NCF Nation: Miami Hurricanes

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The Las Vegas gambling community considers Miami to be the ACC Coastal Division team with the best chance to win the conference. Based on point spreads, it also sees the Hurricanes as the team with the best chance to upset Florida State this season.

With Miami handing the starting quarterback job to a true freshman and a defense that hasn't convinced many outsiders it will be vastly improved, much of the positive preseason outlooks stem from the return of running back Duke Johnson.

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIEntering his third season at Miami, RB Duke Johnson says the Hurricanes are a program that other ACC schools should be worried about playing this season.
What does he think about Las Vegas' predictions?

"I don't deal with Vegas. Vegas confuses me," Johnson said smiling. "I just play football."

The follow-up question was whether Miami is finally "back," an annual preseason query but an even more pressing one in 2014 now that Florida State has returned as a player on the national landscape.

"I don't see why we could say [Miami is back]. We don't have a reason to say that. We've been in the ACC for 10 years and haven't been to the ACC championship once," he said. "We were co-Coastal champs, but that doesn't count as a step. We have to win it outright."

Johnson said there is progress that indicates the Hurricanes are at least a program on the rise, but it was stunted 10 months ago in Tallahassee. Miami rode the then-sophomore Johnson to a 7-0 start to the season, setting up a nationally televised, prime-time game against Florida State. It had the pre-game hype reminiscent of the late 1980s and 1990s, but Miami was blown out. Its season derailed from there, too, with the loss of Johnson to an ankle injury that cost him the rest of 2013. The Hurricanes would go on to lose three of their final five games, and in three of those games the running backs failed to rush for 100 yards combined.

The only pain Johnson said he felt from the ankle fracture came in the following weeks. When he initially broke it, he said his foot went numb. The pain arose the next two Saturdays while he watched Miami, which still could have won the division and set up a Florida State rematch, lose to Virginia Tech and Duke, sending Miami on a three-game skid. Johnson saddles himself with some of the responsibility from that streak, wishing he prepared his backups better.

"That could have been our first time winning the Coastal," Johnson said.

Miami coach Al Golden acknowledges there will be games when his star player will be tapped for 30 carries and probably more. Johnson knows it, too. But there is a belief in Coral Gables the weapons around Johnson, even with freshman Brad Kaaya at quarterback, will be enough to warrant Johnson being used in more than one role.

Johnson welcomes it, too. During an hour-long media session, he was asked at least three times if he has any 2014 personal goals -- rushing yards, touchdowns, receptions, Heisman press -- and each time he shook his head.

"You ask Duke to return kicks, he returns kicks. You ask Duke to split out in the slot, he goes in the slot. You throw him a screen, he'll catch a screen. But you don't have to take Duke Johnson out on third down or in pass protection," Golden said. "He's an unselfish kid."

Miami has a tough beginning to the season with its opener on Labor Day against newcomer Louisville. It also has a road game at Nebraska and hosts reigning Coastal champion Duke and Arkansas State, one of the most successful Group of Five teams of the past few years.

With marquee national and conference games through the first half of the season, Johnson is counting down the days before the Sept. 1 opener.

Asked what he has left to prove, he said: "A lot."

ACC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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The college football season is finally ready to kick off. No doubt all the time we’ve spent studying depth charts and devouring news will be rendered meaningless by September’s end, but that won’t stop us from making a few bold predictions about what’s to come in 2014. If we get half of them right, we’ll call it a success.

1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.

Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
AP Photo/Garry JonesUnder coach Bobby Petrino, Will Gardner has a chance to flourish as Louisville's starting QB.
2. Louisville’s Will Gardner will be the ACC’s second-best quarterback.

It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.

3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.

The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.

4. Virginia goes bowling.

The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.

5. Clemson is a running team.

With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.

6. Young runners make a big impact.

Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.

7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.

If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.

8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.

Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.

9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.

Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.

10. The Coastal champ will be ...

Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.
Miami and Louisville already are quite familiar with each other, but that familiarity will probably mean nothing heading into their opener on Labor Day.

Already, their matchup has quite a different feel than it did just one week ago after two major news stories broke this past weekend. Louisville receiver DeVante Parker will have surgery on his foot and is out six to eight weeks; Miami, meanwhile, named true freshman Brad Kaaya its starting quarterback.

