For two and a half months last year, Miami looked back.
The Hurricanes had swag. They had their turnover chain. They had an unbeaten record and a No. 2 national ranking.
Then they collapsed, ending the year with three consecutive losses.
Expectations are higher this year, entering Sunday's opener against No. 25 LSU. Miami's preseason ranking (8) is its highest since 2004, and noted prognosticator Phil Steele called them "a legitimate national title contender."
🔄🔄🔄: REWIND— Canes Football (@CanesFootball) August 27, 2018
This is what it took to get to game week. pic.twitter.com/PNOSt8MtEo
So can the 'Canes take the next step and progress from winning the Coastal Division to challenging for a spot in the College Football Playoff? Here are three reasons for optimism, and three reasons for concern:
Why Miami can compete
1. The Hurricanes are loaded with talent. Fourteen starters return, including quarterback Malik Rosier, last year's leading rusher (Travis Homer), preseason All-America safety Jaquan Johnson and one of the best linebacker corps in the country. The defensive line lost three NFL draft picks but should remain solid, especially if ex-Gator Gerald Willis finally lives up to his enormous potential. Add in a recruiting class with 15 blue-chip prospects, and this is the most talented the 'Canes have had in years.
2. Receiver Ahmmon Richards is back (and healthy). Richards showed his sky-high potential in 2016 when he led all freshmen nationally with 934 receiving yards. Although hamstring and knee injuries limited his production last season, he still made an impact: In eight games with Richards, Rosier threw for 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In five games without him, Rosier threw eight touchdowns and six picks. Richards' return could help Rosier improve on last year's inconsistencies.
3. The schedule is soft. Miami will face only three teams that are ranked to start the season. One of those (No. 25 LSU) is shaky and at a neutral site, and another (No. 19 Florida State) is breaking in a new coach and must travel to Hard Rock Stadium. Two other potentially tricky road trips set up well: Toledo must replace its star quarterback, and Boston College comes after a bye. At No. 20 Virginia Tech could be tough, but everything else looks manageable, giving the 'Canes a clear path to playoff contention.
Why 'Canes fans should pump the brakes
1. There are still questions at quarterback. We know who will start (Rosier). But whether he can lead a team to the playoff remains in doubt. Over the final three games, he completed only 45 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Some of his struggles can be attributed to an injury-riddled offense and good opposing defenses, but how much?
2. Can Mark Richt take the next step? Richt lost his job at Georgia because the Bulldogs got tired of being consistently good but rarely great. The fact that his replacement, Kirby Smart, took Georgia to the playoff in his second year doesn't help Richt's case. This isn't meant to suggest that Richt is a bad coach (he isn't). But fairly or unfairly, he hasn't yet proven he can crack the upper echelon.
Vets chillin'. pic.twitter.com/iYk48yH9Mt— Canes Football (@CanesFootball) August 21, 2018
3. Clemson is still Clemson. Although the 'Canes play in the weaker ACC division, they would still have to face the Atlantic champion in the conference title game. That will probably be Clemson -- the same Clemson team that demolished Miami 38-3 in Charlotte last year. This year's Tigers have one of the best defensive lines in the history of the sport and are a popular pick to win it all. Miami didn't have the talent to hang with Clemson in December, and the gap might still be too large for the 'Canes.
This article is written by Matt Baker from Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.