NCAA FB

Miami finally re-emerges as an ACC power

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When the Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East in the spring of 2003, it made goo-goo eyes at Miami. The Hurricanes were coming off one of the most dominant three-year stretches in college football history, going 32-2, winning the 2001 Bowl Championship Series title game and coming within a bogus penalty flag of repeating in 2002. But the ACC wanted nothing to do with Virginia Tech, Miami's biggest Big East rival and the school in the middle of the ACC's geographic footprint. The conference preferred Boston College (it got the Eagles in 2005) and Syracuse (never happened).
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Tech was forced down the ACC's throat by a combination of politicians and University of Virginia Chancellor John Casteen. That crew finally got its way largely because a conference president who was on vacation in Switzerland cast an essential swing vote to welcome the Hokies in the league. The Hokies were the side dish to the 32-ounce porterhouse that was "The U." But the Hurricanes morphed into just another program as coach Larry Coker failed to keep top recruits in South Florida, shrinking the talent level to the point they almost lost to Duke in his final season at the helm. Meanwhile, the program the ACC wanted no part of became its football flagship. Virginia Tech owns three conference titles in five years, and ended the conference's eight-year BCS losing streak in January with an Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati. That's why this summer, ACC media picked the Hokies as a resounding favorite to win the conference again. Tech has achieved main-dish status. Miami? Well, everyone said the right things about its potential, but it didn't translate into preseason projections of greatness. And no one liked the Hurricanes' brutal opening schedule — at Florida State, Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. Miami needed just two games to make everyone forget its schedule and forget how little it has accomplished since joining the ACC. A wild 38-34 win at Florida State before a national primetime TV audience was followed by an emphatic thumping of Georgia Tech, which had become somewhat of a jinx team for the Hurricanes. Now Miami appears to have its talent and swagger back. The No. 9 ranking the team carries with it to Blacksburg, Va. Saturday is not only higher than the 11th-ranked Hokies, but is regarded as low in the minds of many. An argument could be made that the Hurricanes rate as the nation's top team. They enter Saturday's game looking for not just control of the Coastal Division, but to reclaim their status as the ACC's most feared team. "This Miami team we're getting ready to play ... wow," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "Just an all-around good football team. Very impressive." Part of that can be traced to the development of sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who backed up Robert Marve most of last season. When Marve ran afoul of coach Randy Shannon, eventually transferring to Purdue, Harris had the job to himself. Through two games, Harris has thrown for 656 yards and completing 69.5 percent of his passes to a dozen different receivers. "I think he's got a great pocket presence," Beamer said. "He throws an accurate ball and he doesn't get rattled. They have a lot of talent around him and it shows." It appears that talent isn't confined to the field, either. Unsatisfied by the offense's direction, Shannon changed coordinators in the offseason, hiring former Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple. Besides instilling a new attitude — "He thinks he can score 100 points every time we got out there," Shannon marvels — Whipple has also expanded the playbook and worked closely with Harris to get his best. "We feel like we have players on offense and an offensive line that have done a good job the first two games getting us where we need to be," Shannon said. On paper, the Hurricanes appear to match up well with the Hokies, who are still seeking consistency on offense and are having unexpected problems stopping the run on defense. That doesn't make the Hokies easy prey. Lane Stadium hasn't exactly been Miami's favorite venue. The Hurricanes are 2-5 in their last seven visits to the quaint, 66,233-seat facility, which often sounds like the end of an airport runway. Even in their national championship season, the Hurricanes required a dropped two-point conversion pass and four interceptions just to escape with a 26-24 win. But Shannon seems to have a quiet belief that this side's potential is limitless. Asked if he was surprised by the first two games, his answer was quick and to the point. "Not with this football team," he said. "I think they've matured from the early stages of last year. They know they have to stay focused and keep working on the little things each week." Those little things might just lead to something bigger than a return to the national spotlight.
Tagged: Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Virginia, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Miami (FL), Purdue

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