Miami Football Not There Yet, Facing Midseason Gut Check

Chris Bello@christianrbelloContributor ISeptember 24, 2013

Miami inexplicably fell 41-40 at Virginia last season and has lost many winnable ACC games since 2004.
Miami inexplicably fell 41-40 at Virginia last season and has lost many winnable ACC games since 2004.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Three games in, the question remains—are the Miami Hurricanes truly back?

For those still flying high after the upset of Florida and recent rout of Savannah State, a case could be made that the undefeated Hurricanes are again ready to resume their place in college football's thick of things.

For the logical and more level-headed enthusiast, there's an understanding that Miami has been in this position before and hasn't necessarily fared well over the past decade.

There's no doubt that head coach Al Golden is effectively putting things back on track. Right guy, right place and right time—minus that whole NCAA fiasco. Still, Miami as a program was ripe for change. Local prospects are as good as they've been in years, the right guy is finally in charge and, as a result, UM is finally starting to resemble the program it once was.

The former architect of Temple's rebuilding project, Golden understood from day one what made the University of Miami special.

Old school tradition. The "U Family." Homegrown talent. The promoting of competition. Golden showed up in Coral Gables with a 300-page game plan regarding how to rebuild. He embraced the culture immediately, preached his "Pillars of Performance," coaches up his players to "Deserve Victory" and, now that the work has been put in, these Hurricanes look ready to roll.

The upset of Florida was significant in the sense that Golden had yet to notch a signature win. The opportunities have been there, but these Hurricanes weren't ready for the big time the past two seasons.

Now that Miami has disposed of a modern-day power in the archrival Gators, are the Hurricanes up for the challenge that comes with the week-to-week grind that is Atlantic Coast Conference play?

UM is 3-0 for the first time since 2004, but things get real on October 5 when Georgia Tech heads to Sun Life Stadium. Eight conference games are on the docket from that day on, and Miami's best ACC finish in nine seasons was 6-2 in 2005.

That's not to say Miami can't prevail in the remaining nine regular-season games, but the lack of ACC success should serve as a reminder that the Hurricanes have often played down to the level of competition for several years, not up. 

Connor Barth kicked a game-winning kick for unranked North Carolina, topping No. 3 Miami, 31-28 in October 2004.
Connor Barth kicked a game-winning kick for unranked North Carolina, topping No. 3 Miami, 31-28 in October 2004.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Miami joined the ACC in 2004 and exploded out the gate 6-0. The fifth-ranked Hurricanes opened the season with a Labor Day win over the rival Seminoles and looked primed to make a run before disaster struck. A late October showdown against unranked North Carolina sent third-ranked Miami home a 31-28 loser in a game the 'Canes couldn't shake off. 

Miami dropped two of its next four, falling to Clemson in overtime and losing the season finale to Virginia Tech, with a Sugar Bowl berth on the line.

Following year, similar storyline. A season-opening loss to Florida State was followed by an eight-game win streak, including an upset of third-ranked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Hurricanes were working their way into the national championship picture but again lost focus.

Mid-November Georgia Tech rolled in and topped No. 3 Miami, 14-10, in an ugly defensive battle. Weeks later, LSU embarrassed UM in the Peach Bowl, 40-3—the program's lowest point in decades.

Coaching turnover and a few decent recruiting classes had Miami looking somewhat "back" in 2009. A 3-1 start with wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma showed promise. Folks were starting to buy in, despite an early season loss to Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes played a brutal schedule, fought their way to 5-1 and were finally thinking ACC Championship for the first time in years.

Instead, a 2-2 late October to mid-November run with losses to Clemson and North Carolina, both unranked, with the Hurricanes ranked 10th when taking on the Tigers dropped to 14th when falling to the Tar Heels. 

In the past, old-school Miami earned the right to think ahead, penciling in wins.

Between 1983 and 1991, the Hurricanes were 7-0 in games against top-ranked teams. The higher the stakes, the more bounce UM seemed to have in its step. This program made its name rising up to the occasion—something this unique and rabid fanbase embraced and took pride in. 

This was the era where "swagger" was birthed and when the Hurricanes began to turn the college football establishment on its ear, beating down traditional powerhouses and dancing while doing so.

Getting back to those winning ways is obviously Golden's long-term goal, but there are baby steps in that process—namely, keeping a week-to-week focus and committing to overlooking no one. 

Golden referred to Miami's recent bye as a "process week," via Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the Sun Sentinel. After a win against a team like Florida, any quality coach knows that complacency can set in. Egos can get inflated and long-term goals can get short-sighted, giving too much credit to what should be a stepping stone accomplishment.

What does a win over Florida mean if Miami shows up unprepared and gives away a crucial conference game? This offseason, the Hurricanes were picked to win the Coastal Division, which means nothing, as proved year ago when UM was tabbed fifth, yet finished in a three-way tie for first.

A run down the list of Miami's remain foes shows a handful of squads that have had the Hurricanes' number. Georgia Tech has notched some big wins over the past few years, including a stretch where it beat Miami four straight.

North Carolina has taken five of the past nine and has ended Miami's conference title game dreams on a few occasions.

Florida State has beaten Miami three straight, and UM now needs a win in the same fashion it did against the Gators, for bragging rights, heated recruiting battles and to ultimately level the playing field in the Sunshine State.

Inexplicably, Virginia has also taken the last three against Miami, despite having its own struggles as a program the past several years.

For the first time in long while, the Hurricanes truly have the depth and talent to make a legitimate conference run—which means absolutely nothing without a one-game-at-a-time mentality, week-to-week focus and a complete buy-in of Golden's "process."

Is Miami back? The next nine games will tell all. 

Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.