Miami Football: Duke Game Will Show If Canes Are Ready to Take Next Step in 2014

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Miami Football: Duke Game Will Show If Canes Are Ready to Take Next Step in 2014
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
A healthy Duke Johnson will be crucial to the Miami Hurricanes' success in 2014.

Two straight losses have turned the Miami Hurricanes' season upside down.

Another slip up could prove to be this season's tipping point.

Next up for Miami is a Duke team riding a five-game win streak. The Blue Devils are 7-2 overall and control their own destiny in the ACC Coastal Division. As a result, this weekend's game against the Hurricanes now looms even bigger than the Blue Devils' recent road upset of Virginia Tech.

Supporters of "The U" are a bit restless this week, and it has little to do with this Saturday's opponent.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
Miami's defense remains under fire after surrendering 83 points and 1,066 yards over the past two weeks.

Barbs continue to be tossed at defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, while quarterback Stephen Morris was heckled by fans clamoring for backup Ryan Williams to put down the clipboard and assume position under center.

While a "sky is falling" mentality presently permeates throughout Coral Gables, logic must eventually prevail.

The fact remains that Florida State is a few steps ahead of Miami, while Virginia Tech again proved fundamentally sound in the annual showdown. In a game where rain and turnovers were key elements, protecting the football was crucial.

The Hokies did so and the Hurricanes didn't. Learn from it and move on. 

This Miami squad certainly has its defensive issues, but the "talent versus scheme" debate isn't going to be solved mid-November. Three regular-season games remain for the Hurricanes, and success in Durham—however it comes—is all that matters at this very moment. 

Entering this season, Miami was 13-11 under third-year head coach Al Golden, who inherited a squad that went 28-23 in the four campaigns prior to his arrival. Throw three years of being in the NCAA's crosshairs on top of that mess, and the Hurricanes are simply trying to regain their footing as a program. 

While a 7-0 start had some overzealous supporters dreaming about a national title, Miami was thinking Coastal Division championship, a conference title game berth and reaching the postseason for the first time since 2010 after consecutive self-imposed bowl bans.

Miami already went next-level—as it was primed to go this year—with the win streak and comeback victories over Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest. The Hurricanes program is re-laying the foundation—relearning how to win and developing character that will change the broken culture resulting in a decade of subpar football.

Losses to mid-level conference foes have derailed too many seasons for the Hurricanes since joining the ACC. Another goal this year: winning those winnable games that proved slippery in the past. 

Virginia Tech topped Miami the final regular-season game of 2004, earning the Hokies a conference title and Sugar Bowl berth. A year later, the third-ranked Hurricanes were in the driver's seat regarding a Coastal Division title, but fell late in the season to unranked Georgia Tech.

Miami opened 2009 with a big win over Florida State, fell to Virginia Tech weeks later, but fought back to 5-1 and a No. 8 ranking. Over the next four weeks, two season-defining losses against Clemson and North Carolina ruined what originally looked like a promising year for the Hurricanes.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Crawford has to step it up at running back for Miami. Crawford ran for 37 yards against Virginia Tech—35 of which came on one play.

Three conference games remain, and a Coastal Division championship would be a small miracle at this point. Miami would have to win out, while Virginia Tech would need to fall to either Maryland or Virginia, who are a combined 7-12 overall and 1-10 in conference play thus far.

A double-digit win season for a 7-5 squad last year would be a great springboard for 2014. The same can be said for simply reaching the postseason, earning the Hurricanes an extra month of practice it wasn't afforded the past two Decembers when seasons ended in November. 

Combined with closure in the NCAA investigation and what is setting up to be a solid signing day in February, Miami can absolutely call the 2013 season a successful step in the right direction. 

Duke gave Miami a run for its money in last year's 52-45 shootout, while Virginia has beaten Golden's 'Canes two straight. The regular season finale is at Pitt, where temperatures could be in the 30s or 40s. Not exactly ideal for a roster full of South Florida natives but considered "football weather" for most of the nation.

Still, nothing along the likes of a Florida State or Virginia Tech remains on Miami's schedule.

The Hurricanes have three very winnable games, and if the goal is to go from good to great between now and next September, the journey truly starts this Saturday in Durham.

Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog

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