Chasing Clemson: Is this finally the year Miami wins the ACC?

Mark Richt could just be a quarterback away from reaching the ACC title game. Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY Sports

This week we're running a series on the teams capable of dethroning two-time defending ACC champion Clemson next season. Next up, we’re looking at Mark Richt’s Miami Hurricanes, who might be closer to that first ACC title than ever before.

How Miami can beat Clemson: Remember the last time these two teams played? That’d be Oct. 24, 2015 when Clemson won 58-0 and Al Golden was fired a day later.

In retrospect, it was a necessary bloodletting for the Hurricanes, and it certainly appears the program has taken the right steps since then. But how much has Miami actually closed that gap with Clemson?

Let’s start by noting that, if the two play this year, that would be a boon in itself for Miami. The matchup would have to come in the ACC title game, a destination Miami has never reached before. But this could be the year. The defense sets up as one of the nation’s finest, the skill position talent is young but deep, and the coaching staff is finally in place that has Miami fans believing they can win it all.

That’s not to say the path through the ACC Coastal will be an easy one, with a reasonable case to be made for nearly every team in the division as a legitimate title-game threat. But Miami appears to be among the most complete at this point, and if Richt can find a QB to live up to the potential of the rest of the team, a Clemson-Miami showdown in December seems a reasonable outcome.

And then we’ll get a chance to find out firsthand how far Miami has come since that 58-0 debacle.

What’s holding the Hurricanes back: The obvious answer here is quarterback. After three seasons of stability under Brad Kaaya, Miami will turn the page in 2017, with myriad options but no clear favorite.

Junior Malik Rosier has the most experience, but he’s hardly a shoo-in for the job. Jack Allison was able to learn from the sideline while redshirting last year, and his talent is undeniable. Then there’s N'Kosi Perry, ESPN’s No. 3 dual-threat QB in this year’s signing class. He’s green, but his ability to create plays with his legs certainly adds some intrigue and would bring a dimension to the Miami offense that hasn’t been there in years. Miami hasn’t had a QB run for 100 yards since 2008.

That athleticism may also help open up the ground game, which is another concern for the Canes. While Mark Walton showed marked progress down the stretch last season, his work in short yardage was questionable throughout the year, and he tended to fade against top defenses. With Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards both gone and turnover on the O-line, including the departure of Miami’s best blocker in Danny Isidora, Richt has find ways to keep the Canes from becoming too one-dimensional.

X-factor: No, this isn’t a defensive front that quite matches up with the heyday at Miami, but it’s arguably the best group the Canes have had since that last national championship in 2001. Joe Jackson, Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud all started as true freshmen last year on a unit that allowed the ninth-fewest yards per play in the country. They’re all back as sophomores on a defense loaded with young talent.

Sure, there are some questions about Miami’s offense entering spring practice, but Richt believes he has answers. And even if it takes a few games to identify exactly where all the pieces belong on that side of the ball, this young defense should keep Miami in every game, even when the offense isn’t putting up 30-plus points.