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Miami Football Fans Should be Excited - The State of the Program

Miami's players, coaches, and fans have paid their dues. It's time to start reaping the benefits. I revisit some recent Canes history and talk about why this year will be different. Canes fans should be very excited and I'll outline the reasons why. (It's not what you think) Follow me @JPickens15 for thoughts on the Canes and 15 college football picks each weekend this season.

Joel Auerbach

The title of this article likely made you believe I would be talking about the arm strength of Stephen Morris or the quickness of Duke Johnson. I could discuss how Miami's receivers are among the best in the nation or talk about the experienced offensive line that returns this season. While this roster excites me, I'm here to talk about the state of the program as a whole. This year provides a real opportunity for success. A dream schedule, an athletic department that gets it, and positive momentum will help make this season special. But before we can talk optimism, it is important to remember how we got here.

Darkest Before the Dawn

Like many Canes fans, I spent New Years Eve 2006 on my couch watching Miami battle Nevada on the blue turf. When Chavez Grant made a game saving interception in the final moments, I let out a sigh of relief. Miami's players got the win for their fired HC Larry Coker. Few could have foreseen the struggles that Miami would face in the next six years that followed. The 21-20 win in the MPC Computers Bowl was the last time the Canes won a bowl game. Since that game, Miami has a record of 41-34 overall, with an abysmal 24-24 mark in the ACC. Despite the disappointments, I have paid my dues and have supported this team as much as possible. In the past six seasons, I've seen Miami play on the road in 13 different stadiums in 11 different states. From Norman to Columbus to Clemson to College Station to Manhattan, I've seen all possible outcomes and experiences. While there were several satisfying wins, I left the stadiums dejected far too often. My road record is 5-8 since 2006 so it may please Canes fans that I won't be traveling for the first part of the season.

The Three S's - Shannon, Sun Life, and Sanctions

When Randy Shannon became the head coach, everyone was excited about the possibilities. Unfortunately, Randy never successfully embraced the fans and the South Florida community. Talented recruits didn't seem to develop year after year, but would somehow flourish once given an opportunity in the NFL. The poor results on the field led to poor attendance and by mid 2010, the football program seemed headed in the wrong direction. While tailgating for the USF game at the end of 2010, I was depressed when I saw planes circling the stadium with banners asking for Shannon to be fired. The memories of the great years of Miami football seemed so distant and I was desperate for a return to optimism.

The move to Sun Life Stadium in 2008 was certainly a setback for the program. The pageantry and tradition of the Orange Bowl was so special to fans and players. I've never been to a stadium louder than the Orange Bowl was for big games. Sun Life felt too corporate and Miami lost a significant part of their home field advantage. The Canes athletic department under Shannon and Kirby Hocutt could have done a far better job improving the stadium experience.

Once Al Golden was hired, that sense of optimism briefly returned as the new head coach seemed to be the perfect guy to return Miami to greatness. In a matter of months, the entire Miami program was blindsided by the emergence of the Nevin Shapiro allegations. Under a constant storm of distractions, which was only exacerbated by the NCAA's mismanagement of the case, recruiting and coaching became much harder. Miami smartly sanctioned itself and missed out on two bowl opportunities. I believe the NCAA will soon rule favorably for Miami and the Canes will finally begin a season with all of the distractions behind them.

This Year Will Be Different

A Dream Schedule

After making the drive from the Kansas City airport to Manhattan, KS last year, I was thrilled about the opportunity to watch the Canes play. As I watched a blowout unfold and saw the fans around me cheering in purple shirts that simply read "Farming and Football," I started to wonder what Miami was doing in Manhattan playing a game at noon. No recruits ever hailed from Kansas other than the infamous Brown brothers and the Canes were playing their second straight road game to begin the year. A well-constructed schedule is essential to success in college football. Miami's 2013 schedule is nearly perfect and will provide the Canes with great opportunities for a memorable season. Here are the advantages of this year's slate of games.

Playing Close to Home

- Miami plays nine games in the state of Florida, including seven home games. Miami's coaching staff will be more available for recruiting and local prospects will see more of the Canes. The Canes don't leave Florida until the October 17th matchup at North Carolina. The other two longer travel games should be very winnable: at Duke and at Pittsburgh.

Most Exciting Non-Conference Game is at Home

- Canes fans can't wait for the Florida game. The sellout crowd gives Miami a great opportunity to not only win the game, but to drive larger crowds at home games throughout the year. The last time the Canes played a game like this against a rival was the blowout win over Ohio State in 2011. The atmosphere that night was incredible.

