USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Before turning the page, let's recall the four facts that best encompass what Miami (Ohio) presented as a football team – with uniforms and everything – during a 2013 season that defies logic and explanation:
First: Miami's final three opponents – Kent State, Buffalo and Ball State – scored 122 points, or five more than the RedHawks' offense managed during the course of a 12-game season.
Second: Miami finished 124th nationally in total offense, 121st in passing offense, 116th in rushing offense and tied for last in scoring offense. The RedHawks ranked 115th in total defense, 105th against the pass, 113th against the run and 107th in scoring.
Third: Only 94 plays from scrimmage gained 10 or more yards. The RedHawks averaged just 3.68 yards per play; 98 Football Bowl Subdivision teams averaged more yards per carry.
Fourth: Miami lost to Massachusetts.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mid-American Conference
What is former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin to do? The only solution is for Martin and the new staff to roll up their sleeves, lace up their sneakers and get to work, starting what should be the multiple-year process of restoring some luster to one of the proudest programs in college football. The only problem is this: The Cradle of Coaches might need another legend to turn this thing around.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The negatives? Let's see: the offensive line, pass protection, run blocking, the backfield, the lack of depth at receiver, the subtle changes toward youth at linebacker and the game of musical chairs at safety. These are not good things; these are things that will lead a team to make nothing out of an enviable MAC schedule. Could this team be worse than last season's group yet win the same number of games – if not win five, even? Without a doubt. The schedule will allow Miami to hang along, treading water, but I see zero improvement between the white lines.
In a nutshell: Last season in a flash, because there's little reason to add more: Miami lost by 34 points to Kentucky, 36 to Illinois, 42 to Bowling Green and a touchdown to UMass. In terms of pure putridity, the only team in program history that can rival last year's version was the Frank Wilton-coached team of 1940, which went 0-7-1 while scoring a grand total of 32 points. Wilton was replaced two years later by Stu Holcomb, who was replaced two years after that by a little-known assistant named Sid Gillman. And Miami was off and running.
High point: Not applicable. Miami fans prayed for lightning every Saturday.
Low point: Too many options to pick just one, sadly. Losing to UMass was a wake-up call. One Miami fan to another: Are we this bad? Replied the friend: No, we're worse.
Tidbit: Miami has been outscored in each of the last eight seasons. The next-closest similar stretch in the program's modern history spans only four years: 1939-42 and 1987-90.
Tidbit (Chuck Martin edition): What can I tell you about Chuck Martin? At the most basic level, think of Martin as a Brian Kelly discipline – or clone, even – with the experience as an assistant to return Miami to its spot in the Mid-American Conference. But what separates Martin from the rest of the pack is his experience at the forefront of his own program. Like Kelly before him, Martin led Grand Valley State to almost unfathomable success during a six-year span from 2004-9, going 74-7 overall and capturing a pair of Division II national championships in 2005 and 2006. It's this run at GVSU that places Martin apart from the crop of big-program assistants who have flopped on the MAC stage.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Martin will split offensive coordinator duties between a pair of former FCS assistants, George Barnett and Eric Koehler, both formerly of Illinois State – one of the great incubators of coaching talent on the FCS level. He dipped into his past in hiring defensive coordinator Matt Pawlowski, an ex-GVSU assistant out of coaching since the last of four years at Western Carolina in 2011. Miami also brought in two assistants familiar to those inside Big Ten country: Corey Brown with the defensive line and Autry Denson with the running backs. I think Denson just scored another touchdown against Michigan.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Athletes nicknamed "Hawk"
1. Ben Hogan
2. Andre Dawson
3. Connie Hawkins
4. Ken Harrelson
5. Barry Hawkins
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: There will be a role in this offense for sophomore quarterback Austin Gearing (447 yards rushing), who might stand years away from contributing as a true dual-threat option but has the legs to carve out some production in certain packages. Enter the first of two Notre Dame transfers set for a major role in Martin's first season: Andrew Hendrix, the once-ballyhooed recruit, will be given every opportunity to nab the starting role that proved so elusive during his stint with the Fighting Irish. It would be a surprise if Hendrix wasn't under center for the opener, to be honest. But what does he do well? I'll say that he's one of the smarter quarterbacks you'll meet, for one. He's familiar with Martin's system, which can't be overstated. Hendrix is also the RedHawks' best quarterback, plain and simple, and the only one on the roster with the ability to read defenses, make throws and move the sticks with his feet. In terms of wins and losses, this might be the time to roll with a youngster like Gearing and take some lumps, but don't look for that to happen barring a night-and-day improvement.
Miami essentially returns five starters up front, because senior Marcus Matthews – 22 career starts – seems like a logical pick to replace John Anevski at center. But after last year's abomination, Martin is wise to reopen competition across the board in search of the best five rather than sticking to the script and retaining last year's look. Having said that, don't be surprised if the lineup does eventually remain the same: Matthews in the middle, flanked by Trevan Brown on his left and Brandyn Cook his right, with Jeff Tanner and Zach Lewis on the edges. It's the same group that embarrassed itself a year ago.
