The Independence Bowl may be the season finale for Miami, but it may also mark the beginning of Al Golden's last chance to rebuild "The U."
Out to end a disappointing season on a positive note and build for the future, the Hurricanes face South Carolina on Saturday in Shreveport, Louisiana.
A late-season swoon that started by blowing a 13-point halftime lead in a 30-26 defeat to College Football Playoff semifinalist Florida State on Nov. 15 has resulted in increased pressure on Golden, who is 28-21 as his fourth season draws to a close. Though he has internal support for guiding the program through a self-imposed bowl ban his first two seasons and earning his second straight bowl appearance, Golden has yet to lift Miami (6-6) into the national elite.
That has been a sore spot for the Hurricanes faithful, who haven't seen a 10-win season since 2003 and continue to see previous generations of the program lionized - most notably in ESPN's "30 for 30" short film features.
''As I said earlier, 6-6 isn't acceptable at the University of Miami,'' athletic director Blake James said this month. ''We need to get better as a program and I'm confident we have the guy that's going to do that. I'll continue to support Al.''
That support, though, has been tested for more than a year. In some ways, this season was a continued hangover from 2013, when the Hurricanes started 7-0 and reached No. 7 in the AP Top 25 before being run over 41-14 by the Seminoles on Nov. 2, 2013.
Including that defeat, Miami is 8-10 in its last 18 games and has given up 30 or more points in 11 of them. The Hurricanes have lost three in a row after a 35-23 defeat to Pittsburgh on Nov. 29, leaving Golden searching for answers on how to regroup and avoid a school-record fifth consecutive bowl defeat.
"We're responsible for the record at the end of the day. I'm responsible for the record," he said. "Overall as a team we need to perform better. ... Some of the older guys, we need them to stay positive, finish what they started, continue to improve and try to get us our first (bowl game) win in forever."
Looking for its first bowl victory since the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl, Miami needs a big performance from running back Duke Johnson. After finishing just shy of 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, he broke through in grand style in 2014 with 1,520 and 10 touchdowns, earning first team all-ACC honors and becoming the Hurricanes' all-time leading rusher with 3,387 yards.
Johnson has averaged 7.0 yards per carry and is a threat catching the ball with 33 receptions for 370 yards and three TDs. He is not announcing if he will enter the NFL draft until after the Independence Bowl.
South Carolina's season also went sideways as the Gamecocks (6-6) failed to meet the high expectations of a preseason No. 9 ranking. The defense never found its footing, starting with a 52-28 season-opening home loss to Texas A&M, and gave up 433 or more yards in nine of 12 games and an average of 31.8 points overall.
That does not bode well for them to stop Johnson. South Carolina allowed nine players to rush for 100 yards, from stars such as Georgia's Todd Gurley to the nondescript - Furman's Hank McCloud had 106 and averaged 8.2 per carry in a loss.
This season's numbers showed how much of a force eventual No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney was in 2013, when the Gamecocks limited opponents to 20.3 points and 350.0 yards per game en route to a third straight 11-2 record.
''We were just young and it was a learning experience for us,'' said defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, the only holdover on defense from last season. ''I feel us older guys could've done better teaching these young guys and getting them ready.''
Still, this will be seventh consecutive bowl appearance for the "Ol' Ball Coach" with South Carolina, which is seeking a school-record fourth straight bowl win. Spurrier is hoping Miami's cachet will keep his players motivated.
"We have played Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin the last three years. Miami is certainly right in that category with those schools and I think it will certainly get the attention of our players and hopefully we'll play at our best," said Spurrier, whose last game against Miami was a loss in the 2001 Sugar Bowl while coaching Florida.
Spurrier announced Tuesday that junior wide receiver Shaq Roland has left the team. He caught 26 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns in 2014.
Running back Mike Davis also will be leaving the Gamecocks, but to pursue an NFL career after announcing Thursday he would enter the draft following this game. Davis needs 73 yards to join Archie Rogers as the only running backs in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons.