The smoke Miami has run through the last decade before each home game hasn't been so much about intimidation anymore as it has been a mask for a program without the requisite talent or direction.
Miami presented itself like the South Beach Strip with its flash and style and swagger, but it was cosmetic. The Hurricanes were passable in a middling conference, far removed from the glory days of "The U."
The U is not back. Let's get that out of the way now, because that's what every Miami conversation devolves into. Despite a decade of mediocrity, Miami is still a program above moral victories. Fourth-year coach Al Golden was emphatic about that after the 30-26 loss to No. 3 Florida State.
However, it's not just smoke and mirrors in Miami for the first time in a long time, though. There's substance to this team, and it's OK to believe in Miami, which has never played in an ACC championship. You won't be burned this time, because the Hurricanes have a quarterback. In fact, he's their best QB since Ken Dorsey, and his name is Brad Kaaya.
Kaaya is Miami's 6-foot-4, 209-pound all-business true freshman quarterback. He committed to the Canes in May 2013 without much national fanfare, unlike recent predecessors. Kaaya was a Southern California kid and unbeknownst to most Miami fans at the time of his pledge. He wasn't the local stars Jacory Harris and Robert Marve were, nor did he have the national profile of Brock Berlin or Kyle Wright. UCLA and USC didn't think enough of Kaaya to offer him a scholarship until after his senior season began.
Yet as a freshman, Kaaya has started every game for Miami and was within minutes of making the Hurricanes the Coastal Division favorite Saturday. After just 10 starts, he is already one of the ACC's five best quarterbacks and leads the conference in quarterback rating, passing touchdowns and yards per attempt.
It was his poise against the reigning national champions that stood out most Saturday.
"He's doing a good job. We're asking him to do a lot. That's a big stage and a big moment. I think we certainly can take from this that it's not too big for him. He grew up a lot this season," Miami coach Al Golden said.
Miami has lacked talent at nearly every position since falling from its perch atop college football, but it was never more evident than at quarterback. Promise rarely turned into production, and now the Canes have that with Kaaya.
"He was on the money with just about everything," FSU safety Tyler Hunter said.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher called Kaaya a "heckuva player."
With a capable quarterback and the team's clear leader, the rest of the Hurricanes are taking shape around Kaaya. It has been a long process for Golden in Coral Gables, but Miami is putting together a roster with the ability to win an ACC title. At the top is Kaaya.
Football is a quarterback-driven sport, and Miami hasn't been right with the players behind the wheel in quite some time. Marve, Harris and Wright never lived up to the hype, and Berlin and Stephen Morris were serviceable but not much else.
Miami isn't looking to 2015 with three games left on the schedule, but the future is bright with Kaaya. Most of the offense will remain intact in 2015 (and 2016), and while the defense will lose key seniors, there is renewed confidence and consistency in defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio's scheme.
The talent gap between Florida State, the ACC gold standard, and Miami was not as wide as it has been recently. The Canes left Sun Life Stadium with the feeling it let the Seminoles off the hook. They did, failing to put away a resilient Florida State team early. Part of that is a lack of depth as Golden dealt with NCAA sanctions and putting his own stamp on the program.
The bigger part is that those close losses are routine for a team learning how to win. They struggle to close out wins and make the necessary plays late in games, but it's all part of the process. Florida State went through the growing pains early in Fisher's career and it appears Miami is doing the same. Fisher admitted last week this was a better Miami team than the 7-0 squad he throttled in 2013.
"I'm not giving you a laundry list of 15 things and they all had to happen [to win]. We just needed a couple things," Golden said. "We're crushed from it, but there's so many positive things."
The positives begin at quarterback, and they could end -- finally -- with an ACC title.