Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
Every now and then, you read a story about one of those hyped recruiting class that falls on its face on the field, or just disintegrates. The incoming crop of 2008 at Miami is not one of those. The much-hyped crop, led by a bloc of eight hometown heroes from nearby juggernaut Northwestern High, were greeted as the foundation of a 'U' renaissance out of the ashes of the Larry Coker era. And broadly speaking, it's been so far, so good. But this fall the baby 'Canes are juniors, and the expectations begin to shift to "so great."
More than two full years in, 15 of the 16 players in the '08 class rated as four stars or higher remain on the roster (the only departure is five-star Kansas linebacker Arthur Brown, brother of Bryce), and 10 are projected starters this fall; the class as a whole should produce a dozen starters and at least six other regulars. Linebacker Sean Spence and cornerback Brandon Harris have already come in for All-ACC attention, with a handful of others – quarterback Jacory Harris, receivers Travis Benjamin and LaRon Byrd, defensive linemen Marcus Robinson and Those seem to be two Fortson – firmly on the radar. And not one member of the class has stood for a mug shot, a 180-degree turn from the sketchy recruits, gunplay and on-field thuggery that marked Coker's last year.
Of course, that season was also marked by the onset of mediocrity that only began to clear last year, after a 12-13 start in Shannon's first two seasons, with early wins over Florida State, Oklahoma and eventual ACC champ Georgia Tech. The offense averaged 400 yards and 30 points under new coordinator Mark Whipple for the first time since the dominant 2002 team that played for the BCS championship in Coker's first season; on the other side, the defense allowed fewer points for the third year in a row, and the 'Canes rolled in for their first top-20 finish since 2005. So far, so good.
Well, broadly speaking. Now that they've cleared the first hurdles – not disintegrating, showing obvious signs of progress – comes the fun part: A breakthrough to the top of the ACC and accompanying return to the BCS. Or, you know, bust.
Those seem to be the only two relevant options for Miami fans, many of whom continued to check the "bust" box despite last year's early success. (The 'Canes averaged well shy of 48,000 per game at LandShark Stadium – now Sun Life Stadium – or less than two-thirds of capacity.)
Given the upward trajectory of the last two years and the available talent – especially in the passing game, a disaster for five years before Whipple let Harris and the deep receiving corps air it out early and often in '09 – the only good reason not to expect the 'Canes to go take the next step in their recovery program is the buzzsaw of a schedule: They're at Ohio State and Pittsburgh in September, daunting preludes to dates with fellow Coastal Division frontrunners North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech down the stretch. That's five potential losses before you even get to the back-to-back showdowns with Clemson and Florida State in October.
For a more grown-up team, all of those familiar excuses – youth, rebuilding, the schedule – won't excuse a sideways step. Last year's team was the first that seemed to be fully Shannon's, led by his offensive coordinator and his recruits, and it showed enormous promise. It also showed enormous inconsistency, especially in the process of being pounded into submission on the road by Virginia Tech and North Carolina (not to mention the bowl loss to Wisconsin).
That's to be expected. As a team ripening from up-and-comer into a serious contender, though, it's expected those lapses will be much fewer and farther between. The difference in the reaction to 9-4 with a middling bowl game in 2009 and 9-4 with a middling bowl game in 2010 is as wide as the Everglades.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.