'Canes outlook: Offense should carry Miami to Coastal crown
Year No. 3 under a coaching staff often rates as a pivotal one.
Two seasons of recruiting players and coaching them up usually intensifies the microscope as expectations of major improvement abound.
But the climate around the University of Miami is not exactly normal as coach Al Golden begins his third season.
First and foremost, the school still waits for word from the NCAA about possible penalties stemming from its relationship with booster Nevin Shapiro.
Besides that, Golden actually began his career at UM playing many key seniors in 2011. That was a big reason the 'Canes, especially on defense, largely were inexperienced last year.
Throw in Golden's attempts to change the culture within the program, which led to some player departures, and the Hurricanes are beginning the 2013 season sporting a reborn identity.
Miami kick offs the season Friday night against Florida Atlantic University at Sun Life Stadium. Eight days later, the 10th-ranked Florida Gators visit for a non-conference intrastate battle.
Here's a brief look at the Hurricanes, and factors that could determine if they become a national surprise or a disappointment to their fans.
Pretty much the entire offense.
Quarterback Stephen Morris (58.2 percent, 3,345 yards, 21 TDs, 7 INTs) and running back Duke Johnson (977 yards, 10 TDs) return to form a 1-2 punch that most teams would love to have.
The seasoned offensive line has been a work in progress during camp, but not due to lack of talent. There are six players likely to see time at the four tackle and guard spots.
Tight ends Clive Walford, Asante Cleveland and transfer Beau Sandland could become important targets for Morris, especially if speedy receiver Phillip Dorsett demands attention from the opposing defense.
A pass rush, which was a major weakness last season, could become a strength in '13. Transfers Ufomba Kamalu, David Gilbert, freshman Al-Quadin Muhammad and sophomore Tyriq McCord all could provide heat from the edge.
Punter Pat O'Donnell was second-team All-Big East last season at Cincinnati. The UM grad student will handle kickoffs, too.
A defense that used many young players while allowing 30.5 points last season should be better. But until it shows on the field, there will be questions.
The receiving corps has depth but needs to do a better job holding on to the ball. First and foremost, Dorsett needs to avoid costly drops of a year ago.
Then there's potential lack of depth at various positions. Obviously, sidelining injuries to Morris, and to a slightly lesser degree Johnson, would be difficult to overcome.
Remaining focused on the task of winning games, no matter what the eventual NCAA decision is.
Keeping Morris and Johnson healthy, but also putting together long drives, which would help keep the defense fresh.
Still relatively young defensive players (e.g. sophomore CB Tracy Howard) stepping up and having positive impact.
A loss or multiple losses that eat away at the unity developed since last season. All the coaches and players have been saying the right things in camp, but how will they react if faced with adversity?
As with most teams, key injuries in areas of relatively little depth could deal some serious blows to hopes of division crown and national ranking.
Golden has said UM has "the right guys on the train," which definitely appears headed in the right direction.
The Hurricanes seem dedicated, united and sport a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Of course, those qualities won't be tested truly until faced with tough situations.
While Clemson and Florida State likely will battle for the ACC Atlantic Division title, Miami should have a more favorable path to the Coastal Division title and conference championship game at Charlotte on Dec. 7.
The toughest games on the schedule seem to be non-conference Florida, and preseason No. 11 Florida State on Nov. 2. But the 'Canes and their fans shouldn't overlook Virginia Tech on Nov. 9 or trips to North Carolina (Oct. 17) and Pittsburgh (Nov. 29).
The feeling here is the Hurricanes will go 9-3, make it to Charlotte, then play in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta or Dec. 28 Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.
Note: The ACC Champion, if not in the BCS National Championship Game played at the Rose Bowl, will play in the Orange Bowl.
If two ACC teams are not selected for the BCS, the Chick-fil-A Bowl will have the next selection of ACC teams, followed by the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Charlie McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas