Miami is finally back in the national mix after a long hiatus. The Hurricanes started a third straight season unranked but jumped to No. 15 in the AP poll after a 21-16 upset of then-No. 12 Florida in early September.
Atlantic Coast Conference play got underway at Sun Life Stadium last weekend, where Miami knocked off Georgia Tech and climbed to No. 13, the same place it opened the 2010 season.
The Hurricanes are now 5-0 for the first time since 2004, and while Miami is certainly a much-improved squad on both sides of the ball, "The U" is finally on the receiving end of some beneficial scheduling early this season.
Over the past few years, not so much.
Miami opened 2009 at No. 18 Florida State, welcomed No. 14 Georgia Tech a week later, trekked to Blacksburg to take on No. 11 Virginia Tech and headed back home for a showdown with No. 8 Oklahoma. The Hurricanes earned a 3-1 start but hit some midseason conference road bumps against Clemson and North Carolina, proving that Miami didn't have enough left in the tank after the brutal four-game start.
A year later, the 'Canes had three straight away games after the season opener. Road trips to Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson were followed by a home showdown against Florida State. Seven games and three losses later, fourth-year head coach Randy Shannon was fired.
First-year head coach Al Golden not only dealt with the NCAA bombshell and early-season suspensions in 2011, but had an immediate mountain to overcome personnel- and schedule-wise.
Eight players sat out the opener at Maryland, and after a home win over Ohio State, Miami lost on the final play to visiting Kansas State, beat Bethune-Cookman, dropped a heartbreaker at Virginia Tech, survived North Carolina in Chapel Hill and shut down visiting Georgia Tech.
Last year, Miami was on the road early again, trekking to Boston College, Kansas State and Georgia Tech the first month of the season.
While Miami may have grown up in some hard-fought losses, this was a program that deserved a break but simply couldn't nab one. The Hurricanes self-imposed two bowl bans and sat out last year's ACC Championship Game, yet the NCAA and Committee On Infractions remains silent, and the threat of sanctions still hovers with no end in sight.
There haven't been many lucky bounces the past few years for UM, but this season's schedule was tailor-made for a special run right from the start.
Florida Atlantic, for a Friday night season opener, afforded Miami an extra day to rest and prepare for visiting Florida. The Gators then trekked south for the first time in a decade, a rarity for a program that rarely leaves the confines of The Swamp for out-of-conference games.
After a bye week, Miami welcomed Savannah State—arguably one of the biggest gimmies in college football. For the season's first road trip, the 'Canes took on South Florida—a squad that had dropped 11 of its previous 12 games.
Georgia Tech was expected to be a tougher foe this past weekend but lost some bounce in its step over the past two games.
A late-September win over North Carolina proved less impressive as the Tar Heels limped to a 1-4 start. Two weeks back, Virginia Tech pulled off a 17-10 upset in Atlanta, slowing down the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense and leaving Georgia Tech with a lack of momentum and more questions than answers as Miami loomed.
Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris suffered a bone bruise on his right ankle against Savannah State, yet Miami rolled to a 77-7 victory even with the starter sidelined early in the first quarter. Morris re-aggravated the injury at South Florida but again was able to yield to backup Ryan Williams because the Bulls weren't much more challenging than the Tigers.
Against Georgia Tech this last weekend, Morris was still hobbled, but the senior now gets 12 days of rest before a Thursday night showdown at North Carolina (Oct. 17), and from there he'll have another nine-day breather before welcoming Wake Forest (Oct. 26)—the best rehab the ailing signal-caller could've asked for.
The lack of overall competition and downtime the remainder of October should have Miami well-rested and both physically and mentally ready for the game of the season—a Nov. 2 showdown in Tallahassee.
Florida State jumped to No. 6 in this week's rankings, but in reality, Miami has a better shot at being undefeated when the two squads throw down, as the Seminoles have their toughest test to date on Oct. 19 at No. 3 Clemson.
Death Valley for a prime-time, nationally televised showdown will be like nothing else Florida State and freshman quarterback Jameis Winston have seen all season. The stakes are raised since the winner could earn a season-defining leg up in the Atlantic Division while moving one step closer to the BCS National Championship Game.
Will the Hurricanes face a Seminoles squad on a roll and peaking at the right time, or will Florida State stumble into the annual Sunshine State showdown two weeks after a huge loss and in regroup mode?
Where Clemson appears do-or-die for Florida State, win or lose in Tallahassee, the Hurricanes remain in control of their own destiny.
Virginia Tech and Miami appear on track for the Coastal Division's biggest matchup on Nov. 9. Due to ACC realignment, the Hokies will head south for a second straight season—yet another break for UM. From there, Miami has a road trip to Duke (Nov. 16), a home finale against Virginia (Nov. 23) and one final away game at Pittsburgh (Nov. 29). All challenges, but hardly insurmountable.
Win out, and Miami punches its ticket for Charlotte, where it will (most likely) face the Florida State/Clemson winner. Prevail in that monster showdown, and the Hurricanes will punch their first BCS ticket since the 2003 season.
Lots of football remains between October and December, but Miami has as easy a road as this program has seen since its Big East days, which ended in 2003.
Give thanks to the scheduling gods, take advantage of the remaining opportunities, and the Hurricanes can end a season in January, not December, putting this program as close to "back" as it's been in a decade.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog
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