That begs the question -- how will both offenses be impacted?

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesLouisville and Miami meet in the season opener, a rematch of the Russell Athletic Bowl, and Hurricanes tailback Duke Johnson will be among the many new faces who didn't play in the December game.
We already knew both units would look far different than the groups we saw the last time they played, a 36-9 Louisville romp in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville lost star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who torched the Canes for 447 yards passing. Miami gained a healthy Duke Johnson, who missed the bowl game with an ankle injury.

Johnson brings a new dynamic to the matchup at running back. But so does new Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who runs a completely different offense than the one Miami could not stop last season. Parker was set to be the focal point of that offense, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound freak of an athlete with the capability of having a 1,500-yard season.

Without him, Louisville does have other options. The Cards are fortunate to have one of the deeper receiver groups in the ACC. Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz, and Michaelee Harris all return. Tennessee transfer Matt Milton and sophomore James Quick are players to watch. So is tight end Gerald Christian, expected to have a bigger role in the offense.

But with a new starting quarterback in Will Gardner, there is little doubt Parker would have been a security blanket of sorts and the immediate go-to player among the receivers. The other players are solid, but Parker is the one with first-round NFL draft potential thanks to his size and speed (he runs a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash).

Miami gets the benefit of having a stronger Johnson back on the field. His impact on this team is undeniable. With him, Miami was ranked No. 7 in the nation last year. Without him, the Canes dropped four of their final six games. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, Johnson stood on the sideline and watched Miami running backs muster 73 total yards on the ground.

It is obviously huge that he is back. But with a true freshman under center, one has to assume the Cards' defense will be geared toward stopping Johnson and making Kaaya beat them. Kaaya has the skill players around him to help, but the pressure will rest squarely on him to make the right reads and the right decisions in the face of all the pressure.

How will he handle that? Maybe even bigger -- how will he handle the spotlight, making his first start on the road in front of a nationally televised audience? Miami coaches have praised Kaaya for his unflappable demeanor, and say they have run him through pressure situations in practice.

But no practice simulation can prepare a freshman for the bright lights that await, especially as the Miami quarterback. Though Louisville lost some of its best players on defense and will be employing a new scheme, the Cards do return Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks), linebacker James Burgess (72 tackles) and top cover corner Charles Gaines to make life difficult for Kaaya.

It is plain to see the differences are everywhere. Kaaya and Parker just add to that theme, making this matchup perhaps the most difficult to predict heading into Week 1.
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Bye-bye, Clint and Jacob. Hello, Jacoby, Jake, Michael and Tyler?

You're forgiven if this entire exercise seems foreign. But at least 10 of the ACC's 14 teams will start new faces under center when games kick off next week. And there is a good chance that four of those 10 will have quarterbacks who began their college careers elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJake Heaps
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerNot long after playing in Kansas' spring game in April, Jake Heaps transferred to Miami.
Two former Florida State quarterbacks could square off in Week 1 in Atlanta during an SEC-Big 12 matchup. Two former Florida quarterbacks are set to start in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Then there are a pair of downtrodden Coastal powers, both of which may be starting quarterbacks who did not even arrive on campus until this summer.

"I really don't know," Miami coach Al Golden said of the surplus of ACC quarterback transfers. "We liked where we were in the spring, and clearly Ryan [Williams] went down the week before the spring game. It's really not a function of not being confident in the guys that are on campus. It's more a function of just wanting to get a guy that has been in the game and has the experience."

Golden acknowledged the quarterback market has been busier than usual, particularly in his league. He brought in former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps this summer after Williams, the Hurricanes' No. 1 quarterback, suffered a right ACL injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. (Williams, naturally, began his career elsewhere, at Memphis.)

Heaps, eligible immediately as a graduate transfer, is battling true freshman Brad Kaaya to start Miami's opener.

