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Clay Ferraro: Hurricanes will win Coastal, finally play FSU in ACC title game

Defense playing to strengths, down year in division provides opportunity for UM

Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaq Quarterman chases down Florida State Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois during the second half of Florida State's 20-19 victory on Oct. 9, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaq Quarterman chases down Florida State Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois during the second half of Florida State's 20-19 victory on Oct. 9, 2016 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Wilfred Lee/AP)

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – This is the year.

It became a running joke among Hurricanes fans during the Al Golden era how much their coach talked about "winning the Coastal." It seemed like a low bar for a program that has won five national championships.

Still, that bar has proven too high for the 'Canes since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference as they've yet to play in a conference title game.

That all changes in Mark Richt's second season: the 'Canes will win the Coastal Division and play Florida State for its first ACC championship.

Preseason predictions of prosperity are nothing new for the 'Canes. They've been the trendy pick before and this year is nothing new in that respect. So why is this year different? Two main reasons: a defense that is finally playing to its strengths and a potential down year in the division.

Let's start with that defense. The 'Canes boast one of the best front sevens in the country. Depth could be an issue if and when injuries happen, but every team in the country outside of your 'Bama, Ohio State and FSUs of the world can say the same.

This D, led by 2016 freshman stars Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney at linebacker, will be a handful. Perhaps more importantly, Manny Diaz has become a rising star in coaching by playing to his fast, athletic players' strengths. Unlike in the Golden/Mark D'Onofrio era, Diaz is letting his fast players play fast.

Will the youth of key players show at certain times? Of course. But their playmaking ability will far outweigh any youthful lapses (much like we saw in the 'Canes blowout win over West Virginia to close out 2016).

Inexperience in the secondary is a concern. But that leads to the second reason the 'Canes will take home the title this year: I don't see any teams in the Coastal capable of exploiting that.

Outside of Duke and Virginia, every team in the division is breaking in a new starting quarterback. Reigning champ Virginia Tech lost QB Jerod Evans and record-breaking pass-catchers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. North Carolina lost No. 2 pick Mitch Trubisky and offensive weapons Elijah Hood and Ryan Switzer. Pitt loses QB Nathan Peterman, running back James Conner and their outstanding offensive coordinator Matt Canada left for LSU. Even UM will start a new QB in Malik Rosier.

Get the picture?

It's not just that the 'Canes are talented. It's that, after a year in which the Coastal was one of the top four divisions in all of college football, they could now be one of the weaker ones among Power 5 conferences. The division still boasts a lot of talent and some of the best coaches in the game. But this looks to be a year for rebuilding division-wide.

With so much uncertainty, I'm sticking with what I know: UM's defense and RB Mark Walton will be too much for the rest of the Coastal to handle. After losing to FSU in Tallahassee in week three, they'll get their rematch in the ACC title game.

It's about time.