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2015 season preview: Miami Hurricanes

The Miami fan base is getting restless and Al Golden’s seat is warming. Miami, with its limitations financially and those imposed by the NCAA, is not an easy place to win, but the grace period for Golden is ending. With a rising star at quarterback in Brad Kaaya and better locker room chemistry, the Hurricanes are expecting improvement this season. That improvement might not be reflected in the record because the schedule is brutal, which could leave Miami with a tough decision regarding Golden this fall.

Best-case scenario: With Miami’s schedule, an 11-win season and ACC championship would likely put the Hurricanes in the playoff, but coming off a 6-7 campaign, that’s unrealistic. With a five-game stretch that consists of Nebraska, Cincinnati, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson, if the Canes can go 3-2 it would be a solid indicator Golden has the program headed in the right direction. Eight wins would be a solid season, but nine wins would make a statement for 2016 and cement Golden’s status as coach for next season.

Worst-case scenario: Miami could go 1-4 during that five-game stretch and maybe even winless. Even the Cincinnati game is on the road on a Thursday night -- ideal upset conditions for a Group of 5 school. If the season goes south early, it could be a repeat of the latter part of 2014 when the Canes imploded. It would take a complete meltdown, but Miami could finish 5-7 and miss out on a bowl game. A strong 2016 recruiting class would likely deteriorate, and Golden could be let go.

Most important player: Subtract Kaaya from the starting lineup and Miami could plummet to the bottom of the Coastal Division. As a freshman, Kaaya started every game and flashed brilliance throughout the season. Against Florida State, the California native made it clear he was poised to become one of the ACC’s best players over the next few years. Kaaya is fully committed to returning Miami to its previous place atop college football, too. Though it was evident some players over the past decade weren’t interested in team success, Kaaya is dedicating himself to bringing Miami a championship.

Breakout player: The hope in 2014 was that Al-Quadin Muhammad would be the one to generate the pass rush, but Miami suspended him for all of last season. He returns in 2015 as a redshirt sophomore, and though he will have to work his way into the starting lineup, the 6-foot-4, 256-pound defensive end is prepared to play a major role for the Canes. He was a dominant pass-rusher in high school, and the Hurricanes are ready for similar production. For Miami to become a player on the national stage again, the defensive line will need to have the impact it did during the early 2000s.

Most important game: The November loss to Florida State ended a Coastal title bid and derailed Miami’s season; the Canes lost their final four games. This season, conference play begins with a road trip to Florida State on Oct. 10. If Miami wins that game, which it hasn’t since 2009, it will set the table for the second half. A loss could send the Hurricanes crumbling again, and the remainder of the schedule offers no breaks. Virginia Tech, Clemson and Duke follow, and Georgia Tech travels to Miami in late November.

Class of 2015 signee to watch: Jerome Washington. The junior college tight end will be on the field in 2015 and could challenge Standish Dobard for the starting job. Washington is physically ready to play, with high-point ball skills at the position. Though Washington is still a raw prospect, the opportunity combined with his ability to make plays in the passing game will put him on the field. -- Gerry Hamilton

Class of 2016 storyline: The Hurricanes enter the season with a top-10 class that includes eight ESPN 300 verbal commitments, but keeping the class together is key. ESPN 300 verbals Sam Bruce and Zach McCloud, along with four-star recruit Ahmmon Richards all continue to look at other schools, with visits planned. For Bruce, the main competition is Florida. Auburn is chasing both Richards and McCloud. Miami needs to have an ascending season on the field, or the class will be in serious jeopardy. -- Gerry Hamilton