For decades the Miami program has been a model of consistent winning, followed by cycles of disaster and rebuild. The current rebuild under Al Golden is now four weeks into a fifth season.
In that span, Golden has been over .500 only twice, but has ended the regular season exactly at .500 in the other two seasons. While the Hurricanes have been looking for a reason for optimism the past 10 years, the current squad has started the season 3-0 for the first time since 2013, which resulted in a nine-win campaign. Outside of that, the program has not had a similar beginning since 2004, when its last high point was coming to an end under Larry Coker.
While it is hard to look at Saturday’s overtime victory over Nebraska (at home) as a masterpiece, wins are still wins. They are needed to rebuild a program in this diminished condition. Golden has been on the hot seat, and firing him again means completely starting over again. The 3-0 start certainly helps to move the program in a different direction, but Golden still needs to prove that he is man for the job.
However, it is hard to have too many hard feelings against Golden at this point. He is not doing a terrible job with what the Hurricanes have been through. To have at least a .500 record in each of his seasons, while joining the ACC and having to suffer through the NCAA investigations and sanctions, is a minor miracle.
The uphill battle Golden is fighting is one against the expectations of the Miami program. If he was at a program which had seen less success over the decades leading up to the violations, he would certainly be praised. However, at Miami, .500 and a bowl at this point are just not acceptable.
There are reasons for excitement with Miami this season. Sophomore Brad Kaaya looks like he will be the stabilizing leader the offense needs. The defense has improved outside of the final quarter against Nebraska. Leading up to that dumpster fire period, the Hurricanes’ defense had allowed just 30 points in the first 11 quarters, albeit not against the strongest competition.
The unit was 31st in total defense last season, up from 116th in 2013… or in other words, the cellar. The overall talent infusion is clear, as the program slowly but steadily improves from the rubble of past sanctions and the limitations they brought about. However, that talent is still young and needs time to grow… time that Golden may not get if this season falls short of expectations for the people in power in Coral Gables.
Flashes of greatness emerged last season, but they were not able to sustained and translated into something more. In consecutive games, the Hurricanes hammered Cincinnati and took Florida State to the brink. They also lost three of their final four games by one score. However, those losses were to a poor Virginia team, a marginal Pitt squad, and a reeling South Carolina team in the bowl game.
Is The U back? It depends on your definition of “back.”
Are the Canes getting better? Yes. Are they going to win games and go to bowls? Yes. Are they title contenders again? A resounding no. The answer to this question clearly depends on context and reasonable expectations.
With ACC play starting now, the tests will come for the Hurricanes. They will gain many chances to prove their worth. They are not contenders, but they can certainly make noise. The biggest question is if they will be able to save Golden and keep this rebuild going.