The Miami Hurricanes won't play in this weekend's ACC Championship game, but this program still has a lot on the line in December.
A 9-3 regular season finish might not sit well after a 7-0 start, but having gone 13-11 in two years under Al Golden with a 28-23 run the previous four, it's a step in the right direction. Miami can close strong with a three-game win streak and reach its first 10-win season since 2003.
To end on a high note and set the tone for next year, it must start with the Hurricanes making the most of the next few weeks.
Bowl practices begin soon and Miami will have a month to get healthy and game-ready. Injured players are expected to return, while defensive coaches will also have extra time to prepare and strategize for an opponent, which isn't a luxury during the regular season grind.
From there, the Hurricanes must do what it takes to shine in the bowl game.
Coming in off back-to-back wins, Miami looks like it will face Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, with an outside shot at taking on an SEC team in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
The Hurricanes' last bowl appearance was in December 2010, weeks after Golden was hired. The new leader watched from the press box as Miami was stomped 33-17 by Notre Dame. The loss was the third-straight postseason setback for the Hurricanes, whose most recent year-end victory came in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl over Nevada.
Miami must show its maturity and character by showing up prepared no matter who they face in the season finale. Coaches must also find a happy medium between giving seniors their due and letting tomorrow's stars get their feet wet on a big-time stage.
Fall depth chart battles are won during spring football at Greentree Practice Field and a strong bowl showing gets the competition under way immediately. The Hurricanes don't lose a ton of seniors, but key positions will be up for grabs—most notably quarterback, defensive back and both offensive and defensive line.
Shining in the bowl game and emerging victorious will keep kids focused and driven between year's end and spring. Golden raved about his team's weight room efforts last August—a process that started last December.
"The culture is changing," Golden told Michael Casagrande and the Sun Sentinel. "The conditioning, the fact that they're embracing it and the attitude...they demolished it. Literally, just absolutely crushed it and I know they feel good about it, to be honest with you. They feel like they killed it."
The Hurricanes haven't plowed into an offseason on a roll since 2004 wrapped with a Peach Bowl win over rival Florida. Miami lost a shot at a BCS game when falling to Virginia Tech to close the regular season, but topped the Gators, finished 9-3 and was ranked No. 11 in the final AP poll.
The Hurricanes parlayed that success into a No. 9 preseason ranking months later. Miami fell by a field goal to Florida State in the 2005 opener but tore off an eight-game win streak and climbed to No. 3 by mid-November.
While next year's rankings shouldn't yet concern this current Miami squad, the strong finish could help sway some on-the-fence talent that could be thinking Coral Gables.
The Hurricanes currently have 28 verbal commitments and what ESPN has ranked as the No. 3 class in the nation for 2014—chock-full of impact players, especially on the defensive side of the ball with big-name athletes like Anthony Moten, Travonte Valentine, Chad Thomas and Nigel Bethel II expected to get on board.
Closing strong is a theme that has to permeate through the entire Miami program over the next few months. The Hurricanes need to roll in the bowl game and coaches must continue locking things down on the recruiting trail as The U builds its foundation and secures its future.
From there, a new-look Miami team should emerge in spring, fired up and ready to take another much-needed step forward.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.
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