Miami wasn't supposed to have a winning record this season, not with a collection of underwhelming players being coached by a guy barely removed from Temple who had his eye on another job. This is why you don't listen to the narratives constructed by Florida State fans: even when they're mostly right — and they are right about Miami's talent and the chances of Al Golden still bolting — they still seem to not be entirely right.
Miami's 30-12 win over Virginia Tech on Thursday reflects more on Virginia Tech's fall from any imagined elite rung of college football to the world of mediocrity than Miami's competence, and there would be reason to discuss that if this were SB Nation Blacksburg, but it's not, and Gobbler Country has the reaction to that covered. But Miami's 4-2 in the ACC, atop the ACC Coastal Division, and in decent shape in the conference title race.
The 'Canes will lose any head-to-head tiebreakers with North Carolina, but the Heels have Georgia Tech this week, and Tech's given the Heels hell of late, winning their last three meetings. Any loss by UNC -- to Georgia Tech this week, or, far less likely, to Virginia or Maryland later -- would give Miami control of its own destiny in the Coastal.
And the 'Canes only need to beat Virginia and Duke (on the road, albeit) to finish 6-2 in the ACC, despite two straight conference home losses earlier in October. The magic of being in the ACC is that good teams are never great, and mediocre teams are never far from good records.
How Miami has done it is worth noting, too: Stephen Morris has been solid, a huge improvement after Jacory Harris' four up-and-down years, and Duke Johnson and Mike James have teamed in an occasionally explosive running game. The defense that was getting torched by even no-names, like that cat in the alley who was almost set on fire by Kenard -- it's a reference to The Wire, ask a Maryland fan -- has improved, allowing UNDER 20 points per game to North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech in its last three outings.
Neither the offense or the defense is among the nation's best. But in the ACC, and especially in the Alas, Babylon-ish wasteland that is the Coastal, they don't have to be.
Golden has done a fantastic job of not permitting Miami to quit in the face of some significant adversity: the 'Canes could have rolled over after taking a killshot from Kansas State in Manhattan, but won their next three games, two of them tense back-and-forth affairs; they could certainly have turned their three-game tailspin into a losing season, but they thoroughly outclassed a Virginia Tech side with some talent on Thursday night.
And that's going to make what could come next hard for both him and Miami: if the Hurricanes do qualify for the ACC title game, the NCAA's long-overdue ruling in the Nevin Shapiro booster case becomes that much more important. The Sword of Indianapolis has hung over Miami for more than a year now, and one would think a previously unthinkable opportunity for the 'Canes to win a conference title might get it to drop.
Golden's too good a coach (and recruiter) to not have options available to him if the NCAA decides to blast Miami, but the longer he stays in Coral Gables, the more he's going to realize that he can build something there. Getting building blocks like Johnson, Anthony Chickillo, and Tracy Howard in place show that he's capable of assembling talent even when winning recruiting battles with Florida and, especially, Florida State is tough.
The issues are whether he'll be able to get enough of them to be competitive if significant scholarship reductions happen, and whether a postseason ban will make coming to Miami buying into a program that can only get to one or two bowls in a recruit's college tenure.
Miami's best-case scenario right now might be forcing the NCAA's hand by winning out and getting a UNC loss, because that at least clears things up. If the clarity means Golden can bolt with a clear conscience, though, Miami's wild run to an unthinkable division title may be its last for a long time.
That's because there's still no good answer for this question: if Miami's thumped by the NCAA, and Al Golden leaves, what coach will be brave and/or foolish enough to follow him?