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Mark Richt’s Miami Hurricanes are the projected favorite in all 12 of their 2018 games

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Does Richt have the QB to avoid landmines? If so, the Canes could be ready for a huge season.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Miami Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In the 2018 British Open, we caught a glimpse of the past: Tiger Woods wearing red, taking the lead in a major, and delivering feats of brute force that once didn’t belong on a golf course. We had all been trying to anticipate whether it would happen again. But after all the personal struggles and back surgeries and birthdays (he’s 42 now), there he was.

Woods couldn’t keep it up. He lost three shots in two holes and came up just short of what would have been his first major title since 2008. After such an adrenaline boost, we found ourselves wanting more.

Hmm. Freak of nature that peaked in the early-2000s ... true dynasty-level power that lost his/its way ... “Is he/it back?” debate on endless repeat ... since you’ve clicked on a Miami preview, you can see where I’m going with this.

For two weeks, Hard Rock Stadium was the Orange Bowl Incarnate, and The U was The U again. We all saw it. First, Richt’s Hurricanes laid the hammer down in the second half of a 28-10 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech to move to 8-0 and seventh in the country.

The next week, with ESPN’s College GameDay in town for a visit from No. 3 Notre Dame, Miami played its best game in years. QB Malik Rosier sandwiched an interception with a TD pass/TD run combo, and freshman Trajan Bandy’s 65-yard pick six made it 27-0 at halftime. The U rolled, 41-8. It was the first time since 2003 that the Canes had been AP No. 2 and the first time since 2002 that they were 10-0.

Like Woods’ rise, it was fleeting. Rosier bombed in a loss at Pitt, the Canes let the ACC title get away from them against Clemson, and Wisconsin outlasted them in a competitive Orange Bowl. They finished 10-3, their first time with double-digit wins since joining the ACC.

But while there were plenty of firsts and lots of progress, 2017 was about that aura. When Bandy was taking his interception back to the house, Hard Rock was rapturous. The sideline, full of former Miami greats, nearly lifted off the ground. The U was back. For a minute.

Richt, the former Miami backup QB who arrived two years ago from Georgia, has brought a new/old level of aspiration. Former head coaches Randy Shannon and Al Golden battled the specter of NCAA investigations and struggled to find the balance between maintaining The U’s natural recruiting advantages (which required acknowledging a sanctions-heavy past) and creating a new identity.

Richt hasn’t. A defense that had fallen to 52nd in Def. S&P+ in Golden’s last season has been 22nd or better in each of coordinator Manny Diaz’s first two years. The offense underwent a QB change but held steady in the 30s on Off. S&P+. Miami wasn’t ever truly the second-best team in the country, but the Canes were good enough for long enough that it makes you wonder what Richt might be capable of, now that recruiting is picking up. Per the 247Sports Composite, his 2018 class ranked eighth in the country and featured 15 four- or five-star prospects and a whole bunch of talent from the tri-county area around Miami.

Oh, and most of last year’s two-deep returns. Rosier is not a sure thing, but the Canes’ leading rusher and top four outside receivers are back, as are five offensive linemen with starting experience and almost all of last year’s linebackers and secondary. The defensive line has some retooling to do, but if Rosier has taken another step forward (or someone else has surpassed him), Miami’s got the schedule and the capability to deliver a few more of those Orange Bowl moments.

Offense

2017 Miami offensive radar

Rosier was so bad at the end that it was easy to both forget how resilient he was earlier in the year and ignore just how many pieces of his supporting cast had gone down to injury. When he had a full battery of weapons, he was pretty awesome.

  • Rosier, first 3 games (3-0): 66% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 2.2% INT rate, 167.0 passer rating
  • Rosier, next seven games (7-0): 53% completion rate, 14.4 yards per completion, 3.0% INT rate, 132.1 passer rating
  • Rosier, last 3 games (0-3): 45% completion rate, 12.5 yards per completion, 5.6% INT rate, 92.0 passer rating

Star running back Mark Walton was lost after four games, 2016 breakout Ahmmon Richards was in and out of the lineup (he missed five games and limped through a few others), sophomore Lawrence Cager was, too, and Herndon, the steady senior tight end, played his last snap two games before the finish.

Rosier was fighting Clemson’s amazing defense with slot man Braxton Berrios, freshman Jeff Thomas, and little-used sophomore tight end Michael Irvin II. Running back Travis Homer was explosive but not nearly as efficient as Walton, and by the end, Miami’s offense was sitting around and hoping that a big play would come before a three-and-out.

2017 Miami offensive efficiency & explosiveness

This season, the most efficient players are either gone or still gone — Walton, Herndon, Berrios — but a lot of those unstable and exciting pieces are back.

Perhaps most importantly, Richards is healthy. Though he’s barely been healthy for a season and a half, Richards has caught 76 passes for 1,399 yards and six touchdowns in his career. Over a three-game span late in 2016, he caught 20 passes for 361 yards, and after missing the first two games of 2017, he caught seven balls for 174 yards against Duke and FSU, then went back to fading in and out of the lineup.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh
Ahmmon Richards
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If Richards can stay on the field, and Rosier has a true No. 1 target, he won’t have to rely on a thrilling but all-or-nothing set of other receivers. Lawrence Cager, Thomas, and Darrell Langham combined to average 18.6 yards per catch but with just a 48 percent catch rate. Thomas (22 yards per catch, 57 percent, true freshman) was particularly tantalizing, and with Richards playing at a high level, it could be impossible for defenses to mind both Thomas out of the slot and either the 6’5 Cager or 6’4 Langham.

Throw in a nice set of options out of the backfield — Homer caught 18 balls for 219 yards, and backup DeeJay Dallas has been considered a part-time slot receiver — and a healthy freshman class that features three four-star wideouts and two four-star tight ends, and you’ve got a set of dynamite options.

