It was just two and a half short months ago that the Miami Hurricanes walked off the field at Hard Rock Stadium and saw their resurgent season come to a crashing end.
A campaign that started with 10 consecutive victories and murmurs of a potential College Football Playoff bid ended in deflating disappointment to the tune of three consecutive losses and questions about just how close the Hurricanes really are to contending with the top teams in the country.
“I love this team, I’m proud of them and just sorry we didn’t get it done,” coach Mark Richt said following the team’s season-ending 34-24 loss to Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl.
Their next chance to prove themselves is here.
The Hurricanes open their 15-practice spring camp on Tuesday, and eyes will be on Miami to see how it sets the stage to build on that streaky 2017 season.
With the state of Florida undergoing a reboot in college football, the Hurricanes will enter 2018 as the prime candidate to be the standard-bearer for the Sunshine State and the most likely team to be part of that four-team playoff come December.
Gone are the days of seven-win seasons and Miami staying in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Coast Conference. No. Richt has bigger plans for Miami and has them on the path to get there.
Last year’s 10-3 season, ACC Championship appearance and Orange Bowl berth were the first steps.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised that they were significantly improved,” ESPN college football analyst Greg McElroy said, “but what I found so interesting was that they learned how to win so early in his tenure. Learning how to win is not easy, and learning how to win in crunch time is extremely difficult.”
But is The U finally back?
The swagger is definitely there — look no further than the hoopla surrounding the turnover chain and the clutch wins Miami pulled out early in the season.
But the questions are still there, too.
The Hurricanes are still working their way back to fielding a roster with 85 scholarship players following three years of NCAA probation because of the Nevin Shapiro fiasco. Those penalties, which included the loss of nine scholarships, ended in October 2016.
“We’re still trying to build that roster,” Richt said on National Signing Day after locking up the No. 8 class in the country.
Can Malik Rosier take the next step at quarterback — or will redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry or true freshman Jarren Williams dethrone the incumbent starter?
Can the defense build on the hype and success from a year ago or will the Hurricanes suffer a drop-off in Manny Diaz’s third season as defensive coordinator as they retool their entire starting defensive line?
Can Miami definitively prove it’s ready to compete with the Alabamas and the Georgias and the Clemsons of the college football world?
Richt, the charismatic head coach with a steadily calm demeanor and a knack for recruiting, sure is ready to find out. He has already overachieved in some senses. His 19 wins through his first two seasons rank as the third-best start for a coach in Miami history, trailing just Larry Coker (24) and Dennis Erickson (21).
Add on his top-10 recruiting class — Miami’s first since 2012 — and the potential for a playoff run is there for the Hurricanes if everything plays out right.
“I don’t think Miami’s that far away,” McElroy said.
That alone presents a sizable gap with the rest of the state of Florida.
Richt enters this season as the state’s longest-tenured head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks even though it’s just his third season at Miami.
As for the state’s other six programs, three are starting fresh this year. The other three are starting Year 2 under their current coaching staffs.
But each coach also brings a wealth of experience to his program. Six of the seven coaches have more than 10 years of experience in college football as either a coordinator or head coach.
For the quick roll call:
▪ Richt, Miami
▪ Dan Mullen, Florida
▪ Willie Taggart, Florida State
▪ Charlie Strong, USF
▪ Lane Kiffin, FAU
▪ Butch Davis, FIU
▪ Josh Heupel, UCF
“I’m not sure you can find a better roster of coaches in any state,” McElroy said. “It’s pretty wild to see this many good coaches in one state.”
But like Miami, each enters the season with questions.
The Gators open 2018 with their third coach in an eight-year span following the failed experiments of the Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain eras. Mullen, who served as Florida’s offensive coordinator when the Gators won their last two national titles in 2006 and 2008, will look to turn the program around to its glory days.
The main question: Can Mullen, the offensive mastermind and quarterback whisperer with a seemingly endless stream of energy, translate his optimism into wins on the football field? The battle starts with solving the almost annual struggle in Gainesville: finding a quarterback. During the past eight years, Florida has fielded 11 starting quarterbacks.
“If there’s one guy that can alleviate that problem,” McElroy said, “it’s Dan Mullen.”
In Tallahassee, FSU wants to continue relishing in its recent success under a new leader.
The Seminoles enjoyed a strong eight-year run near the top of college football under Jimbo Fisher, capped by a national championship in 2013. Fisher is gone now, opting for Texas A&M and a 10-year contract with $75 million guaranteed. In comes Willie Taggart, who inherits a team that went 7-6 after losing starting quarterback Deondre Francois in the season opener.
And then there are Florida’s four Group of Five programs, each with a notable story line to follow.
The University of Central Florida is fresh off a self-proclaimed national championship year but will have to follow up that perfect 13-0 year under a new coaching staff. Scott Frost, who led UCF to that 13-0 season just two years after inheriting a team that went 0-12, is now at Nebraska. Replacing him is Heupel, the lone first-time head coach in the state who plans to make a name for himself in Orlando.
“We're not chasing past ghosts,” Heupel said on National Signing Day. “We're creating something here.”
Florida Atlantic latched its way into the national spotlight behind the popularity of head coach Lane Kiffin, an 11-3 record and a lights-out offense catalyzed by running back Devin Singletary’s nation-leading 32 rushing touchdowns.
And don’t forget about the University of South Florida and Florida International University, the two programs from the Sunshine State resting in the shadows despite having big names leading the way.
Strong, getting ready for his second season at USF, has 17 years of experience as a head coach or defensive coordinator and knows his way around the Florida recruiting scene.
Davis, a familiar face to the South Florida crowd, is ready to start his second year at FIU. Davis spent six years as the Miami Hurricanes’ head coach from 1995 to 2000 before making the jump to the NFL. A year after he left Miami, the Hurricanes won their fifth — and most recent — national championship.
Now, he’s trying to build up FIU. Year 1 was a success. The Panthers tied a program best with eight victories in 2017 and played in their third bowl game in program history as a result.
And while the state’s coaching ranks are at arguably an all-time high in the present, how long it stays that way remains to be seen.
Strong and Kiffin, for example, are prime candidates to make the jump to a Power Five program should a job opportunity open in the near future.
“Every year, considering how successful and how well respected those guys are, they’re going to be considered for other jobs,” McElroy said.
One job that seems safe for now is Richt’s at Miami.
The Hurricanes are almost a lock to open the season as a top-10 team for the first time since 2005 and will once again be a contender in the ACC.
But Miami doesn’t want to settle for being contenders.
“We know we're hungry for more,” Richt said after the Orange Bowl loss, “and I can tell by looking at the eyes of our team that the guys that are coming back are going to be excited about taking it one step further next year.”
The next step starts Tuesday with spring practice.