-- The University of Miami was supposed to bring gridiron legitimacy to the Atlantic Coast Conference in its first season as a member, schooling the league's basketball-leaning members as it conducted its perfunctory chase for a national title.
The No. 18 Hurricanes have instead tripped on the conference's lowest rungs, raising questions about whether they will make a serious run even for the ACC crown as they travel to Charlottesville for Saturday's game against No. 10 Virginia.
The Hurricanes are not merely 31/2-point underdogs, they are positively reeling from two straight losses to unranked conference opponents. About the only thing that has plummeted as fast as Miami in the polls (a 14-point drop in two weeks) is the team's morale.
"You see a bunch of guys right now who are pretty [ticked] off," Miami quarterback Brock Berlin said Tuesday. "You won't see too many smiles around here this week."
In close-call victories against Florida State and Louisville early this season, Miami looked vulnerable. In theirfirst loss, on a game-ending field goal at North Carolina Oct. 30, the Hurricanes seemed unprepared. During last Saturday's seven-point overtime loss at the Orange Bowl to Clemson, Miami simply looked like a run-of-the-mill team.
Players must be yearning for the days when they could catch a breath with Temple and Rutgers in the Big East, teams the Hurricanes beat by a combined margin of 62 points last year.
"The ACC is really a good conference week in and week out," Berlin said. "Each week you have to come out and play your best. You can't just show up and play. You've got to know each week you are going to play a good team; it doesn't matter what their record is."
Back-to-back losses would customarily generate outrage in a fired-up core of Miami veterans. This squad, however, is short on both seniors and swagger. Some players seem too young to understand the history here that makes losing virtually unacceptable, while appearing baffled by the team's problems.
"I really don't know if it's frustration or people not being mentally tough or being tired" at the end of games, sophomore defensive lineman Brian Pata said. "I really don't know."
With three conference games to go, the Hurricanes (6-2, 3-2) are a game behind Virginia and Virginia Tech -- which they play Dec. 4 -- in the ACC standings.
"The big challenge is confidence," Miami Coach Larry Coker said. "We have to make sure we get our confidence back. . . . Things go well for 10 years and all of a sudden a couple of things go badly and now we're bad coaches and [we have] bad players. You'd like to alleviate that attitude."
Coker, though, did not suggest that Miami's problems were merely a state of mind. He made it clear he believes this team lacks the star power of others he has coached in his four-year tenure, including last year's squad, which also lost twice in a row. The difference: That team lost to two ranked teams, No. 10 Virginia Tech and No. 18 Tennessee.
And that team, Coker said, was able to rebound, eventually beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl, thanks to experience and incredible individual talent. A record six Hurricanes went on to become NFL first-round picks in April, including Washington Redskins free safety Sean Taylor, selected fifth overall.
"I don't want this to be misunderstood: I like our talent," said Coker, who has a 41-5 record with Miami. "But there's not a margin for error. We have to play at the top of our game. . . . I believe we can still win, but we really have to hit on all cylinders. When you are talented enough, maybe you don't have to hit on all cylinders. "
Miami's lineup is populated by youth thanks to players leaving early for the NFL draft and a handful of key injuries, particularly to offensive line star Eric Winston and defensive tackle Santonio Thomas. The offensive line includes one redshirt freshman and two juniors. A sophomore and redshirt freshman start at linebacker, and two sophomores start on the defensive line. The defense features just one senior starter, defensive back Antrel Rolle.
Last year, Miami's defense repelled threats repeatedly while the offense occasionally bungled opportunities, turning routine victories into nail-biting adventures. This year's team, however, has seen its defense play a large part in the weekly breakdowns.
In its last four games, the defense has allowed an average of 197 yards rushing and 466 total yards, a far cry from the 117 rushing and 258 overall the defense allowed last season.
And unlike Clemson and North Carolina, which weren't expected to push Miami around, Virginia will step on the field with a high-powered offense. Led by Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman, Virginia is averaging 255 rushing yards per game and leads the league in total offense (458 yards per game) and scoring (33.5 points).
Miami's offense, meantime, continues with roller-coaster performances that leave fans alternately booing and cheering. Berlin has cut down on interceptions (he has just two in the last six games) but he continues to overthrow open receivers in crucial situations.
The Hurricanes' running game hasn't helped, with Frank Gore, Tyrone Moss and Quadtrine Hill leading a rushing offense that is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry.
"People are frustrated because of the way things have been going," senior tackle Chris Myers said. "No one is mad at each other or pointing any fingers because it's everyone's fault.
"If we don't win out, it's a failure. What we've done the last three weeks as an offense, as an offensive line, it's embarrassing."