In November, Miami (Fla.) was ranked in the Top 10 and considered a dark-horse national title contender ahead of its clash with rival Florida State.
After the Hurricanes were outclassed 36-9 in the Russell Athletic Bowl by Louisville on Saturday, we're left wondering how this Miami team was ever considered one of college football's best.
The U first faltered in that key tilt against FSU, but it was exposed long before its trip to Tallahassee.
The 'Canes began the season unranked, and after scorching Florida Atlantic 34-6 in their opening contest, they faced their first test against rival Florida.
Running back Duke Johnson starred in that first victory, tallying 186 yards and a touchdown. Even after the first victory, Johnson and Miami remained a bit of a mystery. The production of No. 8 was a given, but it was still unknown just how good this team might become.
As Miami entered its first test, UF was ranked No. 12 and expected to compete for the SEC title. This game, one way or another, looked as if it would set the table for the rest of the season in Coral Gables.
The 'Canes found a way to edge the Gators 21-16, despite being outgained 413-212. That win vaulted them from out of the rankings all the way to No. 16. In one win, they took their dubious outlook and became a legitimate contender in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Since then, that key win has rusted considerably. Florida skidded to a 4-8 finish, losing its final seven games—a stretch that included a loss to FCS Georgia Southern.
After that first "signature win," Miami did its job and just kept winning. A soft schedule benefitted the 'Canes for nearly the next two months. Their ACC contender status took a boost in their league opener, where they dropped Georgia Tech, a Coastal Division favorite.
From then on, Miami kept winning while other Top 10 squads, including Clemson and Missouri, fell to tough opponents. But the way the Hurricanes won showed even then that they weren't an elite team. In consecutive weeks against North Carolina and Wake Forest, they needed touchdowns in the final minute to rally for narrow victories.
But still, with an undefeated record, they climbed to No. 7 before facing the Seminoles. In that game, the 'Canes were finally exposed, as the 'Noles finished what UNC and Wake Forest started.
While that loss vanquished Miami's national title hopes, it also took away its biggest star. Johnson suffered a broken tibia in the loss, sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
The loss of Johnson proved to be a major blow, as Miami compiled three straight losses, averaging only 99 rushing yards in the three defeats.
In those three consecutive weeks, the Hurricanes fell from national title consideration to the middle of the pack in their own division. Duke ended up as the champion of that division after posting the best season in school history.
Eventually, the Blue Devils were annihilated by Florida State in the ACC title game, exposing the Coastal Division as weak.
Miami rebounded with wins over Pittsburgh and Virginia to close the regular season, but the ACC title and a New Year's Day bowl were out of the question.
Still, given its reputation throughout the year, Miami earned a strong bowl opponent in Louisville. The Hurricanes had one final opportunity to show that they were "back" to being a national power.
But in the loss to the Cardinals, it was apparent throughout that the Hurricanes weren't up to par. They were outgained 554-174 and didn't convert a single third down all night in Orlando.
A close loss would've shown that they were worthy of some of the high rankings they received early in the season—but looking at their body of work, that just isn't the case.
Miami didn't beat a team that finished with more than seven wins.
Now, as head coach Al Golden said afterward, The U will go back to the drawing board, per Christy Cabrera Chirinos, Sun-Sentinel:
We got beat in all three phases. There’s no excuses. We didn’t play well enough. Give a lot of credit to Louisville. They played really well. They executed well. It’s my responsibility. I’m disappointed in our execution in all three phases. As I just shared with the team, despite that, I’m proud of Stephen [Morris] and this group of seniors for what they’ve been through and what they’ve endured in moving this program forward.
Golden's squad will bring Johnson back next year, but its quarterback situation will be in flux with the departure of Stephen Morris.
The good news going forward for The U is on its defense, where it is expected to return several key players, including Tracy Howard, Denzel Perryman and Anthony Chickillo.
With several core players coming back, the Hurricanes will head into 2014 with another promising outlook. But just like this season, they'll have to prove that they're a contender by beating quality teams.
Miami might be several years away from being "back," but the first step will be beating another national contender—something this squad just wasn't capable of doing.
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