Setting realistic expectations; it might truly be the key to general happiness and overall satisfaction.

Years back there was a 60 Minutes segment where Denmark was named the happiest country on the planet. A deeper dive into the “why”—lowered, realistic expectations proving to be their path to happiness. Where that might sound defeatist to some, it actually makes a boatload of sense.

Where other countries expect to be on top all the time and are disappointed when things don’t go their way, the Danes see themselves as down at the bottom—hanging on and not expecting much, so when the get the occasional life win, it tends to mean more and they’re left pleasantly surprised.

That’s not to say we must abandon all hope and aim low regarding life standards. It’s simply a call to be more realistic, as false expectations can ultimately lead to unnecessary frustration and heartache.

Relating this to football, Miami got clobbered by LSU in Dallas on Sunday; a 33-17 beat-down nowhere near as close as the final score. The loss stung and has left many reeling; throwing in the towel on the season one-game in—expressing frustration with a rebuilding process that hasn’t yet turned a corner.

It’s a complete disconnect regarding where some feel this Hurricanes’ program should be in 2018, versus the reality of what is.

It’s an expectations thing—too many wouldn’t understand.

PUTTING LAST YEAR IN PROPER PERSPECTIVE

The Canes raced out to a 10-0 start in 2017, but those willing to admit into how those games were won—instead of just focusing on the final score—are able to point out the fool’s gold in that record. Miami needed miracle, late-game comebacks against good-not-great Florida State and Georgia Tech squads, followed by some too-close-for-comfort showdowns against Syracuse and North Carolina.

With the entire city behind the Canes in a pair of back-to-back primetime, nationally-televised showdowns—Miami took it to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame pretty well—but looked mortal at home on Senior Day against a Virginia squad that finished 6-7. Down twice by two touchdowns, the Canes ultimately out-talented the Cavaliers down the stretch, but the inconsistency and lack of urgency came back to haunt a week later at Pittsburgh.

The Panthers held the Canes scoreless from the middle of the second quarter until the final two minutes of the fourth, Miami unable to run the ball, while Malik Rosier missed open receivers and lacked touch all afternoon.

Matters were made worse a week later against Clemson in the ACC Championship, as the Canes were without their top receiver (Ahmmon Richards) and clutch tight end (Chris Herndon), two huge blows after already losing go-to running back Mark Walton at Florida State early October. The personnel crisis carried over through the Orange Bowl loss to Wisconsin, as well.

This is another area of disconnect with the, “We should already be back by now, BRO—enough of this rebuilding!” crowd. All that “next man up” stuff works when you’re Nick Saban at Alabama, pulling your starting quarterback in a national title game and subbing in a 5-star, top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation (who practiced with the first team all bowl season). Tua Tagovailoa didn’t just fall into the Tide’s lap; he’s part of a program where the bottom forty players could beat many teams’ top forty.

There are realities regarding Miami’s current place in the college football landscape. Some can accept these, while other label “facts” as “excuses”, screaming about how eighties- or nineties-era Hurricane squads would’ve responded to adversity.

Regarding the rebuild, it started in December 2015 when Mark Richt arrived—and not a day sooner. Six weeks prior to Richt’s homecoming, an Al Golden-led Miami squad was crushed by Clemson at home, 58-0, halfway through the head coach’s fifth season in Coral Gables. Zero rebuilding went on in that era.

Fact is, the Hurricanes hadn’t “rebuilt” anything since Butch Davis pulled the program out of probation in the late 1990′s. From there, Larry Coker let UM fall apart, Randy Shannon made matters worse during a five-year, in-over-his-head experience and Golden bottomed everything out—the wrong guy culturally, extracting everything Miami-like out of the program, leaving the Canes looking more like a slow, passionless, defenseless team from the northeast—opposed to an aggressive, southernmost powerhouse it was for three decades.

Where the eighties provided us a “Decade of Dominance”, the Canes have been stuck in a “Decade of Disaster” that they’re just now pulling out of.

Coker went 6-6 his final season, Shannon followed with a 28-22 run, while Golden’s half-decade ended with a 32-25 record—a combined 66-53 run under three UM coaches between 2006 and half of the 2015. The numbers don’t lie.

Richt is now 19-8 since the 2016 season; having lost four in a row once depth issues and quarterback-related talent finally caught up with him. Still, it was the emergence of a new leader that officially stopped the backsliding, where Miami at least now somewhat resembles a on-the-mend Canes team.

Resembles being the key word here; meaning Miami is finally on the road to passing the eye test of a quality program—but entering year three, still has a way’s to go and needs to keep recruiting the right kids.

