Schedule Preview: Miami

Miami will travel 834 miles to Chapel Hill on Nov. 14 for a critical Coastal Division battle, as third-year head coach Randy Shannon looks for his first victory over his former coach and boss Butch Davis. North Carolina has won three of the last five contests in this series.

Overview: The preseason hype surrounding Miami suggests that the Hurricanes will finally surpass the seven-win barrier that has plagued the program over the past three years, thanks in part to 16 returning starters. But with a brutal schedule and two new coordinators, contending for the Coastal Division crown will be a tougher challenge than many in South Florida are expecting.

Mark Whipple arrived in Coral Gables in January and quickly drew praise from third-year head coach Randy Shannon for his unique offensive approach. After an '08 season that utilized a two-quarterback system, starter Robert Marve (1,293 yards, 9 TD, 13 INT) bolted for Purdue in the offseason, leaving true sophomore Jacory Harris (118-of-194, 1,195 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) to turn around a Miami unit that ranked 89th nationally in total offense (326.0 ypg).

His primary offensive weapons all return, highlighted by junior running back Graig Cooper (841 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 4 TD) and sophomore wide receivers Travis Benjamin (18 catches, 293 yards, 3 TD) and Aldarius Johnson (31 catches, 332 yards, 3 TD). The offensive line has three returning starters and boasts legitimate depth for the first time during Shannon's tenure as head coach.

The defense returns eight starters, including four true sophomores – DE Marcus Robinson (35 tackles, 4 sacks), DT Marcus Fortson (25 tkl), LB Sean Spence (82 tkl, 7.5 tfl) and CB Brandon Harris (26 tkl) – that absorbed the physicality of big-time college football as freshmen in '08. The youth of the defensive line, along with season-ending injuries to veteran DE Eric Moncur and LB Colin McCarthy, contributed to the ACC's worst rushing defense (151.9 ypg).

Ironically, the pass defense ranked seventh nationally (165.6 ypg). Those contrasting numbers allowed Miami to finish 28th nationally in total defense (317.5 ypg), but a league-worst 15 forced turnovers pushed the scoring defense to 24.2 points per game (56th). Losing two of last season's top-three tacklers in LB Glenn Cook (91 tkl, 7.5 tfl) and S Anthony Reddick (75 tkl) hurts, but Shannon is banking on his string of highly-ranked recruiting classes to offer up solid replacements and depth.

Personnel Decisions of Intrigue: Shannon brought in two new coordinators this offseason, tagging Mark Whipple to run the offense while bringing John Lovett aboard to direct the defense. Shannon recently told the Miami Herald that Whipple will be given the green light to light up the scoreboard, so it will be interesting to see if the former Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterbacks coach ('04-‘06) can improve on the ACC's third-ranked scoring offense that averaged 27.1 points per game despite coughing up 25 turnovers in 08. Lovett took the defensive coordinator position after two seasons working as Butch Davis' special teams coach in Chapel Hill, where his recruiting ability was considered a question mark.

Recruiting Fiasco: Miami recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt recently informed the ACC Sports Journal that in years past the program "spent way too much time recruiting off lists and finding these top guys instead of truly evaluating." That statement provides a glimpse into why former head coach Larry Coker watched a national championship program erode into mediocrity, while giving an excuse for Shannon's 12-13 record during his first two seasons. Why is this information relevant now? Because Shannon was front and center as Miami's defensive coordinator during Coker's tenure.

Early Season Blues: If you were in a hurry to find out how good the Hurricanes will be this fall, you won't have to wait long as their first four games of the season have to be the toughest in the country. Miami travels to Atlantic Division favorite Florida State to open the season on Labor Day before welcoming Coastal Division contender Georgia Tech to Miami Gardens on Sept. 17. Shannon will then head north to Blacksburg to battle defending ACC Champion Virginia Tech on Sept. 26 just seven days before preseason top-5 Oklahoma arrives in South Florida. A 0-4 start is not out of the question.

Key Game: Georgia Tech on Sept. 17. With road contests against Coastal Division contenders Virginia Tech and North Carolina, the Hurricanes need to hold serve in Miami Gardens against the Yellow Jackets if they are hoping for an appearance in the ACC Championship Game.

2009 Schedule
Sept. 7   @ Florida State 
Sept. 17  Georgia Tech
Sept. 26  @ Virginia Tech
Oct. 3    Oklahoma
Oct. 10   Florida A&M
Oct. 17   @ Central Florida
Oct. 24   Clemson
Oct. 31   @ Wake Forest
Nov. 7    Virginia
Nov. 14   @ North Carolina
Nov. 21   Duke
Nov. 28   @ South Florida

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