The Miami Hurricanes have long been polarizing figures in college football, and now more than ever they seemingly represent both good and bad.
The bad stuff was well documented in last month's explosive Yahoo! Sports report about sleazy former booster Nevin Shapiro, whose tawdry allegations figure to result in major NCAA sanctions sometime in the future. The words "death penalty" hadn't been tossed around with such frequency and vitriol for 25 years prior to the Miami expose.
Yet the Hurricanes coaches and players that faced Ohio State on Saturday night could hardly be qualified as villains. If anything, Al Golden, the charismatic first-year Miami coach with the orange and green tie and the fiery pep talks is an extremely likable figure. So, too, are Jacory Harris, Marcus Forston and the other 'Canes that took nominal benefits from Shapiro three years ago, allegedly at the prompting of some of their former assistant coaches. Most served their penance sitting out Miami's opener against Maryland.
Knowing everything they've been through the past three years, there was no shame in enjoying the sight of Harris' wide smile Saturday night as he celebrated the 'Canes' 24-6 victory over No. 17 Ohio State in the so-called "Ineligibowl." While the game probably taught us more about the NCAA-hampered Buckeyes (who, it turns out, really miss reviled ex-quarterback Terrelle Pryor) than it did the NCAA-hampered Hurricanes, it still marked a rare highlight for a group of Miami seniors that have spent most of their four seasons falling far short of expectations. That included a humbling trip 36-24 defeat in Columbus last season in which Harris threw four interceptions.
My how much things change in a year.
Maybe not for Harris, who, in his first start since late last season, threw two more telegraphed picks and lost a fumble. He remains the 'Canes' frustrating enigma (he also threw two first-half touchdown passes). But in keeping with the physica-minded Golden's vision since he arrived, running back Lamar Miller (26 carries, 184 yards) gashed the Buckeyes' inexperienced defense like no opposing player in at least six years.
"That's what we want Hurricane football to be," Golden said afterward. "We wear you down, and we get some big ones."
Meanwhile, the 'Canes defense -- buoyed by the return of suspended stars like Forston and linebacker Sean Spence -- held a visibly limited Buckeyes offense to a measly four completed passes for 35 yards. The good news for OSU's "not interim" coach Luke Fickell is he'll eventually get back running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and tackle Mike Adams, who sat out their third of five games for last winter's tattoo scandal. The bad news is neither senior Joe Bauserman (2-of-13, 13 yards) or freshman Braxton Miller (2-of-4, a fumble and an interception) looked capable of leading the Buckeyes against a quality Big Ten foe anytime soon.
Even if the exiled Jim Tressel had never told a lie, he might be facing the same problem today as Fickell, whose team isn't likely to claim a seventh straight Big Ten title.
Golden's 'Canes aren't likely to claim the ACC crown, either. For one thing, they already have the Maryland loss on their ledger, and Harris and the offense face daunting road trips to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Florida State, all with defenses as good or better than Ohio State's.
But here's guessing they'll put off an upset or two. Golden has Miami playing with speed and relentlessness rarely seen under predecessor Randy Shannon. The 'Canes have their weaknesses, but running back certainly isn't one of them. Miller is an incredible talent, with Mike James a nice complement. They run behind an impressive offensive line that can hold their own with anyone.
There was also noticeable energy in Sun Life Stadium, a venue that often went half-empty during the Shannon years.
It would be easy for Miami fans to jump ship what with the threat of looming sanctions clouding the 'Canes' future. But it's no secret the NCAA works at a snail's pace, and whatever penalties ultimately ensue might be felt for years. In the meantime, Golden's given them reason to cheer. He's canvassed the community, welcomed video cameras inside meeting rooms and practices and cultivated an image that runs completely opposite to the renegade one for which Miami will eventually pay a price.
Whether Harris will ever rein in his interception problem remains to be seen. But as long as they've got Miller and James running hard and the defense (which will eventually get back standout safety Ray Ray Armstrong and defensive lineman Oliver Vernon from their NCAA suspensions) swarms like it did Saturday, the 'Canes will be in every game -- something they haven't been able to say since back when Shapiro was still roaming the sideline.