All of this making the media’s relentless, “Is Miami back?” line of questioning so ridiculous.

NEWS FLASH; “BACK” IS A MYTH—CAN ONLY GO FORWARD

Objectively this should be easy to answer; no—the Canes aren’t back, because there is no “back”. It doesn’t exist. Comparing modern-day Miami to a foregone era where a renegade, pioneer program ultimately turned the collective sport on its ear—it’s a feat impossible to repeat and can’t be the benchmark.

UM is simply working to load back up on talent and depth so that it can do what all top teams aspire to in this day and age; win their division so they can earn a crack at a conference championship, which in most cases will result in one of four, coveted Playoffs spots.

Still, because it’s “The U”—a polarizing national program that’s loved, hated, respected and-or held in contempt—it’s good business for the media to consistently prop Miami up in unrealistic situations, with the hope the Canes fall, knowing that one way or another, UM moves the needle and gets people talking.

This was proven again by the ratings, as Miami-LSU earned a 4.1 overnight—up 41% from last season’s kickoff week and ABC’s Sunday night prime-time presentation. Some of ESPN’s most-televised showdowns over the years; the Canes are always the common denominator, despite the opponent changing.

TIGERS ROLL BEHIND TALENT AND EXECUTION; CANES FALTER

Despite being 17 spots apart to open the season, No. 8 Miami entered the showdown against No. 25 LSU a three-point favorite in a neutral site battle. Not much considering how these teams were ranked.

Despite LSU’s slide that cost Les Miles his job four games into the 2016 campaign, followed by interim status for Ed Orgeron—who lost the temporary tag by the end of that season—the Tigers’ remain a powerhouse talent-wise.

LSU currently has the seventh-ranked class for 2019, after locking down the 15th-best class in 2018. In 2017, despite the Miles-to-Orgeron transition the season before the Tigers had the seventh-best class, while Miles inked the second-best class in 2016—his final haul in Baton Rouge.

In comparison, Richt’s saving of Golden’s class, while trying to sway any Georgia prospects in early 2016—Miami only finished 22nl, but jumped to 12th in 2017; Richt’s first full class in Coral Gables. Things took another step forward this past February as the Canes had the seventh-best class in the nation—while currently sitting at 18th with 16 verbal commitments for 2019.

The recruiting-related detour above; an attempt to throw some shade (and logic) at the absurdity of pre-season rankings—as well at any who felt Miami was going to take LSU to task on Sunday night, because of where both started the in the polls. Both teams had comparable seasons last year, while the Tigers have more across-the-board talent and depth, despite any downgrade in head coaches when Miles was let go.

Toss in the competent and coveted Dave Aranda at defensive coordinator—who knew exactly what to throw at Miami’s inexperienced offensive line and barely-average quarterback—and it was going to take precision, focus and execution for the Hurricanes to make some early moves Sunday night. A tall order considering the slow starts and comebacks Miami relied upon most of last season.

If the Hurricanes were going to notch a nationally-televised win over a quality SEC program, a few things needed to happen—starting with Rosier showing noticeable improvement and a solid leap forward, atoning for his late-season collapse in 2017. Instead, the fifth-year senior proved as inconsistent and ineffective as the college football world last saw him—doing little in an ACC Championship loss to Clemson, as well as blowing an Orange Bowl lead against Wisconsin.

Miami also needed it’s reshuffled offensive line to grow up quickly—but it didn’t. Richt has verbalized that this line will go next-level once some younger, talented guy get some experience—but going into game one against LSU with former right tackle Tyree St. Louis getting his first start on the left, protecting Rosier’s blindside—it was a mess.

The only silver lining; the Hurricanes won’t soon see a front seven like the Tigers’ the rest of this season, unless it wins the Coastal Division and has a rematch against Clemson in the conference championship.

With Rosier off and the line not ready for prime time, Miami’s ground attack was as ineffective as one would expect—Travis Homer unable to get anything going. Much like the loss to the Badgers, where Homer was held to 64 yards—the Hurricanes had to rely on different looks and gimmicky plays with DeeJay Dallas simply to manufacture something, as the offensive line got worked in the trenches for the fourth game in a row.

All of this obviously resulting in an inconsistent passing attack, as well. Jeff Thomas bailed Rosier out with a few miracle grabs and a career night—five receptions for 132 yards—while true freshman Brian Hightower reeled in a perfect over-the-shoulder touchdown on his one and only reception. Lawrence Cager had two solid pick-ups for 42 yards, while last year’s two-game hero Darrell Langham had two catches of his own.