No Conference Games in September

- In recent years the Canes have played conference games too early in the season. This team expects to make it to the ACC Championship and will have four games to gain more experience before hosting Georgia Tech in Game 5.

Favorable Coastal Division Schedule

- Miami is fortunate to play at home against Virginia Tech in consecutive seasons. The Canes also host Virginia and Georgia Tech. Two road games in the Coastal are against the likely worst two teams in the division in Duke and Pitt.

Extra Preparation for Big Games

- Playing FAU on a Friday night gives Miami an extra day of rest and preparation before the Florida game. The Canes coaching staff can watch Florida host Toledo and get a jump start on the game-planning. Miami's biggest ACC game is likely the trip to Chapel Hill for a Thursday night matchup. The Canes have a bye the week before UNC, which is crucial. There is also a bye after the Florida game which makes sense because of the emotion and physicality of the rivalry. Win or lose, Miami will the chance to regroup and get healthy.

An Athletic Department That Gets It

After Phillip Dorsett’s dramatic game-winning touchdown against NC State last season, I received dozens of messages from friends across the country. While half of them focused on how exciting the game was and congratulated me, the other half focused on how empty the stadium looked on television. Filling Sun Life Stadium has been a problem for Miami in recent years, and the situation looks far worse on TV because the game cameras only show the visitors side of the field. Regardless of how many times I’ve told people that the other side of the stadium is packed, no one ever believed me. This athletic department, under the leadership of new AD Blake James, has made a significant change for this season. Part of the student section is moving to the north sideline, which will make a dramatic difference for the Hurricanes. The stadium will be louder, the fan support on television will look much better, and we will hear less about poor attendance from blogs and websites that have picked on Miami in years past. With the students now covering an area from the end zone to the 40 yard line, expect the entire energy of Sun Life Stadium to change. The introduction of Canes Walk at the stadium in 2011 was also a terrific idea that will hopefully grow in popularity in the years to come. Some of my fondest memories of the pageantry of college football came from seeing the pregame traditions on different college campuses. The experience at Sun Life has improved in each of Golden’s first two seasons and I expect that to continue.

A few months after he was hired, my friend and I had the opportunity to briefly meet Coach Golden at an event. While I simply wished Al good luck with the coming season, my friend took it upon himself to use this opportunity to make a point. As Al shook his hand, my friend told him: "Don’t worry about what you’ve read about Miami fans. If you win, people will come." After a successful season in the ACC in 2012, optimism is high with September just one month away. The athletic department has done a terrific job with season ticket sales and engaging the fans. The years of Randy Shannon preventing the fans from accessing and getting to know the players are long gone. The social media and online presence of Miami’s athletic department have been significant drivers of fan excitement. The Raising Canes video series and this year’s Mind Games series have allowed fans access to players and coaches like never before. The hype continues to build and fans feel like this is their team. Miami’s current players love the changes and you can tell that recruits and high school coaches have embraced the new exposure to the program. The success of recent fundraising initiatives and the building of newer facilities will help Miami compete at a high level in the future.

The NCAA, Recruiting, and Momentum

The NCAA situation has been difficult for the entire program these past few years. The players and coaches have never complained and deserve to be rewarded with success. As I’ve mentioned before, I remain confident that Miami will only be hit with a loss of scholarships in the next few weeks. We know how well Coach Golden can recruit, even with the fear of sanctions looming over his program. With the NCAA out of the way, Miami’s return to prominence becomes much more attainable. I try to not worry much about recruiting until January, because I don’t want to be disappointed when kids change their minds at the last minute. This year though, I can’t help being very excited about the recruiting class of 2014. The positive momentum around the Miami program is palpable. South Florida high school coaches and players want to be a part of something special and want to play close to home. If Miami has a successful season on the field, this class will only improve and finish as one of the nation’s best. The hiring of James Coley as offensive coordinator has made a significant difference and his energy has been a breath of fresh air in Coral Gables.

I hope to see everyone at the stadium this fall. This team has an opportunity for a special year and it is our job to give them the atmosphere and support they deserve. Miami has experience and talent at every position and has a senior leader in QB Stephen Morris. Coach Golden has his team believing and confidence will grow throughout the season. I haven’t been this excited about the arrival of September in almost a decade. This season will be different.

Full Speed Ahead.