Two seasons ago, the Miami RedHawks were on top of the world: after an amazing season under Mike Haywood, they won the MAC thanks to one of the most improbable fourth down plays you'll ever see, won the GMAC Bowl over a favored Middle Tennessee State team, and hired Don Treadwell, the #1 pick of most Miami fans, to take over as head coach after Haywood left for what he expected to be bigger and better things.
Miami fans expected big things in 2011. A huge number of starters returned from the championship squad, there were opportunities for early BCS wins against mediocre Missouri and Minnesota teams, and the RedHawks had a chance to open the home schedule undefeated. But none of that happened. Instead, Miami struggled to two 4-8 seasons in a row. The first time around, as SBN's Bill Connelly points out, Miami was fantastically unlucky. The team should have finished much better than 4-8, but never caught a break. The second time, though, the RedHawks finished exactly as well as they should have, and that's a sobering thought for the best program in MAC history. So can Miami hope to do better than just a face-saving (and quite satisfying) win against Ohio this year? Well, here are some thoughts:
Miami opens tomorrow (today, for those of you not on the west coast) with an away game against Marshall. Marshall had a fantastic offense last year, scoring points in bunches. But Marshall had a terrible defense last year, giving away points in bunches. This game could be a key indicator of how Miami's offense will do this year (about which more below). No one really knows what's going to happen without Nick Harwell and Zac Dysert, and while RedHawk fans have plenty of reason to be confident in Austin Boucher, there have been weird rumors coming out of Oxford about "offensive coordinator" John Klacik doing crazy, stupid things with the schemes this year.
Other banner games on the non-conference schedule include a home date against Cincinnati--the oldest rivalry west of the Alleghenies--and a game at Illinois. The latter is another important marker for the RedHawks, as the Illini were terrible last year. (Miami also plays Kentucky, but if Kentucky taught us anything last year, it's that SEC basement dwellers can make mincemeat out of top MAC teams, to say nothing of lesser teams.)
For the conference schedule, the MAC opener at home against Central Michigan will be a key marker of where the RedHawks stand in the conference. CMU is no Akron or UMass; they're a bowl team that hopes to contend for the championship this year. Other than that, the key conference date is of course October 26 at Ohio, where the Bobcats will want revenge for Miami's win last year.
The out-of-conference schedule does Miami no favors, and the toughest conference games Miami plays this year (Kent, Ohio, Ball State) are all on the road. This will be a tough row to hoe for the RedHawks.
Miami suffered (at least!) three key departures in the offseason: Zac Dysert and Andy Cruse (to graduation and the NFL) and first team all-MAC wideout Nick Harwell (to criminal idiocy). Thankfully, Dysert's replacement already has experience on the biggest stage the MAC has to offer: in 2010, after Dysert injured his spleen in a scramble against Bowling Green, Austin Boucher--then a freshman--took over and finished undefeated, leading Miami to a MAC title and a GoDaddy Bowl trophy. Boucher certainly has the winner's instinct, but what remains to be seen is whether he can will first downs into existence like Dysert and his scrambling, gunslinging ways did. Though no one doubts Boucher did a fantastic job leading Miami to postseason glory, he did it with a bang-up rushing attack featuring Thomas Merriweather, who left the RedHawks when Don Treadwell took over. Miami simply doesn't have that running game any more, and hasn't had any running game to speak of (beyond Dysert scrambling) for two years.
At wide receiver, Miami's leader figures to be Dawan Scott, a junior who was a key part of the offense the last two years. Joining him at the top of the receiver two-deeps are freshman Rokeem Williams and sophomore Alvonta Jenkins. Although the receiving corps is largely untested, Scott is a veteran who should be a solid, dependable, and exciting target for Boucher.
Meanwhile, at running back, the starter appears to be Don Treadwell's son, Spencer, who got the nod over Jamire Westbrook, a highly-regarded sophomore from Lebanon, Ohio. The running game has been a mess the past two years, in no small part because the offensive line has been wrecked with injuries--and this year, for a change, three of the starters are upperclassmen. That should provide the stability Miami needs to at least establish a running game, which should be enough to let Boucher be a quarterback rather than an everything-back.
On defense, the returning stars are cornerback Dayonne Nunley and linebacker Chris Wade. Nunley is universally recognized as one of the MAC's best corners, and Wade is the MAC's leading returning player in tackles recorded. Both figure to be leaders of a defense that was bend-and-often-break last year due to a rash of injuries on the defensive line, which caused Wesley Scott, who was already on the small side for a defensive end, to move to the defensive tackle spot. If the line can avoid the injury bug this season, the defense should be considerably stouter.
On special teams, Miami has solid, dependable kick and punt units, headed by Kaleb Patterson and Zac Murphy. The real problem is the return game, which has been one of the worst in the country for a few years. Dayonne Nunley apparently doesn't figure in the returning plans this year, so a change of faces may help things.
The Klacik Factor
People who have been reading the Internet's Best MAC Blog (TM) for a few years may remember how much I hate John Klacik. Klacik was on the Youngstown State staff with Treadwell when they were both assistants under Jim Tressel. Klacik then went on to coach at Division II Lock Haven (PA), where, to put it mildly, he was awful. Like repeated 0-fer seasons awful. It mystified everyone when he was hired to be the offensive coordinator after being the head coach of teams that repeatedly lost 53-7, but I guess buddies are buddies. Turns out the people who were mystified had reason to be concerned, because Miami got blown out of the water in the first four games under his watch. Until the Army game in October 2011, Klacik hadn't won a game as a coach since the George W. Bush administration.
And in this offseason, there's been all kinds of crazy chatter about the offensive plans Klacik plans to implement this year, perhaps in an effort to save his (and his boss's) job. Unfortunately, it's nothing more than message-board rumors, but if it turns out that Miami abandons a pro-style offense in favor of something unorthodox, well, blame John Klacik. And if (when?) it doesn't work, this Miami blogger thinks he should be run out of town on a rail, and possible the entire coaching staff along with him.
Miami spent the past two years going 4-8 despite having probably the best player since Big Ben on the roster, and in the most important position on a football team. I think the team is now familiar enough with Treadwell and his schemes that 6-6 is likely rather than 4-8, and 7-5 is possible. But I don't see much better than that happening, unfortunately. And with new AD David Sayler having fired the reasonably successful women's basketball coach Maria Fantanarosa in an effort to send a message, it could be that Treadwell and his staff are coaching for their jobs this season--so 6-6 probably needs to be their floor, not their ceiling.