The doldrums of summer practices, recruiting silly season, and endless fan speculation are finally coming to a close as the 2016-17 college football season now looms upon us. And for the first time in what feels like decades, there is some genuine buzz, excitement, and hope around the University of Miami football program. The hiring of immensely successful coach Mark Richt has injected a dose of legitimacy to a roster that has long had the potential to do great things. Let’s break it down into some of the most important story lines and tidbits of analysis before going into our final prediction.
Richt and Blake James building a foundation for future success.
The chief critique about Miami for decades has been the lack of stellar facilities and budget when compared to other major football programs, and it has hurt Miami’s competitive ability for many years. Cheap budgets lead to the hiring of cheap (and morbidly incompetent) assistant coaches during the Coker, Shannon, and Golden years which compromised the coaching of the football team at its most fundamnetal levels. Even basic support staff that most programs take for granted have been lacking at UM as they have operated a barebones behind the scenes crew that didn’t have the resources to support players enough so they can truly succeed. On top of this, the basic facilities have been lacking also as Miami played in a half empty Sun Life Stadium that was a forty five minute drive away from campus and also lacked an indoor practice facility.
Miami for years has lacked a foundation to enable it to rebuild into a powerhouse.
That is no more.
In addition to having a tried and true head coach who has climbed the mountain before, athletic director, Blake James, and school president, Julio Frenk, have increased the budget and importance of the football dramatically. They’ve allowed Richt hire top notch assistants like Manny Diaz, Craig Kuligowski, and Ron Dugans who have shown immediate impact. In addition, Richt has overhauled and added to the support staff with the replacement of the weight training and conditioning staff, the addition of football nutritionists, and the hiring of new operations personnel. James and Richt have also put a prime focus on building an indoor practice facility, and according multiple sources, that facility will be announced in the near future and begin building before the year is out (they have recently secured the last main donation commitment they required). And to top it off, the Canes will play this season in a newly renovated, nearly billion dollar state of the art stadium.
To build a winning football program, it is crucial to have the proper infrastructure and foundation in place before you can even begin to compete with the Alabama, LSU, and FSU’s of the college football world.
Mark Richt and Blake James are doing a phenomenal job building a foundation for future success.
A Vivacious Excitement Around the Program.
If there is one things that has been evident throughout the offseason, it is this:
People are excited.
From sportscasters predicting big things, fans thrilled to finally have a capable head coach, players who feel they are finally being given an opportunity to thrive, Richt doing diving backflips into pools….
There is a positive energy about the team that is contagious. One of the downfalls of the Golden era was how toxic the perception of the team became. As the losses piled up and the excuses multiplied, the media, the players, and the fans all emitted deeply negative and pessimistic signals around the program. There was a loss of hope and a loss of optimism.
The hiring of Richt truly seems to have changed that. For the first time in years, people are genuinely excited about the team and the direction the coaching staff is taking it. They feel that there is an actual commitment to resurrecting the ‘U’ to greatness and doing it the right way.
We can talk about X’s and O’s all day, but at the end of the day, winning comes down to believing wholeheartedly in the team around you and being willing to fight for each other every single down. There needs to be mutual trust, respect, and optimism on all parts.
For the first time in ages, it feels as though we might actually have that.
Why the team can win big… And why they can’t….
Why this team can contend for an ACC title in year 1 of the Richt era.
It’s no secret that one of the selling points used to bring Richt down to South Florida was the presence of a generational talent at quarterback, Brad Kaaya. The idea of pairing the best pro-style offensive mind in the college game with the best pro-style quarterback in the college game was a pipe dream earlier this year but has quickly become a reality. Meanwhile, Kaaya is surrounded by what could shape up to be a highly explosive and diverse unit with a three pronged backfield attack with Joe Yearby, Mark Walton, and Gus Edwards to complement a young but highly explosive receiving corps of Stacy Coley, Sam Bruce, Ahmon Richards, and David Njoku. Plus Kaaya will be protected by an offensive line that despite struggling last year, returns four starters with loads of experience and a brand new coach in Stacy Searels. Richt will call the plays for an offense that is ready to explode, expect big numbers and a lot of points from this group.
