You’ve been walking for, what is it now, 15 years? Walking and walking, feeling as if you are getting closer, but with no real idea exactly if or when you’ll arrive. Now at last there is a sign. A road sign. It reads BACK, with an arrow. It leads around a bend, where you now finally see what you’ve been walking toward all these years.
The one problem: In front of you there is a mountain still to climb.
You have gone the distance. Now you must scale the height.
This is the University of Miami football program as it enters the 2018 season.
The Hurricanes find themselves all the way back to national relevance, itself a feat. But to the winner of five national championships, to the fans who say they invented swagger, relevance, of course, is not enough. Only the summit of that mountain is.
The top 10 is OK. It’s nice. But there is that mountain to climb. Alabama and perfect villain Nick Saban are atop it as reigning national champions. Miami must also find a way to climb up over 2016 champ (and ACC roadblock) Clemson.
And so Miami is so close yet so far to that peak as the program’s 83rd season kicks off Sept. 2 in a Sunday prime-time game vs. Louisiana State, on ABC, in a high-watt neutral-site matchup in Arlington, Texas. Top major-college teams are famous for opening with soft games. This isn’t one. UM is No. 8 in the preseason AP poll and LSU is No. 25.
A ranked Miami last faced a ranked opponent in its season opener in 2006, when No. 12 Canes met No. 11 Florida State.
UM will find out, fast, if it is up to the preseason hype.
“I like what happened in camp. I like how we’re coaching. How hard everyone is practicing,” says third-year coach Mark Richt. “But until you play somebody you really don’t know. There’s no warmup games here [like in the NFL]. We will be physically and mentally tested. It will be a gut check. What everybody is thinking is, ‘We better be ready.’”
Miami was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally late last season -- the Canes hadn’t been 10-0 in any season since 2002, one year after the fifth and last national title -- before 2017 ended in stunning and humbling collapse.
A shocking loss at Pitt in the regular season finale sabotaged College Football Playoff hopes. A 38-3 shellacking by Clemson in the ACC championship game was an embarrassing reminder of the distance that remained between Miami and the top-tier elite. Then a 34-24 Orange Bowl loss to Wisconsin assured the sour taste would last the whole offseason.
Even so, 2017 marked the first time since 2005 that Miami was ranked in every AP poll, preseason to post-bowls.
“I don’t think guys are thinking much about last year and how we finished,” Richt says. “We talk about it sometimes, but they’re focusing on an ‘every day, every play’ mentality. But there are moments that we’ll talk abut the way we need to finish. Last year, we didn’t quite finish the season. Part of it was due to the lack of depth, to be real with it. Hopefully we’re developing more depth now to where it won’t be as big a problem.”
It’s about more than depth. It’s about elite players. Stars. UM, once an NFL pipeline, failed to produce an NFL first-round draft pick for six straight years (2009-14) but has bounced back with four since ‘15.
Miami’s No. 8 preseason ranking (the Canes’ best since 2004) is deserved, based on the entirety of last season , who’s returning and an acclaimed recruiting class.
The defense returns eight starters led by linebacker Shaq Quarterman and safety Jaquan Johnson. The Turnover Chain should be changing hands like a dollar bill once again. Offensively quarterback Malik Rosier has lots of weapons such as top back Travis Homer and receivers Ahmmon Richards and Lawrence Cager. Bjut does Rosier have another gear he can find?
“We’re not going to be great until we consistently throw and catch,” as Richt put it the other day.
UM fans are trying to will that long-awaited sixth national title, and reveling in ther national spotlight. Last season ESPN’s College GameDay visited campus for the firfst time in years. The home crowds for prime-time einsd over Vrgionia Tech and Notre Dame were electric. The new indoor practice facility is up and running. Available season tickets are now fewer than 800. Momentum for the program is palpable, even with last season’s fizzling finish.
And now season expectations are tall as that high diving board Richt leaps off every summer as his players cheer.
UM as of right now would be favored in all 12 regular season games. ESPN’s computerized Football Power Index says Miami is likely to be 12-0. The FPI gives The U at least a 79 percent win likelihood in seven games. The games below that: 65.7 percent vs LSU, 68.3% vs. No. 19 FSU, 62.5% at Boston College, 63.5% at Georgia Tech and 54.1% at No. 20 Virginia Tech.
You want pressure? A perfect 12-0 (and thus one of four tickets to the College Football Playoff) is pretty much expected.
But that only begins the work.
Then there’s that mountain, the one with Alabama and Clemson looking down from high on top.
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