"I think the quarterback position has grown in terms of talent over the last few years," said Heaps, who set several freshman records at BYU in 2010 before losing his job both with the Cougars and later at Kansas. "There’s a lot of great, quality quarterbacks in college football right now and they all want a chance to play. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of these guys transfer. They’re in their situation but they know they can play somewhere else so they make those moves and try and find the best situation for them and in some cases it works out, in others it doesn’t. Just knowing they have that opportunity is first and foremost.

"Sometimes things just don’t work out. Recruiting is the way it is and sometimes a situation isn’t what you think it will be when you get there. It’s been a unique trend in the last little bit, but I think if a guy has an opportunity to go play, he should go explore that."

Likewise, fellow Coastal member Virginia Tech turned to the free-agent route following an underwhelming spring from its three quarterbacks, welcoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (and two true freshmen) to the race to replace Logan Thomas and kick-start an offense in need of a jolt after just 15 wins in the past two seasons. In an odd twist, Brewer, who has two seasons left to play after graduating from Texas Tech, was recommended to the Hokies' staff by Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who coached Brewer back at Lake Travis (Texas) High.

Brewer brings with him a nearly 71 percent completion percentage from his limited action with the Red Raiders, including 440 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeEx-Florida quarterback Jacoby Brissett enters this season as NC State's starter.
"Everyone needs success in their life, and if you're in a place where you're behind somebody or whatever you're not going to have it," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "To me, my whole thing is everyone needs success, and wherever you can do that, some of the guys that come through there, go somewhere where you can have success."

On the other side, in the more daunting Atlantic, a pair of second-year coaches are turning to former Gators quarterbacks to command their offenses.

Boston College coach Steve Addazio goes back with Tyler Murphy, a fellow Connecticut native whom Addazio had initially recruited to Gainesville, Florida, during his time as an assistant there. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State shortly after coach Dave Doeren was hired there, sitting out last season and taking enough initiative behind the scenes to earn the starting nod before spring ball this year.

“Last year we brought in Brandon Mitchell [from Arkansas] through the one-year loophole, and then at the end of the year, Pete Thomas and Manny Stocker left to go to [Louisiana-Monroe and UT-Martin]," Doeren said. "While that was going on, Jacoby transferred here from Florida. So I’ve seen about all of it that can go around. It’s just part of what recruiting is now. Guys want to play and people don’t want to wait their turn much anymore."

Murphy, who transferred in January, has one year to add some pizzazz to an Eagles' offense looking to spread the field more after last season's run-heavy approach. He spoke often with Brissett (who has two years left at NC State) back when both were still weighing their options when departing Florida.

The familiarity was more than enough to reunite Murphy with Addazio, who said a guy like Murphy probably should have gone to BC in the first place.

"Being a New England guy and growing up around BC, I watched a lot of BC and Matt Ryan in the early 2000s," Murphy said. "So it feels good to be a part of this institution, this program and I'm looking forward to the season."

Florida State could see a pair of its former quarterbacks start against each other next week, as Jake Coker transferred to Alabama one year after Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was supportive of both, with Trickett being familiar with WVU (his dad used to coach there before moving to FSU) and Coker heading to his home-state program after backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Fisher likened the rash of quarterback departures to that of college basketball transfers, because both are possession-dominated athletes.

The graduate-transfer rule, popularized by Russell Wilson three years ago, has only added to that. And, in many ways, it has been a boon for both sides.

"[It] gives some opportunities for guys that are worried about situations like Tyler's," Addazio said, referring to Murphy's injury-shortened 2013. "He's like, 'I've got one shot at this thing. I want to go where I feel like I've got the best opportunity to be the starter.' So you're seeing a lot of this right now. I like this opportunity."

The biggest problem facing the ACC moving forward in the College Football Playoff era is not the teams at the top of the league.

It is everybody else.

While it is great that Florida State and Clemson have proven capable of being playoff contenders year in and year out, what would give both teams and the entire league a huge boost is the development of a solid, consistent Top 5 teams.

