There were so many changes, so many complete upheavals for the Miami Hurricanes after last season, it was like changing coaches for the second straight year.

Disgruntled assistant coaches quit in a huff. The spectacular quarterback who had led the team to its first national championship in 1983 passed up his final two years of eligibility. The offensive line had to be rebuilt, and the new quarterback would have to introduce himself to two new receivers.

To put it mildly, not many people expected Miami would be 10-1, ranked No. 2 in the nation by the Associated Press and here to play eighth-ranked Tennessee New Year's night (8, WJLA-TV-7) in the Sugar Bowl before a packed house at the Louisiana Superdome.

A loss to Oklahoma by undefeated Penn State in the Orange Bowl and a Miami victory over the Volunteers (8-1-2) could give the Hurricanes their second national championship in three years and the first for Coach Jimmy Johnson.

Johnson might be working on his second consecutive national title if 1984 -- a transition year following the departure of Howard Schnellenberger -- hadn't been marred by so much late-season turmoil.

As he said this week: "I was head coach in name only. I didn't do much of the coaching. It wasn't really my team. As coaches say, 'We weren't on the same page.' "

Johnson didn't even have the same book. His assistants -- actually Schnellenberger's leftover assistants -- were running the team. "Our philosophies were very different," he said.

Many of the differences came on defense. Johnson, who came from Oklahoma State after Miami's Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska two years ago, had made his reputation as a great defensive coach over 20 years. But Bill Trout was the defensive coordinator.

The players got caught in the middle, and in the last four games the Hurricanes' defense allowed an average of 35 points per game. Trout wasn't discreet about the fact that he wanted out.

"The last four games, we'd come in and hear our defensive coordinator saying, 'I'm quitting after this season.' And we were thinking, 'Wow, these guys could care less if we win or lose,' " linebacker Bruce Fleming said.

"Coach Johnson tried not to change anything because we had just won the national championship. He wasn't running things his style. But since the spring, it's been his system."

Trout resigned in the locker room after the Boston College game. His departure was followed by that of assistants Chris Vagotis and Marc Trestman.

Johnson hired three new assistants, including Paul Jette, his defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. Jette installed Johnson's 4-3 defense, and as Johnson said, "That's been the most noticeable area of improvement on the team this year."

That the offense didn't suffer a major dropoff is amazing. That it is better than two years ago is stunning.

Johnson had to find replacements for starting quarterback Bernie Kosar (who left for the Cleveland Browns), two of the best wide receivers in the history of the school (one of whom, Eddie Brown, is likely to be this season's AFC rookie of the year) and four starting offensive linemen.

Johnson says Kosar's successor, Vinny Testaverde, is "the best there is in the country. I said it at midseason and I'm saying it again now."

Even though Miami has only one loss -- the season opener to Florida -- and won games at Oklahoma, at Florida State and at Maryland in a four-week span, Johnson's season did not finish without controversy. On his final day as the embattled head coach of Notre Dame, Gerry Faust had to bear the indignity of losing to Miami, 58-7. Johnson was accused of running it up.

The critics suggest Johnson will get his, but probably not here. The Hurricanes are favored by more than a touchdown in most quarters over the Southeastern Conference champions. Tennessee's defense is one of the best in the nation, but so was Maryland's and the Terrapins gave up 29 points to Miami.

But it was two years ago today that Miami was given no shot to beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Now, if Oklahoma beats Penn State in the Orange, Miami hopes to be voted No. 1 if it beats Tennessee. The Hurricanes certainly think they should be voted ahead of Oklahoma, having beaten the Sooners in Norman, Okla., 27-14.

Johnson has not been at odds with anybody this week. His opponent is Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors, the man who (as an Arkansas staffer) coached Johnson, got him his first job, then brought him to Iowa State and Pitt as a top assistant.

It was Majors who would call Johnson late at night, during all the preseason turmoil, with encouraging words.

"I said it months ago, that Miami couldn't have found a better man for the job," Majors brags now.

The Miami players say the days of turmoil seem long ago. "There was so much confusion in 1984," running back Alonzo Highsmith said. "There wasn't much unity. And when you're not a family, it's hard to win.

"There's no confusion now. We know who's in control."