The Miami Hurricanes are one day away from ending 2013 on a high note or dealing with the disappointment that will result from a fourth setback in six games.
Welcome to the thin line between winning and losing.
After self-imposing postseason bans the past two seasons and losing its three previous bowl outings, Miami has to trek all the way back to 2006 for its last December victory—a 21-20 win over Nevada on the blue turf in Boise.
On paper, the difference between a 9-4 finish and 10-3 is hardly monumental, but for a Hurricanes program in "rebuild mode" for years, it's all about positive steps forward, achieving milestones and remaining on a proper track.
With Al Golden at the helm, local talent staying home and the distraction of the NCAA scandal no more, UM's road to glory is officially underway. Below are nine things the Hurricanes must accomplish en route to once again becoming a perennial power.
Finish the Season on a High Note
Three straight losses in early November were an absolute punch in the gut. No. 7 Miami was undefeated entering it's annual showdown with Florida State and within weeks reduced to 7-3 and all-but out of the ACC's Coastal Division race.
The Hurricanes won their final two games, scored over 40 points in each and began clicking on offense, but the defensive woes continued.
Miami clearly wasn't worthy of a Top 10 ranking at any point this year, but reaching the postseason, closing with a three-game win-streak and earning double-digit victories for the first time since 2003—it'd be a fine way to close out year three of the Golden era.
Especially with the dark clouds parting since the NCAA investigation came to a close in October.
Close Strong on the Recruiting Trail
The best way for the Miami program to end the "talent" vs. "coaching" vs. "scheme" debate—reel in some of the nation's best athletes and witness what some quality players do to fix the current situation.
Former Hurricanes head coach Butch Davis was hardly beloved while leading the Miami program. The sixth-year coach stocked the cupboard before heading to the NFL in early 2001, and the Davis love affair began when Larry Coker couldn't maintain the same level of recruiting excellence—35-3 the first three years and 25-12 his final three.
Miami's front seven struggled mightily in 2013, and the Hurricanes could lose upwards of a dozen key defenders—especially if a few choose to depart early. In short, the Hurricanes' depth, talent and overall experience on defense is set to take yet another hit it can ill afford.
Golden and staff currently have 29 verbal commitments, a fourth-ranked recruiting class and possibly eight early enrollees. There are also a handful of top-flight players with Miami on their radar, which would give the Hurricanes program a huge boost come February.
Miami lost a few "signing day" battles over the years. With a strong class already assembled and the NCAA drama in the rear view, the Hurricanes have a good chance at some day-of, last-minute steals, serving as poetic justice for all the kids Golden and staff lost recently due to negative recruiting.
Restock the Offensive and Defensive Lines
Both of Miami's lines are losing a handful of key players. Veteran defenders like Curtis Porter, Luther Robinson and Shayon Green are graduating, as are one-year transfer options David Gilbert and Justin Renfrow.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Hurricanes are saying goodbye to Brandon Linder, Jared Wheeler and Seantrel Henderson.
Miami has upwards of eight defensive ends and tackles on board for the 2014 recruiting class, as well as some big time offensive linemen, all of which will be relied upon heavily next season. Still, both positions much be heavily recruited for proper depth moving forward.
Identify and Groom the Next Great UM Quarterback
Stephen Morris proved serviceable over two seasons, but prior to that, it was a rough run for Miami with Jacory Harris, Kirby Freeman and Kyle Wright under center. Brock Berlin had enough surrounding talent to go 20-5 in back-to-back seasons, but the Hurricanes truly haven't had a great quarterback since Ken Dorsey rolled out of town after the 2002 season.
Instead, a battle between senior transfer Ryan Williams and redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen will take place, with redshirt sophomore Gray Crow thrown in as a wild card.
While Williams earning the starting nod is hardly detrimental, it'd be a one-year option for Miami, instead of investing in the future and building around the youth movement. It also wouldn't help the highly touted Olsen if he struggled to beat out a 2-star Memphis transfer.
Dorsey took some lumps as a freshman in 1999, emerged as a contender in 2000, went 11-1 and helped No. 2 Miami beat No. 7 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. After that, there was a 24-1 run, a national title and two shots at a ring.
Time for the Hurricanes to have a legit three-year option at quarterback, instead of falling back into rebuild-mode every other year.
Find a Capable, Big-Bodied, No. 2 Running Back
Duke Johnson is certainly one of the better running backs in college football, but the junior-to-be needs some "thunder" to his "lighting." The 5'9", 196-pound Johnson carried 139 times over a 12-game stretch as a freshman, but he racked up 145 attempts before breaking his ankle eight games into 2013.