Richards—in his first action since late last season—left the game early with an undisclosed leg injury, with one reception for nine yards, which freed up lock-down corner Greedy Williams to challenge other Canes; another break for the opposition.

On the other side of the ball, Miami was without sophomore sensation Trajan Bandy as he was ejected for leading with the helmet on LSU’s first possession. Even worse, the ejection was the result of LSU calling a time out to regroup, leading officials to review the play. The Canes also whiffed on what looked like a sure Turnover Chain appearance as Michael Pinckney jarred the ball loose with a big hit on the same Bandy play, but cornerback Michael Jackson tried to scoop and run instead of falling on the ball, allowing the Tigers to retain possession.

So much happened in a matter of seconds—none of it swinging in Miami’s favor.

Matters were made worse but special teams incompetence as Zach Feagles remained the same inconsistent mess he was as a freshman last season—his first punt going 20 yards, giving LSU the ball at UM’s 47-yard line, where they were in field goal range in a matter of minutes, following the Bandy ejection.

True freshman Bubba Baxa knocked down his first career field goal on the ensuing drive—a 37-yarder from the right hash mark—but sent a dead-center, 45-yarder left, preventing Miami from taking the early lead. This play; the result of a mishap six plays before when Demetrius Jackson inexplicably hit quarterback Joe Burrow late on a 2nd-and-10 incompletion.

Instead of the Canes’ defense getting to pin their ears back for 3rd-and-10 from the LSU 28-yard line—a fresh set of downs from the 43—and another blown attempt to get a stop on 3rd-and-10 after back-to-back incompletions from Burrow, before he found Justin Jefferson for 12 yards and moved the chains.

Three plays later LSU scored on a 50-yard run by Nick Brossette—the result of an audible by Burrow, who changed the play at the line when he saw something in Miami’s defensive alignment that tipped him off.

Trailing 10-3, Rosier found Richards for his lone grab, which set up a 2nd-and-1, but a holding penalty on St. Louis had Miami facing 2nd-and-11—resulting in back-to-back incompletions and a 34-yard Feagles’ punt, setting LSU up at their own 42-yard line.

Early in the second quarter, a Miami stop would’ve given the Canes’ offense another crack at tying the game. Instead, an implosion that pushed the lead to 14—electrifying LSU, while putting UM on its heels.

Facing a 4th-and-1, Orgeron rolled the dice and Brossette punched ahead for two yards—Miami missing an opportunity to wrap the runner up in the backfield. On the ensuing 3rd-and-10, Burrow connect with Jonathan Giles for nine yards—the Hurricanes’ line unable to get to the quarterback, giving him too much time and comfort to complete the play.

Orgeron again went for it on 4th-and-1—this time Miami giving it to LSU as Tito Odenigbo jumped off sides; the defensive tackle a graduate transfer from Illinois that the Canes are forced to lean on after linemen like RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton ignored sound advice to return for their senior seasons.

Brossette picked up another first down on the ground, setting up a Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase 22-yard hook-up that went out at the pylon. Lost in the shuffle; the fact Chase lost the ball when hitting the ground for what should’ve been an incomplete pass. Instead, the Tigers quickly snapped the ball from the 1-yard line and Brossette hammered it in, pushing the lead to 17-3.

In last week’s game preview, we listed Rosier, Homer and Feagles were our three key players who needed a big night if Miami was to win. All three failed to get it done, for various reasons.

Circling back to Odengibo jumping offsides—as well as the premature departures of both McIntosh and Norton—both are a microcosm of the depth issues still plaguing Richt in year three.

MIAMI GROWING INTO WHO IT SHOULD BE IN PRESENT DAY

If Miami were truly loaded talent-wise—and “back”, for lack of a better term—the Canes aren’t relying on a former Fighting Illini defensive lineman to help the cause. Picking him up this off-season; a direct result of two guys leaving early who should’ve heeded the advice of coaches, mentors and experts and returned for their senior seasons.

Instead, both left because they “felt ready”, despite their low draft grades. McIntosh was selected by the New York Giants in the fifth round, while Norton hung around until the seventh, where the Carolina Panthers selected him.

Vocal about how far he slid, Norton stated he wanted all GMs who passed on him to get fired. Instead, he was the one let go—cut by Carolina the day before he should’ve started for the Hurricanes in Dallas. The morning after, New York parted ways with McIntosh—leaving both guys out of work, when each should be in Coral Gables right now preparing for Savannah State.

