Five reasons why Miami can win its first ACC football title in 2014

Last season, Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson ran for 920 yards and six touchdowns in just eight games.   

Melina Vastola/Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

It’s by no means an easy task, especially with defending national champion Florida State sure to reach the title game.

But should everything fall into place with a little bit of help and overachieving, the unranked Miami Hurricanes could meet their rivals in Charlotte and compete for their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

Preseason polls have picked UM to win the Coastal Division, which lacks a true frontrunner. Many are expecting down years from Virginia Tech, but Miami must travel to hostile Blacksburg Oct. 23. Duke, which surprised many by making it to the final in 2013, will find it tough to recreate that success.

Here are five reasons the Hurricanes can win the ACC…

1. THE DUKE OF CORAL GABLES

If junior running back Duke Johnson stays healthy and picks up where he left off before sustaining a season-ending injury in 2013, this could likely be his final slate of collegiate games. Johnson earned All-ACC honors despite playing in just eight games (seven starts), running for 920 yards (6.3 average) with six touchdowns. Until breaking his ankle, Johnson had rushed for 97 yards against the Seminoles and averaged 174.1 all-purpose yards per game. Johnson, who is 133 yards from becoming one of just nine players to reach 2,000 in his career, is one of the most electric players in the nation. He can cement his legacy in UM lore with an All-American campaign and Heisman Trophy-worthy season. Miami would reap the benefit of it.

2. FRESHMAN QB UP TO THE CHALLENGE

True freshman Brad Kaaya was named starting quarterback for the opener, but he doesn’t need to carry the offense by himself. Rather, he should be able to take advantage of the targets around him — from Johnson to sophomore wideout Stacy Coley to senior tight end Clive Walford. Both coaches and teammates have been amazed by the 19-year-old’s maturity. If he can stay composed and limit turnovers, the unit shouldn’t have a problem scoring. Last season, the Hurricanes averaged 33.8 points per game even with the absence of Johnson and senior wideout Phillip Dorsett. By having him start over 23-year-old Jake Heaps, Miami is showing faith in both Kaaya and other freshmen that can contribute early on.

Kaaya to be 'Canes starting QB

3. IMPROVEMENT ON DEFENSE

It seems simple enough: keep the other team off the scoreboard and wins should be plentiful. Miami opened 2013 with seven straight victories, allowing an average of 17.7 points per game. But that progress would quickly regress as the Hurricanes dropped four of their final six. The defense surrendered 37.3 points per game, including three straight of 40 or more, during that stretch. Opposing offenses racked up 500-plus yards in five of the six. Although the scoring and rushing defense did improve, more must be done. Takeaways increased, but the third-down conversion rate (54 percent from the FSU game on) will never be a good thing. Seniors Denzel Perryman and Anthony Chickillo will need support if the defense is to turn things around. Teams don’t often go into games wanting a shootout.

4. PRETTY SPECIAL TEAMS

Head coach Al Golden is also in charge of the special teams. All-ACC punter Pat O’Donnell graduated and is now playing in the NFL. His replacement will be walk-on sophomore Justin Vogel, who won the job over redshirt senior Ricky Caroll. Coley returned both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown last year, becoming the only FBS player to score four different ways. After missing three kicks in a row during the middle part of the season, junior Matt Goudis closed it out with seven straight made and rebuilt his confidence. Special teams have always been an advantage because of Miami’s speed and playmaking ability. Other ways to score will only help the offense and defense out. It will likely be a factor against Frank Beamer and the Hokies — notorious for their superior special teams unit over the years.

5. STUMBLE FROM THE TOP

Florida State is a heavy favorite to win the ACC again, and understandably. The defending champion is also the preseason No. 1 with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston back. The best way to stop that from happening? In head-to-head matchups. Miami, which went 6-1 at Sun Life Stadium last season for its most home wins in a decade, hosts the Seminoles Nov. 15 in the third-to-last game of the regular season. Florida State has won four in a row in the series. Last year, Miami stuck close through halftime until Johnson got hurt. Should the Hurricanes lose to the Seminoles, they could very well meet again in the ACC title game. UM, of course, needs to reach it first. Since joining the ACC in 2004, the program has yet to play for the championship. Miami was supposed to two seasons ago but didn’t represent the Coastal Division because of self-sanctions.

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.