After everything the Miami Hurricanes have experienced the past several days, this weekend's home showdown against Wake Forest almost seems like an afterthought.
Over a six-day span Miami had a monster comeback at North Carolina, jumped to No. 7 in the first BCS rankings, was informed that the NCAA was set to deliver a ruling and, a day later, a three-year dark cloud that hovered over the program finally blew over.
Prosperity has eluded the Hurricanes for the better part of the past decade. Losses and coaching changes preceded the NCAA bombshell, and since then, Miami has simply been hanging on and holding out for better days.
After head coach Al Golden inked his second recruiting class in 2012, the nation got a taste of what was to come. "We need to stand up, we need to fight. Time to stop having an inferiority complex," Golden said to Dave Hyde at the Sun Sentinel just after Signing Day.
"We've got to start thinking like we're the University of Miami again. That's what we're fighting. That's what we're trying to get back to."
It's Been a While
Golden came to Miami armed with a 300-page "Deserve Victory" binder. What felt like an early motivational tool eventually became the blueprint for this current group of Hurricanes—all of whom have completely in bought to Golden's approach.
That commitment has been the key component to this year's unexpected turnaround.
Golden made the Hurricanes off limits to the media this week, and with good reason. Miami needs to collectively exhale, regroup and eliminate distractions as they enter the second half of the 2013 schedule.
These are unchartered waters for UM—both in regards to the lofty position in the polls, as well as the lack of a hovering NCAA presence. Saturday's matchup with Wake Forest is Golden's 31st game as Miami's head coach and his first without any off-the-field drama.
For Miami, the newfound success couldn't have come at a better time. This season's 6-0 start, paired with the NCAA closure, could signal a rebirth in Coral Gables. Recruiting remains on a roll, with 26 verbal commitments for what is currently the No. 4 class in the nation—a number that should improve if the Hurricanes can close strong and reel in some on-the-fence top talent down the stretch.
Canes Weren't Ready Last Time Around
Prior to this week's No. 7 ranking, the Hurricanes last bout with this type of success came in October 2009. After a 5-1 start, Miami (No. 8 AP/No. 10 BCS) welcomed Clemson (3-3) and fell in overtime, which derailed a season that finished at 9-4.
The Hurricanes reached No. 3 in the BCS back in November 2005, weeks after topping then-third-ranked Virginia Tech on the road. But they were were upset at home late in the season by Georgia Tech. Again Miami didn't have the resiliency to recover and ended the season getting throttled by LSU in the Peach Bowl, 40-3.
The higher the stakes, the more the Hurricanes have crumbled since joining the ACC in 2004.
A program that once dominated all competition, knocked off top-ranked teams in its sleep, won four national championships in a nine-year span (1983, 1987, 1989 and 1991), Miami as of late has been a squad that plays down to the level of competition.
Look no further than past short-lived stints in the upper BCS rankings for proof.
Why 2013 and Beyond Will Be Different
For Miami, there's no bigger game-changer than the NCAA investigation finally being wrapped up and punishment delivered.
Self-imposing bans for two straight bowl games, sitting out last season's ACC Championship Game and dealing with negative recruiting tactics from rivals has hurt the Hurricanes more than any of the penalties levied this week.
Nine total scholarships lost over the next three seasons was the verdict, with the NCAA acknowledging that UM's self-punishment efforts were "unprecedented."
Miami will carry no more than 82 scholarship players in 2014, 2015 and 2016, instead of the maximum allotment of 85. By The Miami Herald's count, this year's Hurricanes currently boast 75 scholarship athletes, meaning that even on probation the next three years, UM will have a deeper, more talented roster, with recruiting trending upwards.
These in-repair Hurricanes continue taking on the resilient personality of their third-year head coach, displaying character in the face of adversity, such as in recent come-from-behind victories.
No. 7 ranking? So what. At this point, it's nothing more than a distraction. Nothing's been accomplished and, as reported by The Miami Herald's Manny Navarro, Golden continues to drive home that message:
There is cheese all around them. Don’t take the cheese. Don’t take the trap. You have a guy here or there that all of a sudden they’re seduced by it. They want to hear about it. They want to talk about it. It has nothing to do with the outcome. Doing your job, preparing, asking questions, being engaged, doing your role—all those little things, that’s what we need to focus on. That’s what we need leadership for.
Golden's thoughts regarding the recent ascension in the polls and outside hype:
We’re going to continue to ignore it...I need the coaches to do that. I need the players to do that. I need anybody that touches a Miami Hurricane to do that. Families, academic support, strength and conditioning, training room, it doesn’t matter. We got to make sure we’re all on the same page and keeping the guys focused on what we need to do because the rest of it doesn’t matter. The rest of it will take care of itself if we take care of our business and do our job every day.
The biggest difference between present-day Miami and where this program stood half-a-decade back? The guy in charge, the message being delivered and the players internalizing that message.
Where the Hurricanes got big headed in years past—as proven by late-season collapses anytime success reared its head—this group takes wins in stride, knowing each is nothing more than a step closer to an ultimate goal.
Upon beating Georgia Tech in early October and entering the AP Top 10 for the first time in four years, Miami players remained ho-hum about the achievement.
"It doesn't matter," sophomore running back Duke Johnson told Susan Miller Degnan and The Miami Herald. "All that could be gone with one mistake, one game, and that's something we're trying not to pay too much attention to. If we lose a Coastal [Division] game, all that doesn't mean anything."
This current attitude is what this program had been missing, and it is precisely what Miami needs with Wake Forest on deck. A business-like approach should allow the Hurricanes to dispose of the Demon Deacons before turning all focus to next week's road trip to Florida State. No more bye weeks and zero time to overthink. Get the job done, stick with the process and view the Seminoles as another foe on the roster.
With a one-game-at-a-time mentality and the NCAA matters in the rear view, Miami is precisely where it needs to be, inching itself back to national prominence.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog