Overview: Dealing with an NCAA investigation of their own, Miami entered the 2011 season as a complete unknown. Starting quarterback Jacory Harris, as well as seven other Hurricanes, were suspended to start the season. In what was supposed to be a banner year in Coral Gables, first year head coach Al Golden was forced to improvise from the start.
Harris along with wide receiver Aldarius Johnson and linebacker Arthur Brown were all part of the vaunted recruiting class of 2008 for Miami. The group was expected to bring "The U" back to glory, but defections and the inability to live up to expectations on the field ultimately doomed Johnson, Brown and the 2008 class.
That recruiting haul was so deep that some players were still able to make a significant impact. Linebacker Sean Spence, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and defensive tackle Marcus Fortson all returned in 2011. Their talent alone, as well as the streaky arm of Harris, was enough for the Hurricanes to remain dangerous in 2011.
Unfortunately, due to uncertainty and inconsistency, the Hurricanes (6-6, 3-5 ACC) were unable to find a rhythm last season. Miami never won or lost more than one game in a row aside from a meager two-game winning streak in October, which included a 30-24 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 15.
Home wins over No. 16 Ohio State and No. 22 Georgia Tech highlighted the schedule, but bookend losses against Maryland and Boston College were stunning disappointments to begin and end the season. Despite winning six games, Miami self-imposed a bowl ban due to the ongoing NCAA investigation.
With the NCAA investigation still hanging over the program, Golden must replace seven starters on offense, including Harris (195-of-300 passing, 2,486 yards, 20 TD, 9 INT), Benjamin (41 rec, 609 yards, 3 TD) and second-team All-ACC running back Lamar Miller (227 car, 1272 yards, 9 TD). Look for senior Mike James (72 car, 275 yards, 7 TD) to carry the load on the ground in 2012.
Turnovers plagued Miami last fall, ranking 85th out of 120 FBS teams in turnover margin (-0.33). Even though Harris threw just nine interceptions in 2011, he threw 48 total in his four years at Miami, frustrating fans and coaches. Enter junior Stephen Morris (26-of-37 passing, 283 yards, 2 INT), who will be counted on to protect the ball better than Harris. Memphis transfer Ryan Williams will likely push Morris for the starting job.
On paper, the Hurricanes are strong defensively. All-ACC performer Spence (106 tackles, 3 sacks) is now a Pittsburgh Steeler, but last season's 17th-ranked scoring defense (20.08 ppg) returns six starters. Senior safety Vaughn Telemaque (59 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Brandon McGee (38 tackles, 1 INT) anchor one of the top secondaries in the ACC, which ranked third in the conference in pass defense (198 ypg) in 2010. However, the depth of the secondary took a hit with the dismissal of safety Ray-Ray Armstrong (34 tackles, 1 INT) from the program.
Upfront, the Hurricanes look to improve on the natio's 71st-ranked rushing defense (161.92 ypg). Five of the seven expected starters in Miami's 4-3 front this fall are upperclassmen, but only two, tackle Darius Smith (21 tackles, 1 sack) and linebacker Jimmy Gaines (58 tackles), have significant starting experience.
Quotable: "There will be a day when I can refute that or discuss that. I look forward to that day; now is not the time to do that. I also don't want to lose sight that the person in that whole deal has not been with us for a year. So, we're not talking about something that happened yesterday. That is behind us, we are moving forward." – Golden on a Yahoo! Sports report suggesting Sean Allen, a rumored associate to infamous booster Nevin Shapiro, helped commit recruiting violations at Miami
Matchup to Watch: Outside of Florida State, the Hurricanes' top rival in the ACC is undoubtedly Virginia Tech. Miami has lost to the Hokies seven of the past nine seasons, but the schedule sets up perfectly for a Hurricane victory this fall. Miami welcomes Virginia Tech to Sun Life Stadium on Nov. 1. Not only will this be the final game of a three-game home stand for Miami, but a bye week prior to the game gives Golden and his staff an extra week to prepare for the Hokies. The typically-sparse Miami crowd is also likely to be fired up as the game is nationally televised on a Thursday night. The ‘Canes would love nothing more than to spoil the Hokies' season and the early November matchup offers an ideal opportunity to do so.
Odd Man Out: Of the 12 teams in the ACC, 11 bring back their 2011 starting quarterback for the 2012 season. The only school that does not is Miami. Likely Hurricane starter Morris has appeared in 11 games in his career, starting just five. The other 11 signal callers have an average of 21 appearances and nearly 16 starts.
Sept. 1 @ Boston College
Sept. 8 @ Kansas State
Sept. 15 Bethune-Cookman
Sept. 22 @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 29 N.C. State
Oct. 6 Notre Dame (Chicago)
Oct. 13 North Carolina
Oct. 20 Florida State
Nov. 1 Virginia Tech
Nov. 10 @ Virginia
Nov. 17 South Florida
Nov. 24 @ Duke
Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.
Like IC on Facebook InsideCarolina.