The RedHawks, however, finished the 2001 season on a down note, dropping their last three games of the season. This season, they return six starters on offense, six starters on defense, and both kickers. One of them has a famous name.
Head coach John Bunting commented on their kicker at his Tuesday press conference: "Their kicker is a Parseghian, that's a little scary, isn't it?" Jared Parseghian is the grand-nephew of Miami (Ohio) alumni Ara Parseghian.
But what might be the scariest is the RedHawks quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, a 6-5, 240-pound sophomore, affectionately known as "Big Ben," among the Miami faithful. Roethlisberger turned down a scholarship offer to play for Miami.
Last season, he set the single season record for passing at Miami, throwing for 3,105 yards, with a pass completion percentage of 63.3%, and 25 touchdown passes as a freshman.
"I watched him in the summer when I was on vacation," Bunting said. "They have an offense predicated on three levels of passing; short, medium and long – stressing the underneath coverage and then they are able to go deep because he has the arm strength to do that. He also has mobility. He has the ability to avoid in the pocket, step away, step aside, buy time, get out on the perimeter of the pocket and break down the coverage because of time, and throw the ball wherever he wants to. (He) can throw back across his body extremely well, and the receivers can make some plays. He is talented."
Roethlisberger is also the backup punter for the RedHawks.
Two of Roethlisberger's favorite targets, seniors Eddie Tillitz (5-9, 180) and Jason Branch (6-6, 219) return from last season. Branch had 46 catches, six for touchdowns, and 565 receiving yards last season. Tillitz had 43 catches, five for touchdowns, and 577 yards receiving.
Three members of the offensive line are back for the RedHawks. Both starting offensive tackles, senior Justin Smith (6-6, 294) and junior Ben Harrell (6-7, 302) return from last season, along with starting left guard junior Frank Smith (6-3, 287).
The RedHawks also return two of their top three rushers from last year. Steve Little graduated, but juniors Luke Clemens and Cal Murray return. In 2001, Clemens had 483 yards rushing and a 4.0 yards-per-carry average, while Murray had 354 yards, with an eye-popping 7.3 yards-per-carry average.
The strength of the RedHawks' defense is in its linebacking corps, as all three starters return. This is a talented unit which includes 2001 first team All-MAC Matt Robillard (6-3, 238), on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, and Terrell Jones (5-9, 225), who is on the watch list for the Nagurski award. Jones also was a first-team All-MAC selection last year, recording 124 tackles. Both linebackers have been placed on the Lombardi Award watch list. Also returning is 2001 starter junior Nathan Clayton (6-2, 232).
Two starters from the defensive line, junior left end Phil Smith (6-1, 262) and senior right tackle Ryan Terry (6-2, 353 - not a typo, he is really 353 pounds), return from last season. Two other members of the defensive line have experience, as Kurt Mester (6-4, 268) and Matt Edwards (6-2, 252) are both seniors.
There is also experience in the secondary as both starting safeties return in sophomore Matt Pusateri (5-11, 192) and senior Milt Bowen (6-2, 204). The secondary does have to replace both starting cornerbacks from 2001.
The RedHawks are coached by Terry Hoeppner, former defensive coordinator at Miami who has a career mark of 20-14 going into his fourth year at the helm.
The RedHawks run multiple receiver sets on offense, spread the field, and throw the ball all over the field, sometimes using a no-huddle offense. With a talented quarterback in Roethlisberger running the show and experienced wide receivers, Miami will present quite a challenge for the UNC defense, which has a lot of unanswered questions.
"This year is a different situation, which is why it represents a big challenge for all of us, because defensively, we're as not as talented, we're not as experienced, and therefore we are going to struggle at times," Bunting said. "With so many young players taking the field for the first time; many of those players have practice extremely well, but there is a huge difference between practicing and then going out there and playing in a game."
Of some comfort is the fact that the Miami offense's strength is in the passing game, and UNC has the most experience in the secondary.
Defensively, the RedHawks have great talent at linebacker, and some experience on the defensive line and in the secondary. If UNC has an advantage, it may be that the Tar Heels have experience at the wide receiver spots while the RedHawks are replacing both starting corners.
Coach Bunting's thoughts on Miami (Ohio)
"I expect them to come in there with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, with some very talented skill players, starting with the quarterback, (who is) extremely good. A couple or three receivers who can catch the ball, run with the ball after the catch, a defense that I think plays with a tremendous amount of emotion, based on tape from last year."
"In everything I read, there is more confidence than they have ever had entering the season. Their head coach talks that way, their players talk that way, they are shooting for a MAC conference championship."