Greg Cote

Are the Hurricanes on the road back? Ending long bowl drought is the first step

Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) celebrates in the end zone after a fourth quarter touchdown as the University of Miami hosts Duke at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sat., Nov. 26, 2016.
Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku (86) celebrates in the end zone after a fourth quarter touchdown as the University of Miami hosts Duke at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Sat., Nov. 26, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Miami Hurricanes' veteran offensive lineman, Kc McDermott, put it perfectly this week, maybe without meaning to, when asked why winning Wednesday's bowl game was important.

“It would give everybody a sense that Miami is coming back,” he said.

Not a declaration, mind you. Not proof of any size. A sense, that's all. An indication. A small peg on the wall to hang your hopes on.

For this program, right now, that's enough..

So Wednesday, easy to lose in the midst of the glut of bowl games, the Canes try to take that essential, elusive step. The attempt will happen in Orlando vs. West Virginia, in a medium-sized bowl, in a game easy to overlook.

It will happen with the Canes cast in the shadow this week of Miami's bigger Orange Bowl game between Florida State and Michigan on Friday night, and relegated to a South Florida football afterthought to the Miami Dolphins, who are hosting the New England Patriots on Sunday and then readying for their first NFL playoff game in eight years.

No, the Russell Athletic Bowl is nobody's idea of a main-stage game except maybe Russell's. It certainly isn't UM's idea of a big game, given truth serum – not when this program once knew only the top of the polls and top-tier bowls in winning five national championships.

But now it's not about getting back to that. It's about finding the map to where back is. It's about figuring how long the getting there may take. And it starts with this:

Winning a damned bowl game again.

Ending a season smiling for a change.

Segueing to what's ahead with a little tailwind.

That hasn't happen for the young men of Coral Gables in 10 years, a couple of college football generations ago, since UM last won a bowl game following the 2006 season. That was three head coaches ago – five if you include interim guys. That's the worst bowl victory drought since Miami got good, turned elite. The previous long postseason drought was 13 years, from 1967-79.

Miami tries Wednesday to end an 0-6 bowl skid, the school's longest such streak by double.

Let's be honest. Miami's biggest victory Wednesday night will be if junior quarterback Brad Kaaya emerges from this game ready to announce he's coming back for his senior season rather than entering the NFL Draft.

The Canes were an uneven 8-4 under first-year coach Mark Richt, a mixed-signals record, and whether a team finishes 9-4 or 8-5 is hardly a difference of immense magnitude. Even in winning, the school's first 10-victory season or top-10 finish since 2003 would still have eluded UM.

Again, though, it's about symbolism as much as anything right now for a once-premier program trying to rediscover itself and reclaim its national footprint. Like McDermott said, it's about a sense that Miami is coming back.

A victory Wednesday would mean a UM team had ended a season with five consecutive wins for the first time since 2001 – the last national-title year. That's not nothing. But the sense of progress under Richt needs a bowl win to stamp it valid, make it emphatic, nourish the faith.

As receiver/return man Braxton Berrios put it, “To end that bowl streak of losses is another leaf that we must turn over.”

Tight end David Njoku (likelier than Kaaya to turn pro) hadn't heard about the 0-6 bowl skid until a reporter told him. His reaction: “That doesn't sound right. We are Miami!”

Offensive lineman Danny Isidora, making his 39th consecutive start and one of 17 departing seniors, said winning Wednesday amounts to a bequeath. “It would turn the program around for next year,” he said.

To fellow departing senior Corn Elder, the terrific defensive back, ending on a bowl win is about upholding “the legacy of The U.”

There are far grander things than the Russell Athletic Bowl for the Hurricanes to accomplish on the road to back – to back all the way. There are victories over nemesis Florida State, a regular home in the top 10 and spots in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game to make happen before Miami will ever earn its way into the conversation for the College Football Playoff.

But none of that happens without first winning a bowl game again.

That's the necessary first step to giving America what has been a long time coming: “A sense that Miami is coming back.”

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