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2011 MAC Football Preview: Miami RedHawks

Now that summer is winding down, football season winds up. While NFLers were negotiating, college programs have been practicing and filing down their depth charts in preparation for Labor Day weekend when the season begins. The weather outside is heating up and that must mean it's time for us to begin previewing the MAC, one team at a time...

You've heard of a "dream season," of course. People talk about dream seasons: beating your biggest rivals, running the table, dominating your lesser competition, winning a bowl game, making a mark. That's what we all understand dream seasons to be. I lived through a dream season at Miami in 2003, watching us (from my regular seats in the front row around the 30 or so, all done up in ridiculous face paint) roll through everyone but Iowa en route to a #10 AP ranking.

But make no mistake: 2010 was also a dream season, and perhaps an even more special one than 2003. Did we beat our rivals? No: Cincinnati creamed us, and Nick Harwell fumbled away our comeback chances against Ohio. Yet the 2010 Miami RedHawks, who went from 1-11 in 2009 to 10-4, a MAC title, and a bowl win, may represent the best dream season Miami's ever had. Can the RedHawks do it again?

Last season: Let's be honest, there's no way to top last season, short of a BCS game. Miami won't be doing that. (I do have personal requests, however: no fake kicks that end up with our kicker out for most of the season, and no more ruptured spleens from the quarterback on goal-line scrambles.) And make no mistake: matching, or even coming close to, last season will be difficult. As legendary-at-least-in-my-mind Miami play-by-play man Steve Baker pointed out before the Bowl last year, there really were 12 plays to a championship. The athletics staff was able to boil down the entire season to twelve downs that, had they gone the other way, would have made a very different season for Miami.

Sure, MAC fans will remember Chris Givens' miracle catch on 4th and forever in the MAC Championship game against NIU. But do you remember Jordan Gafford having the presence of mind to bat the ball down on the 2-yard-line against Eastern Michigan, rather than intercepting it and forcing the RedHawks to run plays rather than kneeling? I'm not really a believer in luck, but if there is such a thing, Miami had it last year in spades.

Returning players: Miami returns a lot. Zac Dysert, whom most expect to start, and four-game wonder Austin Boucher are both back at quarterback. Harwell, who may be the most electrifying wide receiver in the conference, OU fumble notwithstanding, is back for his sophomore season. The vast majority of the second-best defense in the MAC returns, including standout LB Jerrell Wedge, short-but-interception-happy CB Dayonne Nunley, and safety Pat Hinkle, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of wideouts.

The most interesting situation for returning players is probably the offensive line. Although blind side star Matt Kennedy returns at LT, last year's center, Brad Bednar, has been moved to the right tackle spot. Whether Bednar's shift is successful could determine Miami's success this season, as could the success of his replacement, about whom more below.

New faces: Before discussing one of the biggest "new faces" developments in the conference, a few more words about the offensive line. Bednar's replacement at center will be JoJo Williams. Williams has been on the roster for some time, playing DL in 2009 and filling in as a reserve at left guard in 2010. But now, for the first time, he'll be a regular starter -- and he'll be in a brand-new role. I don't doubt Williams will do well, but center is one of the most important positions on offense, and Florida learned against Miami in the Swamp last year, even would-be powerhouses can run into problems with new centers.

Now then, about "big" new faces: as far as I know, no one has any idea who will be playing running back for the RedHawks this year. Miami lost Thomas Merriweather to graduation, and Tracy Woods, who backed him up to the tune of 376 yards rushing, 151 yards receiving, and a touchdown last year was expected to be a more than capable replacement. But that turned out not to be the case: Woods left the team on June 3 for undisclosed reasons.

So who's in the mix to replace him? Right now, the clubhouse leaders seem to be true freshman Dawan Scott, converted linebacker Erik Finklea (who played running back in high school), junior Danny Green (the #3 running back last year, behind Woods), and converted fullback Justin Semmes. Behind them are senior Tyrone Jones (who was just given a scholarship after walking on last season), redshirt freshmen Orne Bey and Willie Culpepper, coach's kid Spencer Treadwell, and true freshman walk-ons James Turvey and Tyler Franks.  Or, as poster digitalhawk put it over at Miami Hawk Talk:

So to summarize:

The two leading candidates for running back combined caught one pass and ran for three yards last year. And apparently they didn't get much of a look in the spring. Then there are bunch of other guys competing behind them, including one who might actually be a receiver, the coach's son, two preferred walkons, and a guy who looked impressive against [Kettering] Alter [High School].

Sounds good to me.

Who will be starting at running back?  I have absolutely no idea.

Games to circle: Miami has a much less favorable schedule this year than last. Temple and Ohio, picked by most to be atop the East, are both road games this time around. If Miami expects to be in Detroit on December 2, winning at least one is absolutely necessary, and winning both is probably essential. October 15 at Kent could also be a pivotal game, as the RedHawks' first conference road test comes against one of the best defenses in the MAC. I'll also put a circle on the Minnesota game, since I'll be in attendance, and it's my birthday that weekend.

Did you know: The rapper Plies played for Miami in the late 1990s, back when he was known as Nod Washington. He spent two seasons at wide receiver under Randy Walker before moving back home to Florida and starting a record label. (More about Plies is likely to follow in Miami's installment of Music of the MAC.)

Prediction: I think a realistic prediction for Don Treadwell's first season is 7-5, with wins over Bowling Green, Army, Kent, Buffalo, Akron, Western Michigan, and one of Toledo/Temple/Ohio. I think the range is 5-7 to 8-4, depending on how the ball bounces, and how well the mystery running back performs.