The difference? Miami didn't have a Mike James-type option this season to share the load. Dallas Crawford rose to the challenge in a back-up role, while senior Eduardo Clements played in spot duty, eased back in after a neck injury almost ended his career.
True freshman Gus Edwards was a hopeful savior, he but struggled to grasp the offense—which was an issue due to a lack of depth. Two years ago, Storm Johnson left for Central Florida, and this past offseason, the Hurricanes saw running back Danny Dillard transfer as well.
Miami looks to reel in a pair of local Rivals.com 4-star prospects in Joseph Yearby and Brandon Powell in the coming weeks, while the highly coveted Dalvin Cook still hasn't officially decided where he'll land.
Regardless, Johnson needs a consistent, capable, durable counterpart next season. "The Duke of Coral Gables" should be used to dazzle, not to pound and grind.
Find New Ways to Get the Ball in the Playmakers' Hands
Losing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch to the NFL definitely hurt Miami's offense regarding creativity. First-year play-caller James Coley played things a little closer to the vest in 2013, getting conservative and somewhat uninventive.
The Miami program has always been built on next-level conditioning, as well as overall team speed. Getting the ball to playmakers in space is the easiest way for magic to happen, and late in the year, freshman wide receiver Stacy Coley was given the opportunity to shine.
Be it on reverses or bubble screens, Coley tore off some monster touchdowns against Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh.
Outside of the Coley "package," there's been little else—especially regarding the versatile Johnson. Under Fisch, No. 8 had 27 receptions as a freshman. This year, four grabs over the course of eight games. Johnson also threw for a touchdown at Duke in 2012, while Crawford was given an opportunity to do the same in a Thursday night win over Virginia Tech.
Miami's offense always seemed to have a Santana Moss, Roscoe Parrish—even a Jammi German—running a slant route and taking a five-yard receptions 80 yards for the score.
The Hurricanes needs more fast-developing plays that allow those fast-twitch speedsters to strut their stuff.
Take the Power Back in the 'Sunshine State'
Beat Florida State. It's time. A lopsided loss in 2013 was forgivable as the Seminoles are undefeated and title-game-bound, but the previous years were toss-ups that the Hurricanes gave away. The result—a four-game losing streak to a hated rival.
Miami owned Florida State from 2000 through 2004, topping the Seminoles in six straight. All was right in the college football world, on the recruiting front and regarding the battle for Sunshine State supremacy as far as "The U" was concerned.
Both the Hurricanes and Seminoles trailed the Gators a few years back. Since then, the balance of power has shifted, and while Miami doesn't face Florida annually, it gets one (or two) shots at Florida State every year. Do something about it.
The Seminoles trek south next October and while that's a lifetime from now, the Hurricanes need to circle that date on the calendar and start building towards that showdown come January.
Seize the Big Moments When They Arise
Miami has spent 10 seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference and have not had one Coastal Division title or conference championship game appearance. Miami lost three of five ACC games to close the regular season. Years back, be it 2009 or 2005, the stage was set for big time late-season runs and Miami felt to mid-level conference foes like Georgia Tech or North Carolina.
Virginia Tech and Miami both defected from the Big East in 2004. To date, the Hokies have six division titles and four conference championship.
The Hurricanes can't even think about a national championship before consistently winning the Coastal Division, earning some ACC titles and dominating the conference, instead of hoping to back in by hoping rivals lose.
Just Win, Baby. It's Everything in Miami
The notorious Hurricanes "swagger" didn't come first—winning birthed the swag. Miami seemingly came out of nowhere in the early 1980s under Howard Schnellenberger, and five years into his tenure, it unthinkably won the program's first national championship.
Local superstars like Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith joined forced with the late Jerome Brown and Daniel Stubbs to help assemble a program-defining recruiting class in 1983. The wins followed, fueled by an anti-establishment mentality, hometown pride and some extra bounce in the program's step—years later dubbed, "swagger."
Miami is a metropolitan city, not a rah-rah college town. It's all about South Beach, laid-back boating and wild nightlife. The entertainment dollar only goes so far in the 305. Even the beloved Miami Dolphins have taken a backseat to the Heat, turning Miami into a basketball town since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade began delivering championships.
The University of Miami—being a private school with just over 10,000 undergrads—will never get the undying support state schools earn from small-town fans and large alumni groups.
It takes winning for the Hurricanes to earn respect and fill seats, so start the trend with a Russell Athletic Bowl win over the Louisville Cardinals and immediately shift the focus to success in 2014.
Recruiting info via Rivals.com.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.