After starting off 7-0, few expected the once-No. 7 Miami Hurricanes to to lose three-of-four to start November.
A loss at Florida State was understandable, but dropping games to Virginia Tech and Duke derailed a season where Miami was aiming for a Coastal Division title and slot in the ACC Championship game.
Instead, a reality check and heaping dose of humility. The Hurricanes' defense hasn't looked much better than the 2012 squad that finished 116th out of 120 Division-I programs, while the offense is a shell of last year's unit, having been decimated by way of injuries.
After a decade of on-the-field struggles, the overwhelming desire for Miami to be "back" doesn't change the reality that the Hurricanes are still a ways away.
The clean-up process continues, and with two games remaining—barring some weekend upsets putting a Coastal Division title back in play—Miami's revised goal must be to finish strong, setting the tone for improvement in 2014.
While the bitter taste of three lopsided losses in November won't soon go away, Miami can still end a rebuilding season on a high note.
The win over Virginia was a start. The Hurricanes' defense again gave up too many yards but was opportunistic in creating turnovers, won key field position battles, got Miami back to winning ways and "The U" took care of business.
Equally as impressive, the fact that the Hurricanes as a unit are staying positive, despite so much negativity pumping through the pores of its fan base.
Players and coaches have taken heat, while Sun Life Stadium was a ghost town for Senior Day against the Cavaliers. Despite that, the Hurricanes played with a bounce in their step, ignoring the outsiders and remaining focused.
The upbeat demeanor must continue. End on a high, and roll it into a new year. Live by that creed.
Earning a win in Pittsburgh on Friday will be no easy feat. Daytime temperatures will be in the 30's, while the fourth quarter could see a drop to the low 20's. Football weather for most of the country. A potential nightmare for warm-blooded players born and raised in South Florida.
Miami will need to show up ready, stay focused and play with revised goals. Win it for the seniors. Keep fighting for the program's first 10-win season since 2003. Replace a three-game losing streak with three consecutive victories. Make believers of those who have lost faith over the past few weeks.
None of those objectives are as desirable as Coastal Division champs, winning a conference title or earning a BCS berth, but remain stepping stones for an in-repair program that must continue taking baby steps.
Truth be told, this wasn't the year to win an ACC title. Not with the juggernaut in Tallahassee that appears on a mission towards Pasadena and the National Championship Game.
Talk of a rematch against Florida State sounded good weeks back. Before losing running back Duke Johnson for the year. Before Virginia Tech left South Florida with a win. Before the Blue Devils rushed for 358 yards in an upset win. Before Miami needed four forced turnovers to put a two-win Virginia team away.
Based on recent results, it's hardly defeatist to admit that these Hurricanes don't want a part of the Seminoles a week from now. Not after playing the role of a three-plus touchdown underdog, and falling by 27 points in that on-paper No. 3 versus No. 7 match-up, early November.
Florida State remains a few years ahead of Miami in the rebuild. Accept it and move forward.
As Miami's injury report lists more casualties each week, this depth and talent-starved squad required the path of least resistance between now and year's end. While that certainly doesn't jibe with the, "anyone, anytime, anyplace" invincibility of the "Decade of Dominance" era Hurricanes, for now it will have to do.
"The U" may have invented swagger, but this current bunch is still learning how to play with it.
While it's easy to focus on where Miami went wrong this season, there was still some good in the process.
Florida fell apart late, but was ranked 12th when the Hurricanes upset the Gators in front of a packed house. From there, Miami showed character in three comeback wins—Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest—making halftime adjustments, playing with passion and ultimately deserving victory in the fourth quarter.
While there's been little to cheer for since, Miami can still close strong and ride into recruiting season on a high. The Hurricanes boast 28 verbal commitments and what ESPN currently ranks as the third-best class in the nation.
In the hunt for a few more top-flight athletes with the NCAA investigation having blown over, yet one more reason for Miami to rise up as this season winds down.
Al Golden told the Miami Herald's Manny Navarro that he's seeing "a different response" on the recruiting trail regarding the end of postseason bans and lightened scholarship reductions:
I think most of the interest from the younger guys is that it's behind us now and not getting hammered. Remember, the kids that are [high school] juniors, all they've ever known about the University of Miami is that we've been in trouble. Since they've been recruitable prospects we've been under probation. So it's good to have that behind us now.
A win at Pittsburgh could help as well, with Miami penciled into the Chick-fil-A Bowl against a quality SEC team if the Hurricanes can survive the Panthers—even more incentive, should any be necessary.
9-3 in the regular season, a win over the hated Gators and a New Year's Eve bowl still within reach.
Hardly a disastrous finale for a program coming off a 41-34 run the past six years and not seeing the postseason since 2010, should things play out that way.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.
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