Despite struggles, Miami sitting atop ACC

Miami has given up more first downs than any team in the nation

this season, has been beaten by at least 38 points on two separate

occasions already and is on pace to obliterate school records for

points and yardage allowed.

Those defensive numbers – beyond dreadful.

There is, however, one stat that doesn’t make Mark D’Onofrio

cringe.

”We’re 3-0 in the ACC,” the Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator

said Monday, ”so that keeps me positive.”

Go figure. Among all the numbers that spell disaster, the ones

that matters most are the ones in the standings.

Widely picked to finish toward the bottom of the Atlantic Coast

Conference, Miami (4-2, 3-0) is one of only three remaining

unbeatens in league play, along with Duke (2-0 ACC) and Maryland

(1-0 ACC). And while a pair of blowout losses – a 52-13 debacle at

Kansas State last month, followed by a 41-3 embarrassment this past

weekend against Notre Dame – show that while the Hurricanes have

their problems, the ACC race may be an elixir of sorts.

”We’re in the tournament right now,” Miami coach Al Golden

said.

The tournament – a phrase Golden used last year as well, but

still fits – starts in earnest on Saturday, when the Hurricanes

open a stretch of three home games by facing North Carolina (4-2,

1-1). What happens over that homestand, which also includes

prime-time rivalry matchups with Florida State and Virginia Tech,

will almost certainly decide Miami’s fate in the Coastal Division

race.

”It’s there for the taking,” Miami running back Mike James

said. ”But it goes to show you, it’s not about what people write

down or who’s writing the books. Look where they wrote us to be.

It’s all about who’s the best team on that day.”

That’s been proven time and again in the ACC already this

season.

Miami was tabbed to finish fifth in the Coastal, ahead of only

Duke – and combined, those teams are 5-0 in league play so far. Two

weeks ago, the Hurricanes enjoyed a smorgasbord of offensive

success in a 44-37 win over North Carolina State. Miami followed up

that win by getting rolled by Notre Dame; the Wolfpack followed up

that loss by knocking off then-No. 3 Florida State, 17-16.

”N.C. State showed up and played,” James said. ”They’re a

good ball team, a good ball club, a lot of people overlooked that

team.”

And after getting beat by 38 points, on national television,

Miami might just be a team some people are overlooking as well.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora insists that he’s not among

them.

”They got talent,” Fedora said. ”They’re as talented as any

team in the league, really. … They’ve got the players

there.”

What Miami hasn’t had is enough plays. The Hurricanes have

allowed 158 first downs in six games – by comparison, Florida State

has allowed 75 in six games – and have allowed opponents to convert

45 percent of their third-down chances. Miami has given up 208

points already; the school record is 314, set during 13-game

seasons in 1984 and 2008. At this rate, if the Hurricanes play 13

games this season, they would allow 451 points.

In fairness, Miami’s two losses have come against teams

currently ranked No. 6 and No. 7 in the country. Also in fairness,

the Hurricanes are simply giving up tons of yards against everybody

– 510 per game so far, which means they’re on pace to yield more

than 6,000 by the end of the regular season alone.

The Hurricanes’ record for yards allowed: 4,369 in 1997, school

officials said.

Unless Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get eligibility restored and return

to college, that number would seem to be a lock to get topped soon

enough.

”We have a month here at home where we’ve got an opportunity to

get better, and I don’t think you can discount … playing 26 or 28

guys in a game,” said D’Onofrio, whose defensive two-deep is

almost entirely composed of freshmen and sophomores. ”I don’t

think anybody can really understand what that entails and the

commitment that that takes, not only in the short-term but in the

long-term.”

No matter what the numbers say, the chance is there for

Miami.

The Hurricanes aren’t the only team in the ACC that controls

their own destiny – at this point, just about everybody does – but

there’s a hope in Coral Gables that having the best league record

at this point means something as they head into this stretch.

”We need our fans, we need our students, we need to have a

home-field advantage,” Golden said. ”It should be a lot of

fun.”

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