That is what the SEC has right now and why it is viewed as having the toughest strength of schedule in the country. Folks look at the ACC strength of schedule and shrug their shoulders. With a selection committee now parsing through every schedule, every strength and every weakness, the idea that the ACC has a relatively weak strength of schedule is one that could end up hurting playoff contenders.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe ACC would benefit from a return to power by Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech Hokies and the Miami Hurricanes. The teams meet this season Oct. 23 in Blacksburg, Va.
All you need to do is look at the final ESPN.com conference power rankings for the explanation. Despite a national championship from Florida State and a BCS win from Clemson, the ACC finished No. 5 among the Power 5 conferences. ESPN Stats & Information, which compiled the rankings, noted:
The only reason that the ACC is not ranked higher in the conference rankings, however, is the conference is still lacking depth; the ACC went 3-6 in its non-BCS bowl games, with the six losses by a combined 103 points.

With only four spots in the playoff and five power leagues, somebody is going to get left out. The nightmare scenario, of course, would be for the ACC to be on the outside looking in, with strength of schedule the big reason why.

The only real way to fix that is for the rest of the league to rise up.

We're looking squarely at you, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Back when both teams were added in 2004, the hope was that they would instantly improve the league's football profile. Virginia Tech held up its end as one of the most consistent winners in the ACC over the past 10 years. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and Virginia Tech has not done much for the ACC lately. The Hokies put together eight straight 10-win seasons and four conference championships between 2004-2011, raising their profile as one of the marquee teams in the ACC.

Yes, they took some hits for their BCS performance over that period, but overall this program raised the bar higher. Virginia Tech had been a virtual lock to hold up the ACC banner. Since 2004, the Hokies finished with a Top 25 ranking eight times, more than any other team in the league. Ten wins are now expected, a big reason why two straight down years have hurt both the program and the league.

The ACC, meanwhile, is still waiting on Miami, which has not won 10 games since joining the ACC. The Canes came close a few times, including last season, but have had myriad issues to deal with on their climb back up to the top. Every season, the common refrain often includes, "Is this the year Miami will be back?" Its football history and tradition means the ACC needs Miami to thrive as a playoff contender, more than Virginia Tech.

After all, a program that has been known as a football power is held to a much different standard.

That is another reason why the ACC needs these four specific teams to be good. They are football schools. Look at how national perception has started to change with Florida State back on top. If Miami can get there, and if Virginia Tech can get there, all of a sudden the ACC has four strong football powers and can compete with any conference.

Another team into the mix would be ideal. It could be Louisville, coming off 23 wins in two years. It could be Georgia Tech, an ACC program with previous national championships. It could be Boston College, with three Top 25 finishes since 2004. It could be North Carolina. Anybody, really. It has been too long since the ACC had five teams ranked. With the league now expanded to 14, five should be the lowest number to hit.

The last time the ACC had five teams ranked was 2005, when Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Clemson and Florida State were all in the Top 25. Note a common theme there?

Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Florida State.

The ACC needs more of that.
Miami Hurricanes quarterback Jake Heaps wants to assure everybody his arm is just fine.

It may not have seemed that way Monday night, when word started to spread that he missed the evening scrimmage to rest his sore right arm. Given how much importance coach Al Golden has placed on quarterback performance in the preseason scrimmages, doubts about Heaps started to grow all around the Twitter-sphere to the repeated tune of hmmmmmmm ....

Such is life in the middle of a quarterback competition. One bit of news gets magnified tenfold until another bit of news comes along to tamp it down. So here it is, completely tamped down from Heaps himself:

"Everything is fine," Heaps told ESPN.com Tuesday in a phone interview. "I'm feeling good about everything, and just excited to get to practice Wednesday."

Heaps says he was held out of the scrimmage for precautionary reasons. While he sat on the sideline, true freshman Brad Kaaya threw two touchdown passes to grab a few headlines. But the competition to start at Louisville on Sept. 1 remains open between the two.

"They haven't given us a timetable on a decision," Heaps said. "They've kept everything pretty close to the vest, which I think is good because it just allows us to focus on every day and not worry about where we stand in certain points in time. It's about going out there each and every day and trying to take advantage of one practice and one rep at a time. That's all I'm concerned about, just trying to string a bunch of good days together and see where it falls. We're approaching Louisville here quickly, so I would imagine something would come in the near future, but I'm not concerned about that. I'm just focused on each practice that comes up."

Heaps says he has made the most of his two months on campus, since arriving as a transfer student from Kansas. Though there are no guarantees, he remains hopeful he will win the starting job.