Compare that to a true power like Clemson, who returned two seniors to a defensive line that is regarded as the best in the nation, by a long shot. Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant were sure-fire first-rounders—Wilkins said to be a Top 10 pick—yet both came back under the guise of “unfinished business” as the Tigers were ousted by eventual national champion Alabama in the first round of last year’s Playoffs.

Where the rich got richer—these two Tigers set to dominate with Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence this fall—Miami saw two not-NFL-ready players bail early, resulting in a grad transfer to fill in—this newbie having a direct impact game one with a mistake that cost the Hurricanes dearly.

After seeing what happened to Brad Kaaya last spring—drafted in the seventh round by Detroit and cut the same weekend as Miami’s season opener against Bethune-Cookman—the cautionary tale fell on deaf ears months later with McIntosh and Norton. Kaaya would’ve been a senior in 2017, leaving Rosier to back him up—which could’ve resulted in a better overall season, while directly impacting this year’s quarterback race as No. 12 wouldn’t have had the leg up and experience that separated him from the others.

All of this begging the question, come next spring how will the next crop of would-be seniors respond—returning for one more go-around and not giving Richt more depth-related headaches—or feeling they’re ready to roll, despite evidence and advice to the contrary?

Linebackers like Pinckney, Shaq Quarterman and Zach McCloud, as well as Joe Jackson on the defensive line—the 2019 Hurricanes’ defense will either be hamstrung and stuck in that “rebuild mode” so many are sick of—or it will get a boost from a few seniors that can make a legit run at winning the ACC and reaching the Playoffs.

When does the pendulum swing Miami’s way—those guys who aren’t surefire first rounders coming back—shifting the culture the way it has at Clemson; players putting off the next-level for one more year and finishing the task at hand?

Jaquan Johnson followed the lead of mentor Ed Reed by returning for one final go-around this season—despite the safety getting a much better draft grade than either McIntosh or Norton. The Canes need more leaders like No. 4 if they’re going to make that leap from good to great.

THE GOOD-TO-GREAT SHIFT; WHEN DOES IT OFFICIALLY HAPPEN?

These aren’t scenarios or situations top-flight programs and championship contenders deal with. Solid players and role-filers leaving early, as well as depth chart setbacks that have a head coach like Richt stuck in year three with a quarterback he verbalized would never start for him.

N’Kosi Perry may have the sizzling highlight high school highlight reel, but the redshirt sophomore still hasn’t mastered the playbooks and makes one boneheaded play for every one stellar one. Despite Rosier’s issues, Perry not only hasn’t stepped up and beat the long-time back-up out—he also didn’t even make the trek to Dallas, staying home suspended for an undisclosed team violation. Not a vote of confidence in a position where leadership is a necessary trait.

Quarterback aside, the Hurricanes are also still underwhelming at running back—and have been since Walton sustained a season-ending injury at Florida State last October, only to declare for the NFL at year’s end, instead of returning as a senior and leader this fall for Miami.

Homer is a solid back-up and would help provide a fresh 1-2 punch—but he started getting stifled as the opposition got better; Rosier’s inefficiency and a struggling offensive line definitely not doing its job.

Miami has 5-star running back Lorenzo Lingard waiting in the wings, but the talented freshman slipped to fourth on the depth chart as his pass protection and blocking skills aren’t where the Hurricanes need him to be. Instead, when Homer faltered against LSU, Dallas got a handful of carries, as did Trayone Gray—a redshirt senior recruited as an “athlete” who still hasn’t found his groove.

As much as the Canes need stability at quarterback and offensive line, Miami needs a game-breaking running back who is truly a threat to break one anytime he touches the ball—while trusting him on first and second down to set up and-short situations on third down. May this shift happen over the next three weeks, as well as improvement under center.

PUT IT UNDER A MICROSCOPE AND HONESTLY ASSESS WHAT IS

It’s these weaknesses and problems areas that must force reassessment and the setting of proper expectations—truly seeing this Miami program for what it is (and what it was last year)—opposed to projecting who fans want the Hurricanes to be.

The frustration from wanting to be dominant again—that alone can’t speed up the comeback process. Fact is things slipped for years under Coker, Shannon managed to make things even worse, while Golden proved ridiculously off-the-mark culture- and personnel-wise—Miami as a program was lost beyond any recognition and wasted roughly a dozen years going the wrong direction. (Toss in three years of Rat Shapiro and the NCAA screwing up an investigation; “hot mess” is an understatement.)

The point here; the expectations we mentioned at the get-go. Based what Miami ultimately accomplished last year, based on the key losses versus who returned, based on no improvement at quarterback, an in-progress offensive line and a lack of depth with the Canes’ front seven—what does a truly successful season look like? Real-talk; not fantasy.

