7 ranking heading into their all important matchup with Florida State. It was close for a half, but Duke Johnson broke his ankle against the Noles, and that was pretty much that. The team was never really the same after their talisman went down, as evidenced by their 2-3 swoon to close out the season.
Now heading into year four of Al Golden's tenure the Hurricanes are finally starting to look like the Hurricanes. Their skill positions are loaded with talent, they have what could be the best offensive line the Bearcats will face in 2013*. Whoever winds up playing quarterback will not be short of weapons, but no one really knows who that starter will be.
* It is either Miami or Toledo. You could probably flip a coin.
For Miami it is all going to start with the running game in 2014. They will be as good as Duke Johnson allows them to be. The good news is that his injury was only a broken bone, no ligaments were seriously damaged so he should be back to 100 percent in 2014. He could be even better as he is bigger (up to 208 pounds), stronger and he feels as fast as ever. That's an altogether terrifying proposition because he was really, really good before his injury. The Duke is also going to have plenty of help to help spread the load. Gus Edwards, a.k.a. The Bus took a bigger role after the Johnson's injury, essentially splitting carries with Dallas Crawford* in the final five games. Also added to the mix will be Joseph Yearby, a consensus top 10 running back in the class of 2014 who was enrolled for spring practice. Even with Crawford flipping to defense this running game should still be plenty ridiculous with depth to burn.
* Miami's Connor Barwin
The passing game isn't as well off as the running game, but there is no shortage of talent. Allen Hurns inexplicably came up with the best statistical season for a receiver in Miami's history a year ago, and though he is moving on Miami's receivers should be better. 7 of the 8 players who averaged at least one target per game last year are back. Stacy Coley was a revelation as a freshman, Clive Walford was one of the more underrated tight ends in the ACC a year ago, Phillip Dorsett and Malcolm Lewis are veterans. As a group these receivers should be more productive than they were a year ago. But no one has a concrete take on who will be throwing to them, which is a big problem for a team that is supposed to compete for a division crown.
What the Hurricanes have at the quarterback position is a group of potential solutions without a definite answer. If Ryan Williams wasn't coming off an ACL injury from the spring he would clearly be the starter. If Kevin Olsen took advantage of the opportunity that opened with Williams injury he would be the starter. But for one reason or another Olsen and Williams are effectively being written out of the competition.
That leaves a pile of former four star recruits who are blank slates. Jake Heaps has bounced around a lot, from BYU to Kansas and now to Miami*. While he has never looked equal to the four star status bestowed upon him out of high school, he has never had anything like the supporting cast he would have as the starter at Miami.
*In life moving from Provo to Lawrence to Miami is unquestionably a winning streak, as former star recruit its problematic
The other option is the more touted of the Hurricanes two incoming freshman QB's, Brad Kaaya. Kaaya is without question the future of the position for the Hurricanes, but can he be the quarterback of the present? He has people buzzing in Coral Gables, but he is a completely blank slate. If I were Miami I would want to get him a red shirt year, but without knowing how long Williams will be out they won't really have a choice if Heaps underwhelms.
Regardless of who gets the QB job matching last years production won't be an insurmountable goal for this group. That says more about the skill guys than it does about the quarterbacks, but this will be the first time in a while that Miami will look like Miami on the edge.
Speaking of looking like Miami the defense almost certainly won't, even though it will be better than it was a year ago. When the Hurricanes were really rolling in the 80's and early 90's (and again at the turn of the millenium) it was the defensive line that led the way. The way that Miami played schematically really didn't change during their run. In fact the style of defense that they played was christened after them. It's a scheme that can't really work unless you have a front four that can dominate. Needless to say the Hurricanes haven't had that in a while. Since the 2010 season when Allen "I Kill Alligators With Shovels" Bailey and co posted 37 sacks and 115 TFL the Hurricanes have averaged just 22 sacks and 63 TFL* in the three seasons since. Hardly dominating.
* For comparisons sake the Bearcats good but not really great defensive lines of the past three seasons have averaged 37 sacks and 94 TFL
In theory they should be better this year. Anthony Chickillo has been the most consistent producer the last three seasons and he could have a breakout year as a senior with a little more help, and on paper that help is coming. Olsen Pierre is a space eater of the highest order up front and should allow his mates to face one on one matchups. Al-Quadin Muhammad was a good situational pass rusher. And they are bringing in a whole bunch of talent to create competition. Chad Thomas is a consensus five star defensive end who should contribute as a freshman. Best of all they have a pair of massive JUCO defensive tackles in Calvin Heurtelou and Michael Wyche to give Pierre support. If this group produces at a top 20 level the defense will be vastly improved, but no one knows if that will happen.
The linebackers are starting over a bit with two starters moving on, but Denzel Perryman was the Hurricanes best linebacker a year ago and is coming back to man the middle. Flanking him will probably be...two large human beings. It could be Thurston Armbrister, or Raphael Kirby, or Jermaine Grace or one of the freshman. It doesn't really matter who starts and plays, they just have to better than they were a year ago, particularly against the pass.
Same goes for the secondary which, as per usual, has a ton of talent (half of the projected two deep were ranked four stars or better) but not a lot of production. The problem last year were two fold, they were incredibly young and they had no support to speak of from the pass rush. Tracy Howard, Artie Burns and Deon Bush are talented guys, but experience matters in college football, and they just didn't have enough of it. As such they allowed a ton of big plays, 141 passes of 10+ yards (good for 119th nationally) and 46 passes of 20+ yards (92nd nationally). By simply being older in 2014 the Hurricanes pass defense will be better, but its the degree of improvement that matters. The defense as a whole has to be much better in 2014 for the Hurricanes to continue the upward trend of the Golden years. A great leap forward defensively would be required for the Hurricanes to mount serious challenges to division favorites Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Its debateable whether the Hurricanes can get the improvement they need from the defense to re enter the ranks of the elite this year. 2015 would seem to be their year.