Miami in prime position for the future

Maybe, just maybe, it was worth the wait.

After all, had the NCAA not dragged its feet for almost four years in what will be remembered as a complete debacle of a botched investigation, Miami never would have had time to self-impose two bowl bans. Had the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions wrapped up its investigation in the six to eight weeks it would have liked to (insert joke here), the Canes never would have had the chance to withdraw themselves from the program’s first appearance in the ACC championship game. It was those "significant" self-imposed penalties that led to Miami's hall pass today.

Miami will lose three scholarships over each of the next three years, but it will not lose its No. 7 spot in the BCS standings because of the NCAA sanctions. And for that, Miami won Tuesday.

"To impose these bowl bans is a big deal, a very big deal," said Britton Banowsky, chair of the Committee on Infractions. “The fact it also prevented an ACC competition, a championship game which essentially could’ve led to a BCS bowl berth, those are very big decisions that were made by the university and the committee appreciated those decisions and it’s reflected, I think, in our report.”

They were big decisions, and Miami played it smart -- because this season is even bigger than the past two.

Here the Hurricanes are, with the No. 7-ranked team in the country -- undefeated and the best team Al Golden has had in his three years there -- free and clear to play in whatever game the postseason has to offer. For the first time in Golden’s tenure, the Canes can shake the shadow of the NCAA. They can focus on Saturday’s game against Wake Forest without wondering whether they'll even be allowed to play in the title game should they get that far. Next week, they can fully embrace the matchup against rival Florida State, knowing their BCS ranking is more than just a number. On Nov. 9, if everyone follows the script, Miami will host Virginia Tech in the game that will determine the Coastal Division winner, and the Hurricanes can take the field knowing that nobody is going to strip them of that opportunity this fall.

Miami has something to play for this fall besides pride and each other.

Golden has put himself in the ACC's Coach of the Year conversation, not only for the Canes’ success this year, but also because of their focus and the staff's ability to continue to recruit in spite of the looming NCAA sanctions. Miami has the No. 4 recruiting class in the country right now. If the staff can hold that position, it would be the Hurricanes' second top-10 class in three years and third straight top-15 class. That's working magic, considering Golden has put together three straight classes with the program's future in limbo. No longer can the NCAA investigation be used against Miami on the recruiting trail. Instead, Golden and his staff can sell a top-10 team that's heading in the right direction.

They also can sell Golden’s loyalty to the program. Speculation about his future there began as soon as the investigation became public, but he never ran from it then, so why would he choose to leave now? Golden has never given any indication that he'd be happier elsewhere, and Tuesday's decision should only make him feel more at home.

Because of the verdict, the NCAA's announcement should not be a distraction to the Canes' game-week preparation. Instead, it is long-awaited closure and relief -- both for those within the program and for its fans, too. It was also the only choice the NCAA had, considering the public relations nightmare it already had endured. Had the Committee on Infractions come down with further sanctions, it probably would have been lambasted by criticism, not only for excessively harsh penalties but also for the timing of them with Miami on a roll.

For the first half of the season, it seemed as if Miami was playing with an asterisk tacked to each win, but now the only asterisk next to the 6-0 Canes is assuring their bowl eligibility.

Miami's return to the top of the BCS standings has been long overdue, and so has this decision. The fact that they've coincided in the same season puts the Canes right where they want to be: back in the postseason picture and primed to continue to build for the future.

The NCAA isn't going to take that away. And for Miami, it was probably worth waiting for.