"Obviously I'd be extremely disappointed if I didn't, but it's a long season and anything can happen so you have to have that mentality," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't regret anything. I've gone out and done everything that I could and laid it all on the line. At the end of the day, I have to look in the mirror and know if I gave it my all and I know that I have. I feel good about that. I'm just excited to continue practicing and see how everything ends up unfolding. I'll definitely be excited if I'm the guy."
Miami has not named a starting quarterback, but coach Al Golden has whittled it to a final two.

Senior transfer Jake Heaps and true freshman Brad Kaaya are tied atop the first depth chart of preseason practice. A news release from Miami states it will be either Heaps or Kaaya whoe leads Miami for its Sept. 1 season opener against Louisville.

"I'm not worried about that. I'm focusing on me," Heaps said Thursday morning. "What Coach decides, that's out of my hands."

The quarterback position became an open competition when projected starter Ryan Williams suffered an ACL tear in April. While Williams is practicing in 7-on-7 drills, the plan is for the senior to return during the season.

Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was considered to be one of the favorites to replace Williams, but Olsen is reportedly suspended from the season opener.

Both Heaps and Kaaya have been on campus for only a few months.

Heaps signed with Miami on June 15 as a transfer from Kansas. He started nine games for the Jayhawks, throwing for 1,414 yards and eight touchdowns. He began his career at BYU, where he set several freshman passing records, but he transferred after the 2011 season.

Kaaya, a California native, was highly regarded coming out of high school, ranked by RecruitingNation as the fifth-best pocket passer in the country and No. 112 overall in the ESPN 300. The 6-foot-4, 209-pound signal-caller remained committed to the Hurricanes despite late offers from UCLA and USC.

"The first two weeks, what I see from Brad is his maturity," running back Duke Johnson said Thursday morning. "You wouldn't think that Brad is a freshman quarterback, the way he talks, the way he handles the offense, the way he handles the plays, checks. He's able to read defenses. He doesn't do it as well as an older guy like Jake [Heaps], but he does it exceptionally well for a freshman."

Golden is scheduled to meet with reporters Thursday evening after the Hurricanes' second practice of the day.

Miami Hurricanes season preview

August, 12, 2014
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video

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Miami Hurricanes:

Key returners: RB Duke Johnson, WR Stacy Coley, TE Clive Walford, LB Denzel Perryman, DE Anthony Chickillo

Key losses: QB Stephen Morris, WR Allen Hurns, P Pat O'Donnell, DE Shayon Green

Most important 2014 games: at Louisville, Sept. 1; at Nebraska, Sept. 20; at Virginia Tech, Oct. 23; Florida State, Nov. 15.

Projected win percentage: 62

Over/under Vegas odds: 7 1/2

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIThe Hurricanes are holding out hope that running back Duke Johnson can stay healthy in 2014.
Instant impact newcomer: QB Jake Heaps or QB Brad Kaaya. With starter Ryan Williams out indefinitely while rehabbing a torn ACL and Kevin Olsen reportedly suspended for the opener, Heaps and Kaaya have emerged as the top two quarterbacks in the race to win the staring job. Heaps, a fifth-year transfer, has game experience that seemingly gives him an advantage over Kaaya, who has yet to play in a collegiate game. But Kaaya has impressed from the moment he set foot on campus, and coach Al Golden said Monday the race to start was "tight."

Best-case scenario for 2014: Miami avenges its embarrassing bowl loss to Louisville in the opener, then upsets Nebraska a few weeks later in Lincoln, setting the stage for a triumphant season. Confidence grows, and Miami goes into Blacksburg, Virginia, on a Thursday night in October and pulls the upset. Duke Johnson runs for over 1,500 yards, and Heaps does a terrific job holding down the fort until Williams returns. Miami finally hits double-digit wins and makes its first appearance in the ACC championship game.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The messy quarterback situation derails the Miami offense, as teams stack the box to contain Johnson. The defensive line is unable to get push up front or pressure on the quarterback. Despite improvements in the secondary, the defense as a whole makes only modest gains. A tough schedule featuring 10 bowl teams takes its toll and Miami barely reaches bowl eligibility.

