Miami aims to become ACC power again

After three seasons of baby steps under Randy Shannon, Miami is now looking to make one giant leap back to its glory days as a national power.

Although the 2009 season ended with a Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin, it was evident that the Hurricanes were turning the corner and heading north. Heck, at 5-1, they’d already toppled Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, rising into the top 10. A couple of close losses along the way denied the school a shot at the Coastal Division crown and its first 10-win season since 2003, but 9-4 still qualified as momentum in Coral Gables.

Over the past couple of seasons, Miami has recruited very well and turned those kids loose early in their careers. There were unavoidable mistakes and baptisms by fire, all with the goal of being title-ready by 2010.

Well, no longer green, the Hurricanes are determined to grow up together and say buh-bye to December bowl games. Never is that more true than with junior QB Jacory Harris, a microcosm for the program. Sure, he’s shown plenty of flashes, even creating some Heisman buzz last October, but also fizzed down the stretch and finished with more picks than any other ACC passer. Albeit simplistic, there’s a widely held and sensible belief that if Harris can evolve, he’s going to carry the school to new heights right along with him.

Miami is ready. Shannon is ready. Youth no longer dominates the depth chart. The rebuilding days are over. Having moved beyond their worst five-year stretch since the 1970s, it’s finally time for the ‘Canes to be the ‘Canes. The program has worked hard, on and off the field, to get back to this point, when titles and top-25 finishes are once again the benchmark for success.

What to watch for on offense: The emergence of Damien Berry as one of the ACC’s top rushers. The senior and former defensive back made someone on the Miami staff look real smart when he erupted for 616 yards and eight touchdowns despite not getting a single carry until Oct. 10. A decisive and aggressive runner, he’s suddenly the feature back on a team that’s lost Javarris James to graduation and Graig Cooper to a serious knee injury. Even NFL scouts have started paying attention to a late bloomer, who could parlay his final year into a pro contract.

What to watch for on defense: The sophomore safeties. From the program that once brought you Ed Reed and Sean Taylor come Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong. OK, so neither is a household name outside of Coral Gables, but that’ll start to change this fall. Both are dynamite physical specimens, with the size and attitude to become legitimate enforcers of the secondary. After laying decent foundations as freshmen, both are poised to become primetime players as full-time starters.

The team will be far better if… it does a better job of getting to the quarterback. No. 10 in the ACC in sacks? Really? That’s unacceptable considering the amount of speed, athleticism and overall talent the ‘Canes have on the front seven. With Allen Bailey and one of the league’s deepest defensive line rotations, there’s no reason why Miami can’t turn 2009 into an anomaly. And with more sacks should come more turnovers, another need area for the program.

The schedule: Yeeeeeesh. After a light scrimmage against Florida A&M, the ‘Canes have a lot of work to do going on the road for four of the next five games and five of the following seven. But those away games are against lightweights, right? At Ohio State, at Pitt, at Clemson, and those are just the first three road games coming before the home game showdown against Florida State. Making matters worse will be a road game against a Georgia Tech team that should be fired up after getting stomped on in last year’s loss to the ‘Canes, and that’s followed up by a game against Virginia Tech to close out the ACC season. If that wasn’t enough, South Florida comes to Miami in the season finale.

Best offensive player: QB Jacory Harris. Sure, he’s been erratic at times during his first two seasons, but he’s also been dynamic, making big plays through the air and leading the offense with poise. His potential as the face of the Miami program is undeniable, and his skills are improving with each passing season. For all of the hand-wringing a year ago, he still threw 24 touchdown passes, was the school’s first 3,000-yards passer since Ken Dorsey in 2002, and was named ACC Offensive Back of the Week on four different occasions.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Allen Bailey. Often a man among boys at the point of attack, he has a unique array of physical tools for getting into the backfield. He’s been both a tackle and an end for the Hurricanes, using his immense strength and quickness to fight through blocks and blow up plays. In a preview of what’s to come, he made 34 tackles — 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks — earning All-ACC first team and piquing the interest of NFL scouts.

Key player to a successful season: Harris. In a rarity, Harris is not only the team’s best offensive weapon, but he’s also the most instrumental variable heading into the 2010 season. While he’s a good quarterback today, Miami needs him to begin approaching a new level in order to win an ACC championship. If he continues to be erratic, forcing throws and turning the ball over, getting over the hump becomes infinitely harder for the Hurricanes.

The season will be a success if … Miami wins its first-ever ACC championship. At long last, the Hurricanes have reached a point where they are as deep and as talented as any team in the conference, so why not now? Getting Coastal Division rivals North Carolina and Virginia Tech at home will also help in a race that might not be decided until the end of November.

Key game: Sept. 11 at Ohio State. No, this game won’t have any bearing on the ACC title chase, but what better way to announce that you’re all the way back than with a high-profile win in Columbus? Miami delivered a few surprises last September and won’t be unnerved by this first meeting between these schools since the controversial 2002 national championship game in Tempe.