Exceeding expectations is not exactly Mark Richt's M.O., at least it wasn't toward the end of his tenure at Georgia. In Richt's final seven seasons in Athens, the Bulldogs were ranked in the preseason AP top 25 all seven times. They finished ranked in only three of those seasons, and that's a big reason why Richt is now coaching his alma mater, Miami, instead.
Exceeding expectations is not exactly Miami's forte, either. Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami hasn't even played in the conference championship game, let alone won a league title. It hasn't been a top-10 team or won 10 games in a season since 2003. The Hurricanes have been ranked in the preseason AP top 25 only once in the past decade and have only twice finished the season in the top 25 in that time.
It is a new era, however, a fresh start for both Richt and the Hurricanes as they enter Year 2 of their marriage. It is a good time for cautious optimism to start creeping back in, even if the Canes need to replace three-year starting quarterback Brad Kaaya and eight other drafted players, including tight end David Njoku, a first-round pick.
Wherever Miami opens in the polls this preseason, don't be surprised if the Hurricanes exceed that position by the end of the season. In fact, don't be surprised if Miami makes a legitimate push for that elusive first ACC championship.
A lot of key, promising talent returns to a Miami team that was better than you remember last season. The Hurricanes squandered a 4-0 start that saw them rise to No. 10 in the AP poll, losing four straight games in the middle of the season, but they recovered to end the year on a five-game winning streak. Of those four losses, three were by a touchdown or less, including a loss on a blocked PAT vs Florida State and a big comeback at Notre Dame followed by a blown seven-point lead in the final six minutes. The Canes were 0-3 in close games, as all nine wins -- including the Russell Athletic Bowl against West Virginia -- came by at least two touchdowns.
The West Virginia win was Miami's best of the season, but in all of its victories, it did what a good team is supposed to do and left no doubt. The Hurricanes were ranked 20th in the final AP poll, but advanced statistics liked them better, as they ended up 12th in Football Outsiders' F/+, Sports Reference's SRS and Jeff Sagarin's ratings. They were also one of six teams to rank in the top 25 in yards per play on both offense (25th) and defense (ninth), joining Alabama, Louisville, LSU, Penn State and Washington, proving to be the best, most balanced Hurricanes team in several years with clear signs of progress in Richt's first season.
Reasons for optimism about a breakout year in 2017 begin with the defensive front, which overwhelmed West Virginia the last time we saw them. While Miami is still a long way away from the glory days when it had an endless supply of NFL talent, it has the potential to have a scary unit that lives in opposing backfields. Richt made one of the best assistant coach hires in recent years, landing D-line coach Craig Kuligowski from Missouri. At Mizzou, Kuligowski developed a staggering amount of talent (Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden, Sheldon Richardson), and there is a ton to work with now at Miami: Joe Jackson had 8 ½ sacks as a freshman. Chad Thomas and Kendrick Norton both had double-digit tackles for loss. RJ McIntosh is a rising star.
The Canes rose from 115th to 17th in yards per rush allowed last season despite starting three freshmen at linebacker: Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, who played better than anyone could have expected in such circumstances. Suddenly, Miami has a loaded front seven with rising stars and All-ACC talent, one that's equipped to become one of the best in the country.
A new secondary is a concern -- although FCS All-American cornerback Dee Delaney transferring in from The Citadel may help, as could acclaimed juco transfer Jhavonte Dean -- but the potential the Canes have up front can mask weaknesses on the back end by putting consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Plus, beyond Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois, quarterback talent has been drained from the ACC, including Mitch Trubisky, Jerod Evans and Nathan Peterman in the Coastal, making it easier for Miami to break in a new-look secondary.
There's no doubt that replacing Kaaya on offense is a concern. Replacing any experienced quarterback is a concern, and Kaaya was perhaps underappreciated as a college player. Kaaya lacked mobility, but he threw for nearly 10,000 yards in his career and was intercepted a total of 12 times over the past two seasons. While the poor record in close games is a sign that Miami should improve, it wouldn't be surprising to see Miami regress from 14th in turnover margin with a new, unproven quarterback stepping in.
It's a crowded competition, with last year's backup, Malik Rosier, perhaps leading the way with sophomore Evan Shirrefs trying to beat him out and touted true freshman N'Kosi Perry set to join the battle in the summer. The winner of the job will be placed in position to succeed, with veteran protection and rising star weapons headlined by sophomore wide receiver Ahmmon Richards and junior tailback Mark Walton, who both showed flashes of brilliance last year and are first-team All-ACC frontrunners. The offensive line still has room for improvement, but it improved over the course of last season, and the new quarterback is going to have more mobility than Kaaya.
There are plenty of unanswered questions for Miami as it inches closer toward the season, but the same could be said about the entire ACC -- even preseason darling Florida State, which has to improve on the offensive line and at receiver. It's especially true in the weaker Coastal Division, which hasn't had a team win the ACC championship since 2010. With quarterback turnover among all the top contenders, there is no slam-dunk favorite in the Coastal, but Miami is well-positioned. While the Canes have to play at Florida State early in the season, there's nothing particularly daunting about the rest of their schedule, which does not include either Louisville or Clemson. In fact, it's possible that Miami will be favored in every game but the FSU trip.
Once consistently among the nation's most talented teams, Miami has lost the benefit of the doubt. It's hard to ever believe that Miami is a top-10 team until proven otherwise, because the Hurricanes have only let people down over the past decade and a half. But at some point, the mediocre results are going to end. These Hurricanes have the most talented roster in the Coastal Division, and despite Richt's stumbles in the second half of his tenure at Georgia, they have the coaching staff to take advantage of that talent. Get to the ACC title game, and it's possible improvement in the right places over the course of the season -- quarterback, offensive line -- will push Miami over the top, led by what could be the ACC's best defense.
The underachieving narrative won't stop following both Richt and Miami until they actually subvert expectations in a positive way for once. New quarterback or not, the 2017 season is an ideal time to do it.