Miami still in control of Coastal Division

Miami is 10th in the ACC in scoring defense and dead last in total defense.
The Hurricanes are eighth in interceptions, 11th in sacks, ninth in first downs, last in first downs allowed and ninth in opponents’ 3rd-down conversion rate.

Yet, if they can pull off wins at Virginia this weekend and Duke two days after Thanksgiving, they will win the Coastal Division and play for the ACC championship in Charlotte, provided the school doesn’t opt out of the postseason.

Dealing with an NCAA investigation that could lead to serious allegations and punishment, Miami self-imposed a bowl ban last season and may do so again in the next few weeks if it believes it will significantly lessen the sting of the NCAA hammer. That also means it would be ineligible for the Coastal title, just like North Carolina, which is also serving NCAA probation and is banned from the postseason.

Miami could hear from the NCAA any time in the next several months.

As for its season to date, if you break it down into nine segments, it just doesn’t pass the smell test of a BCS conference champion. Or even a contender.

In addition, consider the Hurricanes have blowout losses at Kansas State and Notre Dame by a combined 93-16 score on their resume, and were riding a three-game losing streak before beating Virginia Tech last Thursday night. Yet, here they are looking ahead at nobody in the discombobulated mess that is the Coastal Division.

“(Our players) have to learn how to deal with it,” Miami coach Al Golden said when asked how the players were dealing with their first-place status. “It’s difficult because it’s the first time that we’re navigating that. … This is where you’re either disciplined and your habits and your process either holds up or cracks.

“We’re trying to teach them how to make it so habitual, so disciplined and ingrained, that it can withstand anything.”

Golden’s second Miami team is 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the ACC with the defeats coming at home to UNC (18-14) and Florida State (33-20). The Tar Heels and Seminoles amassed 933 yards and 53 first downs in those games.

Peeling away the season’s layers, and disregarding the victory over FCS member Bethune-Cookman, Miami’s only remotely complete performance came last week.

Three of its ACC victories were come-from-behind wins at Boston College and Georgia Tech and at home over N.C. State by average scores of 42-35. So how has Miami positioned itself to possibly play for a spot in the Orange Bowl?

“We’re starting to create some turnovers,” Golden said. “A lot of it sometimes, as coaches, we’ll do drills and everything, but the reality of it is sometimes it’s just (about the) players. Sometimes there are just guys that, with a little bit of training, if they have that knack for it or they look for it, they can make some plays.”

The young and athletic Hurricanes are fourth in the ACC in turnover margin at plus-five, just two takeaways from being tied for the top spot. Miami has flipped the field at key times in close games, gaining an edge.

But really, there aren’t any definitive reasons why the Hurricanes are in this position other than some other basics, such as they haven’t quit in conference games and have had some big nights on the ground. They’ve managed to score late in close affairs, too.

The late touchdowns have camouflaged a rather mediocre season by quarterback Stephen Morris. He has completed just 56.6 percent of his pass attempts for 2,384 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. And in Miami’s most complete game of the season, Morris converted only 46.4 percent of his attempts with no scores and a pair of interceptions.

But given the relative parity in the Coastal, he’s been good enough so far. And with three games left, including road games at those pesky foes, Morris, tailback Duke Johnson and the young Miami defense may be good enough to land a spot in the ACC title game.