You also might have a bit more to work with up front. All-conference left tackle KC McDermott is gone, but honorable-mention guard Navughn Donaldson, tackle Tyree St. Louis, and center Tyler Gauthier have combined for 47 career starts, and Tennessee transfer Venzell Boulware and some young former four-stars (namely, sophomore Kai-Leon Herbert) could create a decent starting five. The line was far from amazing last year, but the experience is solid.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami
Malik Rosier
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

So Rosier will have an excellent (if healthy) receiving corps and a decent line, and he’ll share a backfield with Homer, Dallas, big senior Trayone Gray, and blue-chip freshmen Lorenzo Lingard and Cam’Ron Davis.

That should mean we find out exactly what Rosier is capable of, considering a pair of solid redshirt freshmen (N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon) and a blue-chip freshman (Jarren Williams) will be nipping at his heels. Rosier doesn’t have to be excellent for Miami to score a lot, but he has to be solid. He was for a majority of last season ... until he was very much not.

Defense

2017 Miami defensive radar

It’s all about the line. The Canes had one of the most disruptive fronts in 2017, ranking 13th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) and fourth in defensive line havoc rate. Four different linemen recorded at least 10.5 TFLs, and two more recorded at least 6.5.

The line was the engine. Miami was excellent at forcing passing downs and compensating for sophomore linebackers and a secondary full of new starters. And when you’re forcing passing downs, you’re creating turnover opportunities.

I went as long as possible without mentioning the turnover chain, but if you remember one thing from Miami’s 2017 season, it’s probably that.

Miami forced 30 turnovers in 2017, and while there was luck involved (the Canes recovered 14 of opponents’ 22 fumbles, instead of the 11 that randomness would suggest), turnovers came mostly from creating situations in which turnovers were more likely. The line had a huge role to play in that.

Four of those six disruptive linemen are now gone. Ends Chad Thomas and Trent Harris ran out of eligibility, and tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton declared for the NFL draft. Their leader, star line coach Craig Kuligowski, left for Alabama (as one does).

There’s still talent up front. End Joe Jackson (11.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) led the line by far in overall tackles, which suggests a nice pursuit engine, and end Demetrius Jackson made 7.5 of his 15.5 tackles behind the line. He could dominate with more snaps.

Tackle is a bit of a mystery. Some combination of junior Pat Bethel, Illinois transfer Tito Odenigbo, veteran Gerald Willis III, and freshmen/sophomores will have to fill a big void. There are options but few known quantities.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami
Joe Jackson (99) and Michael Pinckney (56)
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

There are almost no worries elsewhere on the defense. Linebackers Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud return after combining for 22.5 TFLs, eight sacks, and eight PDs of their own, and the secondary will feature safeties Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine (combined: 5.5 TFLs, six INTs, 10 breakups, five forced fumbles) and corners Michael Jackson and Bandy (combined: 4.5 TFLs, five INTs, 11 breakups). Four four-star freshmen, led by Miami legacy Al Blades Jr., wait.

Turnovers were the story, but Miami saw some strange plot twists. For the first half of the year or so, the Canes struggled in run defense but destroyed the pass; late in the year, they either slowed or shut down Notre Dame’s Josh Adams, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, and Clemson’s assorted RBs, but they got lit up by the pass.

After allowing a 52 percent completion rate and 97.2 passer rating through nine games, they allowed 70 percent and 161.5, respectively, in the last four. That makes it hard to say “they were good at this and bad at that last year,” but offseason turnover spells out where the biggest concerns are this time.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Miami
Jaquan Johnson
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The Canes must replace the best part of a unit that ranked 100th in Special Teams S&P+ last year. That’s kind of scary. Berrios was outstanding in punt returns, and now Berrios is a New England Patriot.

Punter Zach Feagles is back after ranking 97th in punt efficiency as a freshman, but with two return men who seem to have a world of potential (Thomas and Dallas), the big question here might be replacing place-kicker Michael Badgley, who was awesome within his range but boasted a pretty small range. Breaking in a new kicker is always scary.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. LSU 16 3.4 58%
8-Sep Savannah State NR 59.4 100%
15-Sep at Toledo 49 11.0 74%
22-Sep Florida International 120 32.8 97%
27-Sep North Carolina 51 16.1 82%
6-Oct Florida State 18 7.6 67%
13-Oct at Virginia 73 15.7 82%
26-Oct at Boston College 48 10.9 74%
3-Nov Duke 40 14.2 79%
10-Nov at Georgia Tech 53 11.4 74%
17-Nov at Virginia Tech 21 3.4 58%
24-Nov Pittsburgh 45 15.3 81%
Projected S&P+ Rk 13
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 23 / 14
Projected wins 9.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 10.6 (21)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 9 / 17
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 3.4
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (68%, 70%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (0.6)

The ACC is loaded with potential this year, but there’s a lot more of it in the Atlantic division than in Miami’s Coastal. The Canes are projected 13th overall — that would be their highest S&P+ finish in 13 seasons — and play just three projected top-40 teams. Better yet, only one of the three is away from home. The Canes play at Virginia Tech but get FSU at home and begin with LSU in Arlington, Tex. (Safe to say, there will be more LSU fans there, but it still isn’t in Death Valley.)

The main takeaway: Miami is, per S&P+, the projected favorite in each game and a double-digit favorite in nine of 12. That sets the bar awfully high.

There are still obvious questions. Rosier’s late-year crash was jarring, and he’s got a lot to prove. The defensive line, so vital to last year’s success, has extremely unknown depth. But there’s still a lot of star power, the blue-chippers are coming back, and the schedule could not be more helpful.

If Miami gets past LSU in week one, look out. There will be too many “Is The U still back????” stories to count.

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