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Chasing Clemson: What Miami has to do to make ACC title game

Brad Kaaya goes into his junior season as perhaps the best pure passer in the ACC, and Miami returns a host of skill players to help him out. Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

We are starting a series today taking a look at the teams that made bowl games a year ago, and what they have to do to catch reigning ACC champion Clemson. First up: Miami.

How they make the ACC championship: Behind quarterback Brad Kaaya and a vastly improved front seven. Pretty simple formula, right? Yes, it is true nothing has been simple at Miami for many years now, but the talent is in place for the Hurricanes to finally win their division. Kaaya goes into his junior season as perhaps the best pure passer in the league, and Miami returns a host of skill players to help him out -- from Stacy Coley to Joe Yearby to Mark Walton to David Njoku. The offensive line should be vastly improved with the entire two-deep returning. So that leaves defense with the biggest question marks. The group that has vastly underperformed given its talent level has a new defensive coordinator, new assistants and a new aggressive scheme that should help get immediate results. Though the entire secondary will be new, the strength should be with the returning players up front, whose time has come to finally start making an impact. We’re looking at you, Chad Thomas and Al-Quadin Muhammad. New coach Mark Richt is a veteran who has won division titles in the SEC. On paper, he’s the type of coach who fits perfectly at Miami.

What’s holding them back: Miami has lacked the type of fight seen in championship contenders. Look at the way the Canes and Clemson played in their matchup a year ago. It was obvious the Tigers had more talent, but they also had more heart, desire and passion for the game -- intangibles that matter greatly for championship teams. In addition, Miami has not been able to dominate in the trenches. Miami’s offensive line has been plagued with injuries and inconsistency over the past several seasons; its defensive line has not dominated opponents on a weekly basis in years. Nobody is quite sure whether Miami has what it takes on both the offensive and defensive lines to put forth a championship-caliber team. The hire of defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski certainly brings reason for optimism, but the Canes have a lot of work to do to transform themselves in the front seven. Last season alone, they allowed an average of 201 yards rushing per game to rank No. 103 in the nation. Meanwhile, every starter is gone from the secondary, though Corn Elder has the potential to be an All-ACC player in 2016. Then there is the schedule, where a brutal October stretch awaits against Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech (on five days' rest) and Notre Dame.

X factor: Gerald Willis. The defensive tackle transferred from Florida and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Based on reports from the former coaching staff, Willis was impressive during practices and has the potential to be a difference-maker. Given how badly Miami has struggled up front, Willis could be a game-changer for the defense. Combine his talent with Kuligowski’s ability to get the most out of his players, and Willis becomes a bigtime X factor.