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If Miami has a QB, the 2017 Canes will win their first ACC division title

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Mark Richt has everything he needs to reach the ACC Championship. Well, maybe.

Florida A&M v Miami Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

In the 18 seasons between 1987 and 2004, Miami and Florida State met as top-10 foes 12 times, including runs of seven straight years from 1987-93 and four of five from 2000-04. As the balance of power shifted to the nation’s southeastern-most corridor, this became the nation’s most important rivalry.

Since then: less so. Over the last 12 seasons, the teams have met only once as top-10 teams (No. 3 vs. No. 7 in 2013). Both fell into mid-2000s funks, and only FSU has completely rebounded.

A good rivalry comes with a psychological cost, though, and by that standard it is still one of the biggest rivalries. Miami has lost seven games in a row to FSU, and it has annually become the defining point of the Canes’ season.

  • In 2013, the No. 7 Canes lost 41-14 to the No. 3 Noles and got blown out the next two weeks.
  • In 2014, Miami was a decent 6-3, lost 30-26 to No. 2 FSU, and lost its final three games.
  • In 2015, Miami was 3-1, lost 29-24 to No. 12 FSU, then got head coach Al Golden fired two weeks later following a blowout loss to Clemson.

Richt passed a lot of tests in his first year as Golden's successor. The 57-year-old former Miami QB and Georgia head coach called the plays for an offense that improved from 49th to 34th in Off. S&P+, and a young defense surged from 52nd to 13th in Def. S&P+, its highest since 2010. Miami won nine games, finished ranked in the AP poll, and finished in the S&P+ top 15, all for the first time since 2005. The season was an absolute success.

Richt's Canes still couldn't pass the FSU test, though. They bolted to a 13-0 lead in the second quarter against Jimbo Fisher's Noles, then gave up 20 straight points. A last-ditch scoring drive was foiled by a missed PAT.

True to form, the Canes then lost the next three games. They lost by a touchdown at home to UNC, then by three scores to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Then, in their first trip to South Bend in 26 years, came the ultimate disappointment: becoming the only damn team to figure out how to lose a close game to Notre Dame.

To their credit, they rebounded. And they are the media’s favorite to win the ACC Coastal because of it. When the calendar flipped to November, they flipped the switch, beating strong Pitt and NC State teams by a combined 78-41, handling their business against Virginia and Duke, and trouncing WVU, 31-14, in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

The Hurricanes were 10th in S&P+ when they lost to FSU, fell to 29th during their losing streak (they didn’t fall further because they were losing to top-30 teams), and finished 14th.

Miami returns a lot of fun pieces.

  • Ahmmon Richards was maybe the best No. 2 receiver in the country as a freshman, combining a 61 percent catch rate with a nearly 20-yard average per catch. He’s the No. 1 now.
  • Explosive running back Mark Walton rushed for 1,100 yards as a sophomore.
  • Five offensive linemen have combined for 86 career starts.
  • The front seven from one of the nation’s most havoc-heavy defenses is almost completely intact.
  • Most of the pieces of a top-15 special teams unit return.

To be sure, there are questions. For one, we don’t know if the Canes have a quarterback. That’s reasonably important. And the quest for answers at QB and cornerback could determine whether we’re talking about a top-10 or top-40 team.

Looking at recent seasons, though, team quality only matters so much. How the Hurricanes respond to what will probably be another FSU loss — FSU is projected third in the country, and the game is in Tallahassee — might matter above all else.

At its best, Miami plays with pride, passion, and swagger. That swagger cannot seem to survive rivalry losses, however. Richt’s primary goal: figuring out how to move beyond losses to FSU ... or actually beat the Noles at some point. The former might be more likely this year, but there are still big goals on the table.


2016 in review

2016 Miami statistical profile.

The post-FSU funk truly was stark.

  • First 5 games (4-1): Avg. percentile performance: 87% (~top 15) | Avg. score: UM 41, Opp 13 | Avg. yards per play: UM 7.4, Opp 4.0
  • Next 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 39% (~top 80) | Avg. score: Opp 29, UM 15 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, UM 4.9
  • Last 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 87% (~top 15) | Avg. score: UM 37, Opp 18 | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.5, Opp 4.7

There weren’t any particular injuries that could explain this slump away. The offense fell apart in a 20-13 loss to UNC, the defense followed suit in a 37-16 loss to Virginia Tech, and the entire team started horribly (down 20-0) before rebounding in the 30-27 defeat to Notre Dame.

