CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson are heading into this season as perhaps one of the nation's top quarterback-running back duos, and the biggest reasons why Miami is a popular pick to contend for the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
Unless the Hurricanes' defense is much improved, Morris and Johnson might have to be great for their team to have a chance.
Morris passed for 3,345 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, then got a good amount of attention this summer by excelling at the Manning camp, winning the skills competition there. And Johnson's freshman year saw him pile up 2,070 all-purpose yards, mostly on rushes and kickoff returns, where his big-play ability was regularly displayed.
"These guys have the makeup to be pretty good," said new Miami offensive coordinator James Coley, who was at Florida State last season.
So the Hurricanes can run, catch and return the ball. There isn't much question there.
There's huge questions, however, on whether Miami can stop anyone.
Miami's defense set a slew of records a year ago, all of them bad. By wide margins, the Hurricanes gave up more points and more yards last season than any team in Miami history, and those numbers — 366 points, 5,837 yards allowed — surely would have been higher if the school hadn't declined chances to play in the ACC title game and a bowl. Miami sat out its second straight postseason, self-imposing another ban because of the ongoing NCAA investigation.
"Last year we had a lot of new guys and guys at different spots," defensive lineman Olsen Pierre said. "This year I feel like we are a better group. ... We all got bigger together so we could go all-out and attack and make that wall for no running backs, fullbacks or anything to get past us."
Optimism seems higher than it has been around Miami in either of coach Al Golden's first two seasons with the Hurricanes, and his team — with most of its starters back from the club that would have been declared Coastal Division champions last year if not for the postseason ban — should be poised to win more than seven games for the first time since 2009.
"We have the right guys on the train," Golden said. "I think the guys that are on the train have excellent leadership and, if they're not the leader, they're being really good teammates. I keep saying it, I have some trepidation no matter what because we have a long way to go as an organization, but we're moving in the right direction."
Five things to watch during the Hurricanes' season:
1. SCHEDULE: Miami doesn't leave the Sunshine State until Oct. 17, plays seven of its 12 regular-season games at home and hosts Virginia Tech for the second straight year, a quirky gift that came because of how the schedules had to be configured in the expanded ACC. So in that regard, the Hurricanes seem to have a favorable schedule. But they're also the only presumed Coastal contender that will meet Florida State this season.
2. STATE BATTLES: The mythical-but-still-brag-worthy state championship should be on Miami's radar this season. The Hurricanes open at home against Florida Atlantic (Aug. 30), play host to Florida on Sept. 7, make the quick trip to face a rebuilding South Florida team three weeks later and then visit Florida State on Nov. 2. Miami has lost four of its last six games against in-state opponents from major conferences.
3. OFFENSIVE LINE: Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson are good on their own, but Miami's fortunes are tied to the group who'll block for them. Offensive line play should be a strength for the Hurricanes, with plenty of size and experience. Brandon Linder and Shane McDermott might be two of the smarter Hurricanes in years, and Seantrel Henderson says his last season will be played with purpose. If this group stays healthy, Miami will score plenty.
4. DEFENSE PAYOFF: A year ago, the Hurricanes went young on defense, out of sheer necessity in some areas and partly because Miami realized that getting players on the field more in 2012 could pay dividends in 2013. The defensive line has gotten bigger and deeper, so there's reason to think Miami might be considerably better on that side of the ball.
5. IS THIS THE YEAR?: Miami is entering its 10th ACC season and still hasn't won a single conference title. And the last time the Hurricanes so much as won a bowl game was in 2006. Another seven-win season won't be enough for a success.
Predicted finish in the ACC : First in the Coastal Division.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/