Miami season preview

Today we take a look at Miami, the preseason favorite to win its first Coastal Division title.

Miami Hurricanes

Coach: Al Golden (13-11 in two years at Miami; 40-45 in seven years overall)

2012 record: 7-5 (5-3 in ACC)

Key losses: RB Mike James, CB Brandon McGee, K Jake Wieclaw

Key returnees: QB Stephen Morris, RB Duke Johnson, LB Denzel Perryman

Newcomer to watch: LB Alex Figueroa. Figueroa turned some heads in the spring and continues to practice well in the fall. He was listed as one of the starting linebackers on the preseason camp depth chart.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Florida, Sept. 7; at Florida State, Nov. 2; vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 9

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Defense. This has been a continuing storyline since last season, when the defense struggled week in and week out -- ranking No. 116 in the nation in total defense and No. 82 in scoring defense. The Hurricanes relied on a lot of freshmen and sophomores and had major injuries to contend with as well, which helps explain some of the below-average numbers. But Miami also was missing a feisty leader and aggressive defensive front, two hallmarks of the traditionally strong Hurricane defenses of the past.

Forecast: Experts seem to agree that this is the season for Miami to finally make it to the ACC title game, and perhaps back into the Top 25 on a weekly basis. The Hurricanes were the preseason choice to win the Coastal for two main reasons -- quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson return, and 20 starters are back from a year ago.

Johnson, who broke school freshmen records a year ago, is the best running back in the league; Morris is one of the best quarterbacks in the league; he set the school record for total offense. There is no better QB-RB duo in the league going into the season. Miami also has depth at receiver and returns its entire starting offensive line, a group that should be one of the best in the ACC as well. The questions with this team are not centered around the offense.

As discussed earlier, it is the defense that has all the question marks. First and foremost, will Miami be able to better establish itself up front? The Hurricanes simply could not get after the quarterback last year, and bumping up its sack numbers has been a major priority. Watch for tackle Curtis Porter, who is healthy and could have a major presence inside. Miami also signed transfers David Gilbert and Justin Renfrow from major FBS programs, hoping the two veteran linemen can help, especially with depth. The Hurricanes also have added junior college transfer Ufomba Kamalu, a pass-rush specialist. Posting 13 total sacks again is simply unacceptable.

There are still a lot of question marks in the secondary as well, though there is some promising young talent in guys like Tracy Howard and Deon Bush, still recovering from an injury. Miami only has one senior listed on its two-deep in the secondary -- safety A.J. Highsmith -- and there are no guarantees he will start. Bottom line: the Miami defense must be miles better for this team to live up to the growing expectations.

"We have a lot of guys coming back, so we better be better," Highsmith said. "We’ve put pressure on ourselves to take that step forward and to move on and we’ve got a lot of guys coming back, so there’s a lot of leadership there and a lot more experience, so we should be a lot better."