Most startling is how similar the beginning and end numbers are. Once the Canes found their rhythm again, they went right back to the nearly elite play they had established. For two of three months, Miami showed a top-10 ceiling. That sets the bar high for 2017 ... at least as long as that QB question is answered.


Offense

Miami offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

You have to appreciate Richt’s thinking.

Point A. My last offensive coordinator hire at Georgia basically helped me get fired.

Point B. You know what? I’m just going to call plays myself.

Richt hired former Georgia running back and running backs coach Thomas Brown as his offensive coordinator, but the play calls went through the chief headset.

After slumping from 34th to 49th in Off. S&P+ in 2015, the Canes rebounded to 34th. That was solid, considering how uncooperative the run game was.

Brown and Richt inherited a ground attack that had plummeted to 117th in Rushing S&P+ and 113th in Adj. Line Yards; the Canes improved to 71st and 97th, respectively, and Walton and backups Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards proved explosive in their rare open-field opportunities. Still, unreliability on the ground put a lot of pressure on quarterback Brad Kaaya.

For the most part, Kaaya responded well. He managed a 150 passer rating for the season and had six games at 159 or higher. Miami ranked 35th in Passing S&P+ despite losing 2015’s top two receiving targets.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Miami
Ahmmon Richards
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Stacy Coley was a decent No. 1 target, but the main reason Miami’s passing game still had some oomph was the way that Kaaya incorporated tight ends (David Njoku and Christopher Herndon IV combined: 109 targets, 72 catches, 1,040 yards, 10 touchdowns) and true freshman Richards.

Miami is without Coley, Njoku, and Kaaya, but the Canes still have Richards, who may have been the best freshman receiver in the country. He broke Michael Irvin’s school record for freshman receiving yards, and Herndon averaged 9.2 yards per target. If they’re healthy, Miami’s receiving corps is one of the better ones in the ACC, especially considering the return of Walton, slot man Braxton Berrios, and reserves Dayall Harris and Lawrence Cager.

Of course, a receiving corps is only as good as the guy throwing the ball.

The story of the ACC Coastal is going to be about who replaces its quarterback the best. Miami, Virginia Tech, UNC, Georgia Tech, and Pitt (last year’s Coastal top five) are all replacing their signal callers, and not everyone will do it well.

Here are the candidates for Miami:

  • Junior Malik Rosier, who has completed 31 of 61 passes for 370 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions in two years as a backup. Most of that came in 2015, and he’s also rushed 13 times (non-sacks) for 87 yards.
  • Sophomore Evan Shirreffs, brother of UConn QB Bryant Shirreffs, who hasn’t yet thrown a pass.
  • True freshman N’Kosi Perry, a four-star true freshman who ... is a true freshman.

Nobody seized control this spring.

A steadier run game would be immensely helpful. Walton appears to have solid star power, and backup Trayone Gray averaged 6 yards per carry in 2015 before missing last season with injury.

But the line was still a jumbled mess last year. Only two players managed to start all 13 games, and six others started at least three. Of this eight-man sample, four return, and a trio of seniors (Trevor Darling, Nick Linder, KC McDermott) has combined for 75 career starts. Experience is important, but so is upside, and if this line doesn’t show more of that, this new QB will be throwing a lot of passes on second-and-9.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami
Mark Walton
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Miami defensive radar

Richt’s first Miami offense was a marginal success. His first defense was an outright hit.

  • Overall S&P+: improved from 52th in 2015 to 13th in 2016
  • Rushing S&P+: from 115th to 24th
  • Passing S&P+: from 33rd to seventh
  • Standard Downs S&P+: from 89th to 11th
  • Passing Downs S&P+: from 21st to 17th

The pass defense improved a little, and the run defense improved dramatically. That was doubly impressive considering the Hurricanes had to replace three of their top four linemen and each of their top five linebackers from 2015.

To say the least, the first-year marriage of coordinator/linebackers coach Manny Diaz and line coach Craig Kuligowski worked, and Miami combined efficiency with big-play prevention.

Miami defensive efficiency & explosiveness

That the front seven came together this quickly was a shocker. The top three linebackers were freshmen, and the next three were sophomores. The top seven linemen consisted of four sophomores, a freshman, and two juniors. And yet, Miami rose from 82nd in havoc rate and 69th on the defensive line to 19th and fourth, respectively.

NCAA Football: Miami at Georgia Tech
Joe Jackson
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Now everyone’s back, and Miami appears to have playmakers at every spot in the front seven.

