Mike James got an unexpected party from his Miami teammates on Thursday night, a little early send-off in anticipation of the senior running back's last home game with the Hurricanes.
Pleasant surprises like that seemed in short supply over his college career.
Since James' first game in Miami, he's dealt with the tragic death of his mother in a car crash, the firing of the coaching staff that recruited him, the arrival of another staff, a handful of injuries, the still-going NCAA investigation of the university's compliance practices — an inquiry that cast long shadows over his final two collegiate seasons — and, at too many times, plain old bad football.
"Hard to believe, but now it's almost over," James said. "You never really think this day will come."
The day he's speaking of has arrived.
James and his classmates have been the rallying cry for Miami this week, as the Hurricanes (5-5) send their seniors onto the field at Sun Life Stadium for the final time on Saturday afternoon when they take on South Florida (3-6). Other than a pair of special-teamers — kicker Jake Wieclaw and punter Dalton Botts — it's likely that James and defensive back Brandon McGee will be the only seniors in Miami's starting lineup.
"They have an opportunity, clearly, this week and the next two weeks to right the ship," Miami coach Al Golden said of his senior class. "And their legacy will be that — that they fought through it. They didn't quit. They didn't leave. They dug in and fought through the tumult, if you will, and the adversity when it certainly would have been easier for a lot of them to say, 'You know what, I'm outta here.' They deserve to finish on a great note, a positive note."
The seniors will be honored in a pregame ceremony.
When that ends, both teams will have some issues in the passing game to address. In short, Miami doesn't know who'll be catching footballs, and South Florida seems unsure about who'll be throwing them.
South Florida is still grappling with losing quarterback B.J. Daniels for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. The Bulls have not announced whether it will be Matt Floyd or Bobby Eveld starting on Saturday, and history doesn't offer much in the way of hints, either. Floyd has been the backup this season, but Eveld helped USF beat Miami in 2010.
"We're going to let it roll until a clear-cut starter is defined," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "We're going to play the quarterback who gives us the best opportunity to win. I'm not looking to take it to kickoff. I'm not looking to take it to the 11th hour. But neither one has emerged. I'd like to have a starter and I'd like to identify that on the field."
If there's one tiny bright side to the Bulls not having Daniels — it would be a very, very tiny bright side — it's that USF had an off week after Daniels got hurt to figure out how to proceed without someone who's accounted for 10,501 yards of total offense and 77 touchdowns in his now-prematurely complete college career.
Losing Daniels clearly hurts. But motivation exists, in that if the Bulls finish with wins over Miami, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, they would be bowl-eligible.
"One thing I do know about this program is it's still up and coming," USF linebacker Sam Barrington said. "I think there are great things in store for this school. We've won at Miami before. Doing it again would be another great accomplishment."
On the Miami side, receivers are the biggest concern.
Rashawn Scott remains suspended indefinitely and senior Davon Johnson was lost for the season after getting hurt in practice this week, so Miami's second- and third-leading receivers will not be around for the USF game. And Allen Hurns, tied with James for the fourth-most catches on the team, will try to play with a slightly cracked left thumb.
"I'm not worried about it," Miami quarterback Stephen Morris said. "I know my guys are excited and that just means there will be more catches for them. I think they'll be fine and excited to step up. I'm not commenting on Hurns' status or anybody else's status but I think Hurns will be OK. He's a tough guy and like I said, my guys will be ready."
James said he'll be ready for anything.
Sure, in theory, Miami could play one more game at Sun Life this season — the Orange Bowl, which the Hurricanes would qualify for by beating Duke next week and then winning the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. But with the NCAA matters still unresolved, the expectation is that Miami will likely forgo any postseason invitations for the second straight season.
So in reality, this is it, and James wants to ensure his time on his home field ends the right way.
"Despite what I've been through, I'm still blessed to be able to come out here and do it," James said. "We still have a chance to prove a lot of people wrong and prove ourselves right."