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Miami looking to become relevant again

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Al Golden speaks with reporters during the opening of college football practice. (AP)

"It's a Cane thing," NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp said. "You wouldn't understand."

That was the highlight of the former University of Miami star's acceptance speech in Canton on Saturday night. Sapp addressed the line to Michael Irvin, another Hall of Famer out of Miami who was seated right behind him.

Ray Lewis, another 'Cane heading to the Hall, was seated in the audience. Ed Reed, still another, is now getting ready to play his first season in Houston.

Those guys all understand. Those who heard the ear-splitting noise of a Saturday night at the Orange Bowl understand.

But will the next generation understand?

It's easy to say no. Miami football hasn't been relevant since Larry Coker left in 2006. Randy Shannon did a superb job lifting the academic profile of the school and keeping players out of trouble, but here we are again, with the 'Canes overshadowed by possible NCAA sanctions and mediocre play. It's 1995 all over again.

But now there are early signs of another rebirth. There's a superstar passer in Coral Gables who not many people are talking about. There's a running back with a memorable name and moves to match. There are 20 returning starters.

And there's a marquee game, early in the season, which could put the spotlight on one of the most fascinating programs in college football history.

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Stephen Morris (left) threw for 3,415 yards last season. (USAT Sports)

GATORCANE – No. 9 Florida vs. Miami – will take place Sept. 7 in Miami. College football fans don't need to be reminded of the recruiting stakes. What they may need to be reminded of is what happened in Miami in 1998.

That was the Butch Davis era in Coral Gables, and he too was dealing with the overhang of NCAA issues. "We were in the midst of being the most hated football program in the country," Davis says. "Everybody was thrilled to death that we were losing 31 scholarships."

Davis had the same advantage current head coach Al Golden has now: "There are 10 or 12 All-American players [you can drive to] on one tank of gas," he says. One of them was Edgerrin James, the signature recruit that transformed Miami back into The U. It was James, from a little ways up I-75 in the Everglades region, who ran for nearly 300 yards in the famous "Hurricane Game" against UCLA in 1998. It was that win, which ended the Bruins' national title hopes, which launched the 'Canes back into national prominence.

"That was the turning point, against the No. 2 team in the country," Davis said. "Within a week after that game, recruiting changed. A lot of guys said, 'I want to be a part of the program.' "

Three seasons later, Miami had arguably the most talented roster in the history of college football.

Now there's another local running back leading the charge: Randy "Duke" Johnson, or "El Duque." He racked up more than 2,060 all-purpose yards as a freshman, and ran for 13 scores in 12 games. It's hard to find a better first season in the history of Canes football. And Johnson is running behind vaunted offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson, who looked like a bust at first but now is starting to live up to his enormous prep rep.

The Canes' biggest star, however, might be quarterback Stephen Morris. Of all the legendary passers who have played at The U – Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, Steve Walsh, Gino Torreta, Ken Dorsey – none had more total yards in a single season than Morris did last year (3,415 yards). He had more than 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last four games, against no interceptions.

So why aren't the 'Canes ranked? Defense.

We're not saying the Miami defense was bad last season, but giving up 30 points a game – 84th in the nation last season – put a lot of stress on the offense. How bad was it? Miami gave up nearly 100 points to Kansas State and Notre Dame in only two games, and the Irish didn't exactly have a Chip Kelly offense last season.

Still, the Canes defenders were young, and they get pretty much everyone back. Miami is predicted to win the ACC Coastal Division, even though they are highly unlikely to beat Florida State in Tallahassee. As of right now, Miami is eligible for postseason play, so an ACC title game and a BCS bid is not completely out of the question.

What the Canes need in this third year under Golden is a signature out-of-conference win against a top 10 opponent, and that begins with the Sept. 7 matchup against Florida. The program will still progress if they don't get that victory, but Miami isn't Miami until it issues a wake-up call that the entire nation can hear.

"We have a standard of excellence here," Golden told 560 WQAM on Monday. "Period."

GatorCane is coming to a television near you. If Miami wins that one at home, then everyone will understand.

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