But don’t sleep on the defense either… While the front seven was notoriously unproductive under the last coaching regime, it was a product of a bad scheme, not bad players. In reality, the front seven is loaded with talent like Al Aquadin Muhammad, Chad Thomas, Gerald Willis, Kendrick Norton, Jermaine Grace, Trent Harris, Shaquile Quarterman, and Michael Pinckney. The defensive line is deep, talented, and exceedingly well coached under the tutelage of Craig Kuligowski (arguably the best defensive line coach in the nation), and the linebacking core while inexperienced will boast an auspicious collection of young talent that most teams will envy. On top of all of that, the back end will be protected by an experienced and ball hawking group consisting of Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins, Jamal Carter, Jaquan Johnson, Sheldrick Redwine, and Michael Jackson.
Talent wise, this is a team that can compete with just about anybody in college football, and with an actually competent coaching staff for a change, they just might.
Why we should all lower our expectations for Richt’s first year.
Yes, this team is talented, but they are also learning a brand new system, adjusting to new coaches, are slowly emerging from a tradition of losing, and lack depth across the board. Richt is building a winner, but these things take time. Early in the season, expect this team to look like true ACC contenders, but as the hits pile up, the injuries begin to take effect, and depth players have to step up in big moments… This team could crumble. The wide receiving corps is painfully thin, the offensive line lacks capable backups (or even truly capable starters), the defensive line may have potential but these players have never produced before, the linebacking core will have at least two freshman starters (a potential recipe for disaster), and the secondary has no depth whatsoever and is desperately searching for a nickel corner.
So yes, at surface level this team can do big things… But they lack the depth, experience, and pedigree of a team ready to dethrone Florida State, Clemson, and North Carolina atop the ACC. While we may see glimmers of the future in Richt’s first year, patience must be advised here.
Examining the Schedule
The Canes will start off easy with three games against inferior opponents in Florida A&M, FAU, and Appalachian State (though keep an eye on them, they’ve improved in recent years) followed by a bye week. Expect a 3-0 record off the bat although not without some ups and downs as the team gels together. After the bye, the team enters one of the most brutal five game stretches imaginable as they play Georgia Tech on the road, Florida State at home, North Carolina at home, Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium, and Notre Dame in South Bend. This exhausting stretch will be the one that decides the season. If the team suffers a two or three losses and is worn down by a few injuries and mental exhaustion, they could collapse as the season enters the home stretch. If they make it out of this five game stretch untarnished or with only a blemish, they could take enough confidence to finish the year strong with ten wins. After the telling five game period, the Canes return Miami to play Pittsburgh, travel to UVA, take on NC State on their turf, and finish off with Duke at home.
It’s a fair schedule that gives Miami every chance to prove itself, but also does the team no favors with one of the hardest five game stretches in football this year.
I see this as an impressive first year for Richt but not the dominant, coming out party that many analysts and fans predict. I think Miami will beat Florida State at home in one of the biggest program building moments in years before shocking the ACC by thrashing North Carolina in a show of confidence. However, a short week before traveling to Virginia Tech allows the Hokies to surprise Miami on Thursday night before the Canes drop a tight game to Notre Dame in South Bend. Somewhere else on the schedule, the Canes drop a close game, but still finish with an impressive 9-3 record and ACC title game berth. Brad Kaaya has a dominant season to the tune of 3,500 yards 38tds and 7ints with an excellent offense around him, the defense finishes ranked in the top half of college football with a solid albeit not spectacular performance, and the team is ranked in the top 25 at the end of the regular season. I expect a solid start to the Richt era with the potential for a ten win season after the ACC title game and bowl game. This program is on an upward trajectory, and 2016 will mark the first step to climbing the ladder back to the top of college football.
9-3, ACC Coastal Winners.