A lot of unexpected things can happen in 10 years. Duke can win a division title in football. Wake Forest can win the entire ACC and go to the Orange Bowl. Founding member Maryland can leave for the Big Ten. Miami can win an ACC basketball championship.
For all the surprises, though, what's most notable is what hasn't happened: Miami still has not won an ACC football championship, or even appeared in the league title game at all. It's mostly been sort of...irrelevant.
It's been 10 years since the Hurricanes' entry into the league from the Big East -- the official anniversary is Tuesday, July 1 -- and Miami football is still treading water, a good-but-not-great team consistently in the second tier of the ACC. When the ACC originally decided on the Atlantic and Coastal division splits, it was widely assumed that separating Florida State and conference newcomer Miami would create repeated rematches, with the two rivals playing annually in the regular season but also dominating their divisions to meet again in December, with potential national title implications. It was supposed to be Miami and Florida State, then everyone else.
That, of course, hasn't panned out. Nine ACC Championship Games have been played (the conference didn't get to 12 teams until 2005, when Boston College joined), and while Florida State has represented the Atlantic four times, we've yet to see the Hurricanes advance out of the Coastal. Since 2004, they rank behind Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech in conference winning percentage, at .537 (43-37). Long NCAA investigation or not, this was not what was expected when the ACC poached Miami from the Big East to expand its football portfolio with one of the dominant programs of the previous 20 years.
But in retrospect, should we really be that surprised?
Five national championships can buy a lot of long-term cachet. But in reality, eras of dominance for Miami football have been the exception, not the rule. From 1983-1994, under Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, the Canes were as dominant as any program ever, going to five Orange Bowls, three Fiesta Bowls, three Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl. From 2000-03 under Butch Davis and Larry Coker, they went to each of the four BCS games. Those two eras represent the extent of Miami's national dominance, and the last decade has looked a lot like the mid-to-late-'90s quiet period at the start of Davis' tenure, under a cloud of other NCAA sanctions.
For all the advantages that Miami enjoys -- namely, that it's the flagship team of South Florida, one of the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds -- it has plenty working against it, too. It's a private school that's relatively small, compared to most of its rivals (its undergraduate enrollment is only 10,000). The team plays 20 miles away from campus at the cavernous, characterless, multipurpose Sun Life Stadium in the middle of an expanse of parking lots around the corner from a Walmart. And like all college teams in big cities, it faces plenty of competition for people's attention -- particularly in Miami. It's not a college town, and while the old Orange Bowl could be a snakepit for big games, Sun Life Stadium is simply not much of a college atmosphere.
What Miami has always had most in its corner was the mystique of The U. But as Michael Weinreb wrote last fall -- when 7-0 Miami was about to get blown off the field by Florida State -- the days of Miami as college football's villain are long gone. Years of NCAA scandal -- even though Miami has come out of the Nevin Shapiro scandal still standing on two feet -- have effectively neutered what we used to think of as Miami football. And now, under shirt-and-tie-clad Al Golden, Miami's days as college football's iconoclasts have long since passed. Miami is ordinary.
* * *
Last week, Miami added a new quarterback to the mix in the form of 23-year-old Jake Heaps, a two-time transfer who began his career at BYU. Heaps a rough season under Charlie Weis at Kansas last year and is now joining the Hurricanes to compete with redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen for the starting job, with Stephen Morris gone and expected starter Ryan Williams injured. While adding a Kansas castoff seems like desperation move, with an open scholarship, it's worth a shot: It's for only one year, and Heaps is a former four-star recruit with major conference starting experience. If he can help, then great. If not, no harm done.
Still, it's the type of last-minute move that reinforces the collective lack of confidence in Miami's ability to eclipse the ceiling of the last several years. The school of Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Gino Torretta and Ken Dorsey at quarterback has fallen into a rut of unrealized potential at that position, injecting unpredictability into the offense on a yearly basis. Whoever wins the job has a whole lot to prove, and a lot riding on his arm within an offense that appeared aimless late in the 2013 season, once star running back Duke Johnson -- both a workhorse and one of the nation's best big-play threats -- was sidelined by a broken ankle. The Miami offense became desperate, too reliant on big plays and unsurprisingly ineffective on third down, especially against the tough defenses it faced (4 of 12 vs. Florida State, 3 of 12 vs. Virginia Tech, 0 of 11 vs. Louisville).
In fact, it was a big problem on both sides of the ball, as Miami's explosiveness and overall speed weren't enough to overcome its lack of efficiency. The Hurricanes ranked 11th in the ACC in third-down conversion percentage and 12th in red-zone scoring percentage, and they ranked last in the ACC in third-down defense, while giving up the most plays of 10-plus yards. Throw in Morris' uneven quarterback play, and it's not surprising that a 7-0 start (complete with three close wins) fell apart down the stretch and eventually ended in a Russell Athletic Bowl meltdown against Louisville.
And at this point, it's hard not to imagine more of the same. Golden is a strong recruiter -- a details-oriented coach who has effectively stabilized a program rocked by the Shapiro scandal -- and better days appear to be ahead. But he and defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio still have much to prove as gameday coaches. And while Miami sits in the middle of an area loaded with coveted prep football talent, it doesn't have the region on lockdown like it did back in the "State of Miami" days of Schnellenberger. Everyone is trying to tap the region, and the appeal of staying at home to play can only go so far when there are more resources and better overall college football experiences elsewhere. It's not as easy of a job as it might appear at first glance, based on its success in the last 30 years and its location.
With that said, Miami is bound to get over the hump and finally win the Coastal sooner or later, perhaps even this year. Despite the potential problems at quarterback, the Hurricanes' skill position players could be as good as anyone's, led by Johnson at running back, Clive Walford at tight end and Stacy Coley and Phillip Dorsett at wide receiver. The defense, meanwhile, has promising personnel surrounding established star linebacker Denzel Perryman. It's a matter of maturing and playing more technically-sound football. In a wide-open Coastal division, Miami is probably more talented than anyone.
But the Canes have to travel to Louisville on Labor Day, plus go to Nebraska, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. They have to play Florida State, as always. The road isn't exactly clean, especially if North Carolina lives up to its potential, or Virginia Tech finds a semblance of an offense. That's the thing: For those two dominant periods, there was rarely any doubt about Miami -- it was more talented than everyone, and it knew it -- but for the last 10 years, there always seems to be a "but" involved.
Someday, maybe a transcendent Miami can emerge again and take over the college football world. It just still seems a long way off. Expectations have been reframed in such a way -- both for Miami and the ACC as a whole -- that the opening trip to Louisville and a late September date with Duke seem like games that will define the season, whereas a loss to Florida State seems to be a foregone conclusion. Miami is no longer the Miami of the past, and the further it's removed from being a top national power, the more it feels like it has to build a new identity from scratch.