  • Ends Chad Thomas, Joe Jackson, Trent Harris, and Demetrius Jackson combined for 38 tackles for loss, 18 sacks, nine pass breakups, and four forced fumbles.
  • Tackles RJ McIntosh, Kendrick Norton, and Gerald Willis combined for 25 TFLs and six sacks, though Willis (5.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks) is taking a 2017 leave of absence.
  • Middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman had 10 TFLs and three sacks (again, as a freshman).
  • Outside linebackers Michael Pinckney, Zach McCloud, and Darrion Owens combined for 13 TFLs, three sacks, and six passes defensed.

Granted, we don’t know much about linebacker depth, since only four really played last year, but this front seven is still one of the most proven in the country. If we’re looking at the ACC Coastal race as a race to figure out teams’ quarterback situations, Miami’s defense will give the Hurricanes a head start over the field.

Well, it will as long as there’s minimal regression in the secondary. It probably wouldn’t be smart to gloss over the loss of cornerback Corn Elder and safeties Jamal Carter Sr. and Rayshawn Jenkins. They combined for not only three interceptions and 22 breakups but also 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks; Miami has held opponents to a 120 passer rating or lower for three straight years, and this trio was a driving force behind it.

The return of junior safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine should keep the floor for the secondary high, but Elder was the anchor for a shuffled cornerbacks unit. Sophomore Malek Young is back, but the Canes will be relying on two newcomers: Citadel graduate transfer and FCS All-American Dee Delaney and four-star JUCO transfer Jhavonte Dean. Four-star freshman Trajan Bandy might have to help, too.

If cornerback is stable, this defense might not have a weakness. No pressure, new guys.

Citadel v Georgia Southern
Dee Delaney
Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

Special Teams

Most of a well-rounded special teams unit returns. Punter Justin Vogel (43.8 average, 21st in punt efficiency) is gone, but in place-kicker Michael Badgley (10-for-11 on field goals over 40 yards, 27th in kickoff efficiency) and punt returner Braxton Berrios (11.3-yard average, 42nd in punt return efficiency), the Canes have a good starting point. The Canes ranked 12th in Special Teams S&P+, gaining about 1.4 points per game from this unit, and there should easily be another positive impact this fall.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Bethune-Cookman NR 55.5 100%
9-Sep at Arkansas State 83 16.5 83%
16-Sep at Florida State 3 -14.7 20%
23-Sep Toledo 59 12.7 77%
29-Sep at Duke 65 8.6 69%
12-Oct Georgia Tech 31 7.4 67%
21-Oct Syracuse 60 13.0 77%
28-Oct at North Carolina 38 4.5 60%
4-Nov Virginia Tech 25 5.0 61%
11-Nov Notre Dame 17 1.3 53%
18-Nov Virginia 70 16.4 83%
24-Nov at Pittsburgh 33 3.2 57%
Projected S&P+ Rk 18
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 46 / 16
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.6 (28)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 17 / 17
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 9 / 10.4
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (37%, 55%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (-0.4)

First, some good news: Miami’s post-FSU schedule is manageable. After heading to Tallahassee on September 15, the Canes face three home games, a bye, and no projected top-30 opponents in the proceeding five weeks. The home stretch — at UNC, Virginia Tech, at Pitt — will decide the division title, but there’s potential for a softer landing following a probable FSU loss. And if they rebound, they might get a second shot at FSU in early December.

I hate making predictions in general, but figuring out the Coastal division is giving me a damn headache. It’s easy to see why Miami starts out as the favorite; the front seven could be one of the best in the country, and the combination of Richards and Walton gives a new quarterback a nice starting point. But changing QBs is a walk through a mine field. It will work fine for some teams and horribly for others.

If a Miami quarterback — be it Rosier, Shirreffs, Perry, or hell, even walk-on/legacy Vincent Testaverde or another true freshman, Cade Weldon — is able to execute, he’s going to have a couple of exciting young targets, and the run game should improve at least a little bit further. The defense won’t need a ton of help.

S&P+ basically splits the difference on potential outcomes and projects the Canes 18th, and the schedule should help the cause. The Canes get Virginia Tech at home and avoid Clemson, Louisville, and NC State from the Atlantic Division. They are favored by S&P+ in 11 of 12 games, though at least four contests (at UNC, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, at Pitt) are relative tossups. This really could be a fantastic year at Hard Rock Stadium ... as long as Richt isn’t the only capable signal caller.

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