Al Golden's Miami Hurricanes had higher goals and expectations than what the 'Canes have accomplished during the 2013 regular season.
After earning a co-Coastal Division championship last season, Miami returned 17 starters, including senior quarterback Stephen Morris and junior linebacker Denzel Perryman. Plus, sophomore sensation Duke Johnson was in line to take over the featured back role, and the Hurricanes were considered favorites to win the division.
Then, Miami originally backed up those expectations, jumping out to a 7-0 start with wins over No. 12 Florida, Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
But now sitting at an extremely disappointing 7-3 record, how did "The U" fall so far?
Even though Duke Johnson succumbed to migraines and sat out the majority of the UNC game, Dallas Crawford picked up the slack, putting together a career-best performance on the ground.
The 'Canes showed they could replace their biggest offensive weapon once, but things started to go downhill. Junior receiver Phillip Dorsett tore his MCL and would miss most of, if not all, the remaining six games.
Miami escaped a close game at home against Wake Forest, riding the legs of Duke Johnson during the fourth quarter.
But when The U kept pounding Johnson into the line vs. Florida State, disaster struck.
On 4th-and-2, Johnson was stopped short and tackled. Unfortunately, however, he was awkwardly stuck under the massive linemen, and Johnson's right ankle fractured. Golden and offensive coordinator James Coley were not wrong in keeping Duke in the game at FSU. The Hurricanes still had a fighting chance to close the gap, and it was simply a freak injury.
Despite the loss, Miami was still in the driver's seat in the division, and it could nearly lock up the Coastal with a win over Virginia Tech.
But Johnson's injury exposed an enormous weakness in the Miami offensive attack, and the fumble gods were not on the 'Canes side.
The Hokies' stellar defense held Crawford and Co. to 28 yards on 24 carries, while Virginia Tech's special teams forced and recovered two fumbles. Both turnovers came after a long return—Stacy Coley on a punt and Artie Burns on a kickoff.
Lastly, Ladarius Gunter knocked the ball out of Willie Byrn's hands, but Demitri Knowles pounced on the loose pigskin...in the end zone for a touchdown.
Skill is clearly the most important ingredient to winning, but a few fortunate bounces never hurt, either. Ultimately, Miami needed assistance from another ACC team to bounce the Hokies from the top of the division standings.
And a struggling Maryland somehow upended Virginia Tech, providing a second chance for the 'Canes.
But they failed to capitalize on their opportunity; instead, Duke did.
The Blue Devils made Miami's once-much-improved defense revert to its awful 2012 showing, and the Hurricanes lost by 18 points. Of all teams not expected to contend in a given conference, Duke earned its spot as the front-runner in the Coastal Division.
With two games remaining in the 2013 season, what can the Hurricanes possibly do? It's certainly hard to find silver linings for a campaign that is unbelievably frustrating.
If the Hurricanes want to avoid looking back on this campaign as a complete and utter failure, Golden must prepare his Miami team to win its final two regular-season contests.
First up for Miami is Virginia (Sat, Nov. 23, 12:00 p.m. ET on ESPNU) and, quite frankly, the 2-8 Cavaliers are bad. According to CFBstats.com, Virginia ranks 83rd in total defense, 96th in total offense, 100th in scoring defense and 108th in scoring offense.
But UVA head coach Mike London holds a perfect 3-0 record against the 'Canes, so he knows what it takes to topple Miami.
The divisional clash will also be Senior Day, so it will be the last chance for Stephen Morris, Allen Hurns, Brandon Linder, Shayon Green and Jimmy Gaines to play at Sun Life Stadium.
Six days later (Fri. Nov. 29, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC), the Hurricanes travel to former Big East Conference and new ACC opponent Pittsburgh.
Typically—and not surprisingly—over the last few seasons, Miami has not performed well when playing in low temperatures. Plus, with Johnson no longer available, the 'Canes running game must come ready to play, especially if inclement weather lingers above.
Pittsburgh, at 5-5, has been one of the ACC's streakiest teams, losing to Navy and Georgia Tech but upsetting then-No. 23 Notre Dame. Ultimately, the Panthers could either come out slowly or on a flat-out mission against Golden's team.
Regardless, Miami has to overcome all obstacles and defeat Pitt.
Heading into their first postseason appearance in three years, the Hurricanes would be 9-3. Miami's bowl destination is largely uncertain right now, but it will be traveling somewhere nonetheless.
Therefore, Miami would be in a position to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 2003, and that's at least a small accomplishment in an otherwise frustrating and disappointing 2013 campaign. The 'Canes would also earn their first bowl victory since the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl over Nevada.
It would be far from a completely salvaged season, but Golden would finish his third season on its best possible note and immediately turn his focus toward the program's bright future.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR
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