Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Colleges

Finally a conference contender? Miami thinks so (w/video)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The questions have become as stale to Miami as jokes about its home attendance.

Why haven't the Hurricanes won the ACC? And in a Coastal Division as mediocre and mundane as any division in the Power Five, how has the former powerhouse never even won it?

Of the 11 teams still in the ACC since the first conference championship game in 2005, only three — Miami, Virginia and North Carolina State — have yet to play for a league title. Only one of the three has a history that includes five national championships and two Heisman Trophy winners.

But if the preseason magazines are right, this year might finally, truly be different. A division title could be coming to Coral Gables.

"I can smell it," running back Mark Walton said Friday during the ACC Kickoff. "I can smell that it's a whole different change."

ACC MEDIA DAYS: Why I'm picking FSU over Miami for the ACC championship.

The 'Canes give many reasons for optimism, starting with how they ended last season. After a 20-19 loss to Florida State started a four-game losing streak, Miami rallied to win its last five. They won their first bowl game in a decade with a 17-point triumph over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl. They return 18 starters from that nine-win team that finished ranked in the Associated Press and coaches polls for the first time since 2009.

A defense that was eighth nationally in tackles for loss should again dominate. The three sophomore starting linebackers — Michael Pinckney, Shaquille Quarterman and Zach McCloud — are experienced and healthy. Quarterman earned freshman All-America honors last season despite a shoulder injury that left him unable to sleep on his left side.

"I feel as though we're at a good place," Quarterman said of the defense, "but we can be great very soon."

The offense is also poised to improve in coach Mark Richt's second season at his alma mater.

ACC MEDIA DAYS: More milestones, fewer licks on Deondre Francois' Year 2 wish list.

Richt, who spent the previous 15 seasons as Georgia's head coach, needed time to get re-accustomed to calling plays, along with everything else that comes with taking over a new team. UM began to figure itself out; the 'Canes averaged 21 points over their first four conference games and 38 over the last four.

Now Richt returns a 1,100-yard rusher (Walton) and a 900-yard receiver (sophomore Ahmmon Richards), and has the knowledge he gained in his first year back in the ACC. Before going to Georgia, Richt spent seven seasons as Florida State's offensive coordinator.

"When you play certain teams a second time around, you face a defense a second time around, it's a lot different than the first time you've done it," he said.

Richt showed that during his time at Georgia. His Bulldogs went from 8-4 in his debut to 13-1 and an SEC title in Year 2.

ACC MEDIA DAYS: Dabo Swinney: Tampa Bay product Deon Cain 'one of the best receivers in the country'.

Miami's only unknown is at quarterback, where the Hurricanes must replace their all-time leading passer, Brad Kaaya. But Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pitt lost their starting quarterbacks, too, leveling the top five Coastal contenders.

Miami's expectations go beyond division and conference championships. Miami didn't become The U by winning the Russell Athletic Bowl or finishing 20th in the country. But to rebuild the 'Canes into a national brand, Richt has to start somewhere — like finally winning the division.

"Maybe some people think it's a dream because it's never happened in 10 years," Richt said. "We don't think it's a dream. We think it's a very real possibility, and we control that."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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