Some UM fans have a tendency to get bro-tastic, talking about running the table and setting the bar too high—based on the past. In this current climate, Miami’s season needs to be measured accordingly.

For starters, a loss against LSU in a season opener is virtually meaningless—based on how today’s college game lays out; winning your division and then conference the most-direct way to punch your ticket to the post-season. (This is especially true for power conferences like the SEC and now the ACC, with the emergence of Clemson—as well as boasting Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech as quality programs.)

Yes, a season-opening loss could be a difference-maker for a bubble team and that fourth Playoff spot—but if Miami somehow ripped off 12 wins in a row, upsetting Clemson for the ACC crown, a September loss to LSU wouldn’t even be remembered

A win in Dallas would’ve proven to be a good building block, ending a three-game losing streak and building momentum for the weeks ahead—but that wasn’t ever going to happen without tangible improvement from Rosier, an offensive line quickly jelling, a effective ground game taking some pressure off—with the defense playing sound, mistake-free, turnover-forcing football.

Instead, the Hurricanes are forced to hit a hard reset and reassess in regards to who they are, where they stand and how they’re going to correct mistakes in order to get where they want to go this season.

TIME FOR RICHT TO FACE HARD QUESTIONS, MAKE TOUGH DECISIONS

A question Richt and staff have to quickly answer; how does Miami choose to prepare for this week as the Canes aren’t rolling into Savannah State with queried answered, working on general improvement. Instead, the glaring issues at quarterback need addressing—while more tooling with the offensive line is a must.

Rosier more than has enough to handle the next four games, while again going at a Florida State squad hovering in the good-not-great space. From there, the senior’s mettle will get tested as Miami hits the road four of the next five weeks—at Virginia, at Boston College on a Friday night, at Georgia Tech and at Virginia Tech, with a home Duke game in the middle of everything. Miami then closes with Pittsburgh at home.

Winning the Coastal Division is the Hurricanes’ ultimate goal; something the accomplished last year for the first time since joining the ACC in 2004. To do this, the margin for error is small with those eight conference games. Wins at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech take on a must-win vibe as both are always threats to take the division, so head-to-head is crucial.

The Canes must also top the Seminoles; an Atlantic Division foe, though it counts as a conference loss just the same. (Virginia Tech made their statement with a convincing 24-7 win in Tallahassee; setting up for a dogfight in Blacksburg mid-November.)

Does Richt believe Rosier can guide Miami through the second half of the season, where a conference loss or two could knock the Hurricanes out of the Coastal hunt? Time to err on the side of caution and use the next three weeks so solidify a number two; having Perry or Weldon ready to roll should Rosier’s free fall continue.

Whether it’s Perry, Weldon or true freshman Jarren Williams becoming a quick study and pulling it all together—the best of this bunch must split first string snaps with Rosier in practice, getting groomed for a potential start on the horizon—as a fourth consecutive bad game for No. 12 is now impossible to move past.

From there, Richt should treat Saturday’s home opener against the Tigers as an open competition all around—letting a lot of players see the field that otherwise wouldn’t against a tougher foe.

A road trip to Toledo requires a little more focus—the Rockets going 11-2 last season and winning the MAC. From there, back home against FlU and another opportunity to continue tinkering with the depth chart and figuring out the best combination out there before getting into conference play.

CLICHE, BUT TRUE—SEASON GOALS STILL IN TACT

Miami can easily be 4-1 going into Florida State weekend; where the Canes are due to take one at home (for the first time since 2004) as the Willie Taggart era is just getting underway for the Seminoles. Pushing that to 5-1 would put a loss to LSU in the rearview, with UM back on track and checking off a big box regarding their handful of season goals.

The Canes must be battle-tested and settled by late October and a trek to Boston College that has “upset” written all over it, followed by a brutal November with those back-to-back road games against the Yellow Jackets and Hokies—showdowns that will ultimately make or break this season.

Lots of football left to be played and time to get things corrected, barring Richt pushes the right buttons in the coming weeks. Year three of a rebuild—on the heels of 15 awful seasons in Coral Gables—the only “back” Miami needs in 2018 is to get back to the ACC Championship game, on the heels of a regular season that sees them beating an arch rival (Florida State) and a pair of divisional foes (Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech).

Anything on top of that is gravy for this Richt-led squad that simply lacks the horses to be elite—staying relevant enough in the meanwhile to keep the recruits rolling in, upgrading the talent so Miami can once again be a contender in the truest sense of the word.

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