2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Another step in the right direction under head coach Al Golden is the way to describe the 2013 campaign for Miami. The Hurricanes won each of their first seven games, including a big win over instate rival Florida (21-16) early on. The strong start included wins in the first three ACC games, over Georgia Tech (45-30), North Carolina (27-23) and Wake Forest (24-21) and elevated Miami all the way to seventh in the top 25 polls.
That set up a showdown with arch rival Florida State in Tallahassee between a pair of unbeatens. Unfortunately, for Miami, it was no match for the Seminoles (41-14), who went on to finish with a perfect 14-0 record, the ACC crown and the national championship.
As for the Hurricanes, a mini-tailspin ensued following the loss to FSU, as the team dropped games to Virginia Tech (42-24) and Duke (48-30) before closing strong with wins over Virginia (45-26) and Pittsburgh (41-31).
With a 9-3 record, Miami earned a spot in the Russell Athletic Bowl opposite now ACC member Louisville, falling to the Cardinals (36-9). The nine wins however, were the most in the Golden era and the lofty national ranking earlier in the campaign was the team's highest in almost a decade.
OFFENSE: The Hurricanes' decline in the second half of the season had a lot to do with the loss of star tailback Duke Johnson (ankle injury). Through the first 7+ games, Johnson was one of the nation's premier backs, accounting for 920 yards and six touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry.
Johnson has accepted the mantle as team leader.
"It's been my goal since I've been playing football to go out every play and every game and go 100 percent, and that's what I'm going to do, and I'm going to make sure everybody else around me does the same."
The good news is the Johnson is healthy heading into the season and should be among the ACC's top playmakers in 2014. The bad news for Golden and Miami is that the team must find another leader under center. Gone is Stephen Morris, who wasn't spectacular, but solid at the quarterback position. The starter this time around was supposed to be senior Ryan Williams (6-6, 225), but an injury in the spring will set his debut back this year. The team could go young to begin with in redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen (6-3, 210) or true freshman Brad Kaaya (6-4, 218) or go with a little more experience like senior Jake Heaps (6-1, 210), who started some games for Kansas before transferring.
It will certainly aid anyone's learning curve to have Johnson to lean on in the running game, as well as wideouts Stacy Coley and Phillip Dorsett in the passing game. Coley earned Freshman All-America honors last year, catching 33 balls, for 591 yards and seven TDs in his debut with the 'Canes.
The Miami offensive front should be a strength in 2014, with three starters returning. That includes junior left tackle Ereck Flowers (6-6, 322), who started all 13 games a year ago on the outside.
DEFENSE: The Hurricanes weren't the most feared defensive unit around last season, but with seven starters returning, including a complete secondary, there is every reason to believe in an improved unit in 2014.
Star power comes in the form of senior linebacker Denzel Perryman. The 6-0, 242-pounder thumper led the Hurricanes in tackles a year ago (108 stops), en route to some All-America accolades.
Senior defensive end Anthony Chickillo leads the way up front after posting 46 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2013.
The secondary has plenty of experience with senior Ladarius Gunter (46 tackles, three INTs), juniors Tracy Howard (35 tackles, four INTs) and Rayshawn Jenkins (46 tackles, three INTs) and sophomore Deon Bush (31 tackles, one INT).
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Matt Goudis returns to handle the place kicking duties, after going 13-of-17 in field-goal tries a year ago, with a long of 49 yards. Replacing punter Pat O'Donnell won't be easy though, as led the ACC with a 47.1 yard per punt average. Goudis is likely to pull double duty this year. Coley is dangerous in the return game, taking both a kickoff and a punt return the distance as a freshman last year.
OUTLOOK: The Hurricanes are the favorite in the Coastal Division this season and for good reason. The team's win total has increased each year under Golden and the schedule seems favorable this time around.
The non-conference slate includes Florida A&M, Arkansas State and Cincinnati at home, with a road tilt to Nebraska representing the toughest test outside of the ACC. The league schedule gets underway right away with the season- opener at Louisville, a chance for Miami to get some revenge for a lopsided Bowl loss. Other road matchups in-conference include Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Virginia. ACC foes coming to Miami are Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Pittsburgh.
Still, Golden doesn't take anything for granted in terms of the way the schedule is perceived.
"We can't play them all in the same night, and we really have to have a one-game mentality. Every game this year has got to be a one-game mission, and it's really going to start in preseason camp. One day at a time, one play at a time, and let's just take care of our one every day, and then we'll go from there."
The team finished 5-3 in the ACC a year ago and a slight improvement this time around should yield a division crown.