Best NFL prospects: Perryman and Johnson. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Perryman listed as the No. 2 senior outside linebacker prospect Insider, and Johnson listed among his top five underclassmen at running back Insider. Perryman could have left school early for the draft but elected to return to improve his stock. He will be playing middle linebacker this year, so he should make even more plays than he did a season ago. The biggest key for Johnson this season is staying healthy. He has yet to play an entire season as the unquestioned starter. If he does that this year, he should be a virtual lock for 1,000 yards; then Miami fans will have to worry about losing him to the NFL.

They said it: "There's a standard of excellence at the University of Miami, and you're held to that standard, which we've all accepted by going to the University of Miami. The one thing I think that's different about this team is that they believe in who they are, so they certainly respect the past, but they want to represent who they are and their identity as a football team. There's been nothing about the 2014 team that even resembles the 2013 team. They wanted to be their own team, have their own leadership and really move forward. So I'm excited about these guys saying, 'OK, let's go out and make our own identity’ as opposed to relying on something that happened quite a while ago." -- coach Al Golden
Ed Reed had heart. He had swagger. He had leadership. He had emotion. He had a cool-under-pressure temperament. He had a knack for making big plays. He had key interceptions. He had major touchdown returns.

He had the tangibles, and he had the intangibles, the best of everything rolled into one complete package. Ed Reed may not have had the eye-popping stats on paper in 2001, but his performance that season transcends numbers.

Others may point to Willis McGahee or Warren Sapp or Russell Maryland. Miami has a long list of legendary players at just about every position on the football field. A multitude of guys could make the case for best single-season performance.

What Reed did in 2001 stands out above them all.

Without him, Miami does not win a fifth national championship.

I had the great fortune of covering that Miami team, one that ended up producing 17 first-round draft picks. Ken Dorsey, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey and Andre Johnson were terrific. But Reed was on another level in two ways: He was a phenomenal athlete with terrific range, a natural instinct for the ball and the ability to lay down the punishing hit. But he also was the type of player his teammates refused to let down.

Three iconic snapshots from that season define him.

The first: His impromptu halftime speech against Florida State, with Miami up 21-13 but playing a pretty flat first half. His now famous "I'm hurt, dog!" rant, captured on video, has more than 2 million views on YouTube. Nobody could inspire his teammates the way he did. Miami scored 28 points in the third quarter to romp to the victory.

The second: Miami up 12-7 against Boston College. The Eagles drove down to the Miami 9 with less than a minute to play. Reed came to the rescue. After Matt Walters intercepted a tipped pass, he was close to being tackled to the ground. Reed snatched the ball from Walters' hands and scored a touchdown, preserving the unbeaten season in a play that still resonates today.

The third: The regular-season finale against Virginia Tech. The Hokies were the last true threat to the Canes' unbeaten run. Again, Reed made the plays when they counted. He had two interceptions, including one in the closing minutes to seal the victory and a spot in the national championship game.

Reed ended up winning consensus All-America honors and led the country with nine interceptions. He had 18 total pass breakups to lead the Big East but he lost out on the Thorpe Award that season to Roy Williams of Oklahoma, a shame considering the mark Reed left on college football.

Perhaps what Reed did that season was underappreciated at the time, considering all the talent surrounding him. Maybe it was easy to overlook his stand-alone performance, especially compared to the big names on offense.

But as the years pass, it becomes clear that Reed the player and Reed the leader stand above all of the Miami greats.

Top ACC players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
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We wrap up our preseason countdown of the top 25 players in the ACC with the best of the best:

5. Jamison Crowder, Duke

Position: Wide receiver
Year: Senior

Crowder has a chance to leave school as the ACC's career leader in receptions and yards receiving. The electrifying Crowder needs 85 receptions and 1,152 receiving yards to set those marks, well within reason considering he has gone over 1,000 yards receiving each of the last two years. But beyond his receiving skills, Crowder is one of the best punt returners in the country, ranking No. 6 in the nation last year. He has led Duke in all-purpose yards for three straight seasons and needs just 1,537 yards to set the school record in all-purpose yards.

