Miami looking to finish strong, with eye on 2016

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) At Miami, next season is more than nine months away. No one knows who will coach. No one knows what the roster will look like. No one knows what styles of play will be utilized.

Very little of that matters right now to Brad Kaaya. To the Miami quarterback, 2016 essentially starts now.

Assuming bowl-eligible Miami actually gets a postseason bid, and there's no reason to think it will not, three games remain on the 2015 schedule. In Kaaya's estimation, something the Hurricanes - who are assured of falling short of their preseason goal, namely playing for an Atlantic Coast Conference title - can do to salvage this year is build momentum for next season and finish yet another tumult-filled Miami campaign the right way.

''Obviously, it's important to finish strong for our seniors who have done so much and been through so much, to send them out the right way,'' Kaaya said Tuesday. ''At the same time, the end of the season is when the momentum can build. Look at all the teams last year that finished strong and started this year strong. So going into next year, that's important for us.''

That's what Saturday's home finale against Georgia Tech, the Nov. 27 regular-season finale at Pittsburgh and the bowl game mean for the Hurricanes. Everyone knows what Miami (6-4, 3-3) hasn't done since joining the ACC - such as win 10 games, be ranked No. 1, win a conference title or even compete for a national championship - but for Kaaya, what's of more importance is what the Hurricanes can do going forward.

''Guys know 8-4 is a lot better than 6-6,'' Kaaya said.

Playing for titles used to seem like a birthright to the Hurricanes, who won five national championships in a 19-season span ending in 2001 and have spent the last decade-plus in a perpetual rut trying to return to the game's upper echelon. An easy parallel to draw is that Miami hasn't been dominant since making its ACC debut in 2004.

The Hurricanes simply don't believe changing leagues tells the story of their struggle.

''If you ask me if I think it was a mistake to move into the ACC, then I'll put it on the record: No, I don't think it was a mistake,'' Miami athletic director Blake James said. ''I think it was a great move for our institution and our athletic program.''

When Miami was an independent and then in the Big East, the Hurricanes made winning look easy. Since joining the ACC, regardless of coach, regardless of style, regardless of situation, the Hurricanes - even with perhaps the nation's most fertile recruiting base to choose players from - have made nothing look easy.

For some fans and former players, it was unthinkable for a Miami team to go into a season listing an ACC divisional title as a goal. The reality is, even though Miami technically played for the ACC title in 2004 (in the pre-divisions era) and would have gone to the conference title game in 2012 had it not been for the NCAA scandal caused by the actions of a former booster, even that title is too daunting for Miami right now.

''Anytime you get an opportunity to be a bowl team, you've got to say that the season wasn't a failure,'' said Miami interim coach Larry Scott, who took over for Al Golden last month. ''Obviously, we're at the University of Miami. Expectations are always high. We have high standards and expectations for our players and for ourselves as coaches and as a staff. But at the end of the day, it's not a failure.''

Plenty of people would surely disagree.

Miami's last 10-win season was 2003, when the Hurricanes went 11-2 and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Since then, 76 different FBS programs - that's more than 60 percent of the nation's programs - have had at least one 10-win record, and that number could conceivably grow to 85 by the end of this season. And 57 teams have been in the AP Top 25 since Miami last appeared in the poll.

Meanwhile, Miami has been topping out at nine wins, and needs to win out just to get there this year.

''Let's finish it the right way,'' Kaaya said. ''Let's finish it like men and not give up because one goal is out of our reach.''

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