4. Rashad Greene, Florida State

Position: Wide receiver
Year: Senior

Greene makes the top five here, but he continues to be one of the most underrated receivers nationally. His numbers speak for themselves. Greene has led the Seminoles in receiving three straight seasons and is coming off his first 1,000-yard campaign. Already, he ranks fourth in school history in career receptions (171), sixth in receiving yards (2,465) and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns (22). Greene has caught a pass in 29 straight games, and that speaks to what he has done better than any receiver in recent history. He is consistent. Greene rarely makes mistakes and rarely drops passes. He will be critical to Jameis Winston's success this year.

3. Duke Johnson, Miami

Position: Running back
Year: Junior

Johnson knows how much he means to Miami. That became pretty clear when the Hurricanes went into a tailspin after he broke his ankle against Florida State in November. Nobody else on that team can replicate his speed, power, quickness and ability to make defenders miss. Johnson has never posted a 1,000-yard season -- a backup as a freshman and injuries derailed him last year -- but he does have something more impressive. His career average is 6.6 yards per carry, a true testament to how dynamic he is as a runner.

2. Vic Beasley, Clemson

Position: Defensive end
Year: Senior

Beasley could have left school early for the NFL draft after a monster 2013, in which he had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss to rank as one of the best in the nation. But he decided to return to anchor what could be one of the best defensive lines in the country. Beasley is not that much bigger than a year ago, but he has worked on dropping back into coverage along with fine-tuning his pass-rushing skills to be even better this season. Clemson expects him to be, especially since the Tigers will be relying on Beasley and the defense to set the tone.

1. Jameis Winston, Florida State

Position: Quarterback
Year: Redshirt sophomore

Maybe Winston can do what Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel could not -- become just the second player in history to repeat as the Heisman winner. Winston has a terrific shot to do so, given all the talent the Seminoles return. He was the overwhelming choice to repeat as ACC Player of the Year and is on the preseason watch list for every major quarterback and player of the year award. He will be playing behind the best offensive line in the country, though he faces his biggest test adapting to new players at the skill positions. Outside of Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary, a new cast of players need to step up as reliable targets. There is no 6-foot-5, 240-pound safety blanket named Kelvin Benjamin anymore. If the offense can transition seamlessly with new faces at key spots, Winston will be the reason.

FSU No. 1 in coaches' poll

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
12:50
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Surprise, surprise -- Florida State is the preseason No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.

Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.

Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.

Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.

Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.

Top ACC players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
9:00
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As we get set to open fall camps around the ACC, we're counting down the conference's Top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

10. Tre' Jackson, Florida State Seminoles

Position: Offensive guard
Year: Senior

The interior linemen for Florida State have never gotten quite as much credit as the guys on the edge, but both Jackson and fellow guard Josue Matias have developed into top NFL prospects and elite blockers. At 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, Jackson is the biggest member of a senior-laden line for FSU, and in his two years as a starter, the Seminoles have rushed for an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

9. DeVante Parker, Louisville Cardinals

Position: Wide receiver
Year: Senior

Only five receivers in the nation recorded double-digit touchdown totals in both 2012 and 2013. Of that group, just one will be back for 2014, and that’s Parker. Louisville is the newest addition to the ACC, but the conference’s cornerbacks better get to know Parker quickly. For his career, Parker has racked up 113 catches and nearly 2,000 yards, but with offensive guru Bobby Petrino taking over as head coach this year, Parker is poised for his biggest season yet.

8. P.J. Williams, Florida State

Position: Cornerback
Year: Junior

A preseason first-team All-ACC selection, Williams is finally starting to get the credit he so richly deserved for handling so much of the dirty work on Florida State’s dominant secondary in 2013. Williams was often tasked with shadowing the opponent’s top receiver, and he was targeted more than any other defensive back on the Seminoles’ roster, but he held his own and clearly made strides as the season progressed. The result was 35 tackles, three interceptions and defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship game.

7. Cameron Erving, Florida State

Position: Offensive tackle
Year: RS Senior

When Erving first made the switch from a back-up defensive tackle to the starting left tackle in the spring of 2012, coaches immediately gushed about his natural ability on the offensive side of the ball. And it was true, he was a quick fit on a developing line that made huge strides in his first year. But now Erving has refined those natural skills and, as coach Jimbo Fisher raved, he’s a far more nuanced lineman and leader, and he’ll be the cornerstone of a senior-laden line in 2014 that promises to be among the best in the nation.

6. Denzel Perryman, Miami Hurricanes

Position: Linebacker
Year: Senior

A first-team All-ACC selection, Perryman is the heart and soul of Miami’s defense. Perryman racked up 108 tackles last season, including double-digit tackles in six different games, highlighted by a 13-tackle performance in an upset win over Florida. Perryman’s speed and athleticism in the middle should make him one of the ACC’s most feared defenders again in 2014 and opens options for the Hurricanes to break in some young talent around him.

Best cross-conference recruiting battles 

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
8:25
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Some recruits get attention from all over the country. Whether it’s their prowess or proximity to multiple teams, top prospects will have schools from multiple conferences pursuing them. ESPN.com’s conference recruiting reporters look at five players in the recently updated ESPN 300 who have different conferences after them and have recruiting battles that could carry throughout the fall.

NOTE: For battles with multiple teams, reporters chose reported leaders or best fits.

The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- We can all agree just about every team in the cluttered Coastal Division has a chance to win it.

Yet, it was still a surprise to see Miami selected as the media’s preseason choice to play in its first ACC championship game. Sure, the Canes have a shot just like the other five teams that earned first-place votes, but it is hard to see how they have the best shot to make it to Charlotte.

Duke is my choice to finish first. Here is why I believe the Blue Devils have more of an edge than Miami headed into the season.

1. Quarterback. Duke is one of three teams in the league to return its starting quarterback. Senior Anthony Boone showed tremendous growth through 2013, and has used his fourth-quarter performance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as an opportunity to grow and learn, too. Coach David Cutcliffe says Boone has taken on much more leadership, responsibility and accountability. He should, especially with Brandon Connette out of the mix.

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Miami, meanwhile, has no answers at quarterback -- not until Ryan Williams returns from a torn ACL. Kevin Olsen or Jake Heaps will have to pilot the Canes until then and there are major question marks around both. You don't need to read much into these comments from Johnson to wonder: Has Olsen matured? Can Heaps live up to the hype that trailed him out of high school? And even when Williams does return, he is no sure thing. He’s only taken a handful of snaps in mop-up duty at Miami and just two against Top 25 competition (garbage time in a blowout to Kansas State). Duke Johnson is one of the best players in the country, but Miami needs an effective quarterback to help him out. We don’t know yet whether he does.

2. Schedule. Miami plays one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. The Hurricanes get both Florida State and Louisville out of the Atlantic, and then have to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night. No other bona fide Coastal contender has to face that trifecta. Miami will definitively be without Williams for the opener at Louisville, a team that destroyed the Canes in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville has a radically different look, but the Cards already are favored to win. Duke, meanwhile, avoids Florida State, Clemson Tigers and Louisville, playing Syracuse Orange and Wake Forest from the Atlantic. In addition, the Blue Devils get Virginia Tech and North Carolina at home. It seems pretty clear Duke has the schedule advantage.

3. Defense. The truth is, neither defense was stellar last season. Miami and Duke ranked toward the bottom in the ACC in just about every major defensive category. But no coordinator is under fire more than Mark D'Onofrio at Miami. There is a level of play people have come to expect from the Miami defense, and nobody has seen it in years. Al Golden has talked up his group headed into this season, but acknowledges the defensive line needs to transform itself into a dominating group. For Miami to make the jump to a championship, it needs a vastly improved group. I’m just not sure the Canes will field a dominating defense this year.

Certainly, Miami has the talent to make it to the title game. The Canes had early momentum last year before they fell back, mostly because Johnson was hurt. A healthy Johnson gives Miami an opportunity to win all its games. But remember, even when Johnson was healthy last season Miami was living on the edge, needing fourth-quarter comebacks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, North Carolina and Wake Forest.

The bottom line is this: There are far too many questions to overlook to believe in Miami as the preseason Coastal favorites.

Agree? Disagree? Vote in our poll and drop me a line in the mailbag with your thoughts. Best comments go up Friday.

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