You'll find plenty of depth at wide receiver, a group that loses no player of consequence a season ago. The one change is at tight end, where Notre Dame transfer Alex Welch is expected to replace the tandem of Steve Marck and Dustin White. The rotation out wide is led by Dawan Scott (28 receptions for 415 yards) and David Frazier (28 for 302), a pair with the potential for bigger and better things with an actual quarterback under center. The rest of the position is somewhat experienced if short on production: Alvonta Jenkins, Rokeem Williams, Fred McRae and Jared Murphy, for example.
Defense: It's not about the number of losses – only four starters from last year's defense – but the quality of those starters lost to graduation: Wes Williams and Austin Brown were players up front, but the biggest loss is cornerback Dayonne Nunley – one of the best defensive backs in program history. Although there's an all-conference performer at linebacker and five experienced linemen back up front, Miami's inability to replacing an all-league cornerback is a significant concern heading into summer conditioning. The good news, if this qualifies: Miami brings back the remaining three starters from last year's secondary. Those familiar with last year's secondary might call that a concern.
But it was this bad with Nunley – Miami allowed 8.1 yards per attempt through the air, 29 touchdowns against 10 interceptions; how much worse can it be without the three-time all-league pick? It could be worse, technically. But with Brown and Williams gone up front, the need for sticky secondary play takes on an even greater degree of importance. Hence the pressure on sophomore Heath Harding (56 tackles), the heir apparent, along with Crishawn Dupay and Jarrell Jones, who should battle for the starting job on the opposite side. Although both safeties return – Jay Mastin and Brison Burris – both are far more proven in run support than patrolling the back end of the defense.
Mastin and Burris will be able to stay out of the box if the line stiffens against the run. That's not going to happen. Look: Bryson Albright (55 tackles, 11.5 for loss) is a good one at end, and needed in huge doses for his ability to bring pressure in the backfield. At the same time, he's a 230-pounder – meaning Albright is indicative of the RedHawks' group as a whole, which has some disruptive linemen but is wholly lacking in the size needed to hold firm at the point of attack. What's the end result? Albright and tackles Mwanza Wamulumba and Jimmy Rousher try and try, but offensive linemen find it easy to maintain blocks for a beat before moving to the second level, where they put hands and bellies on Miami's linebackers. Before you know it, Kent State has ground out 300 yards in a 24-6 defeat.
What's unfortunate is that Miami has talent at linebacker – guys who could be playmakers if given more room to breathe. As is, junior middle linebacker Kent Kern (99 tackles) is a deserving all-conference candidate; junior weak side linebacker Josh Dooley (87 tackles) is reliable, though Miami needs more big plays from the position; and the younger duo of Tyler Tucker and Nate Gerbus could easily step into an increased role and replace Chris Wade's value. Yeah, it's not a bad group. But in many ways, Kern and friends are nullified by a subpar defensive front.
Special teams: Losing punter Zac Murphy robs Miami of a major weapon in field position, though Murphy's excellence went largely unnoticed – and wholly unused – a season ago. There's a good chance that junior kicker Kaleb Patterson takes over both duties, though Christian Koch stands as a second option at punter. Miami did a nice job defending kickoffs last fall, so we'll see if that continues with Patterson replacing Mason Krysinski as the kickoff specialist. It should.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: The fight in the backfield took center stage during the spring and should continue in August, due to the importance of finding a productive lead back in this offense. To say Miami lacked a running back last fall would be slightly misleading – the RedHawks had running backs on scholarship, I believe. Three returning backs have renewed their competition: Spencer Treadwell, Robert Williams III and Spencer McInnis. If I told you this trio combined for 266 yards on 77 carries, would you believe me? Blame the line and the system and the coaching; if valid excuses, the truth is that Miami lacks talent in the backfield. That's why the new staff is hoping a pair of incoming freshmen can help add speed and elusiveness to a group largely lacking in both qualities, giving the running back a fresh burst to go with the change in offensive philosophy and terminology. But this is a shockingly weak crop of backfield options.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Massachusetts: If it's not too much to ask, it would be great if Miami could beat the Minutemen at home and avoid a last-place finish in the East Division. If we focus on MAC play, the schedule as a whole is kind: Miami avoids Ball State and Toledo from the West while drawing UMass, Kent State and Western Michigan at home. In another year, perhaps, this schedule would lend itself to a divisional title. Not this year. In non-conference play, Miami takes on Marshall – a 30-point loss – rival Cincinnati and Michigan, the latter pair on the road.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Don't expect the overnight fix. What Martin inherits isn't just a woebegone roster – more on that in a moment – but a broken program, and even a coach of his experience can't be expected to reverse the RedHawks' course in a single season, let alone an offseason. Only those familiar with Miami's downfall will be able to understand just how much work lies ahead: Martin needs to tear down the dilapidated exterior, dig up the loose roots and start from scratch, first reversing a loser's mindset before attacking the schematics needed to lift an offense and defense out of the doldrums. This is going to be difficult.
Now, the personnel. Perhaps the offense finds a new triggerman in Hendrix – or, better yet, Hendrix takes control and plays at the level most projected as a high-profile recruit. I'd say Hendrix ends up being steady but far from spectacular, giving Gearing the opportunity to step in and develop as the future starter. Unfortunately, this offense can't surround its quarterback with much help: Miami's offensive front is still a mess, the backfield is totally bereft of anything of note and the receiver corps, while deep, lacks a go-to target. On defense, a nice set of linebackers are negated by a thin front four and a secondary without a proven quantity. In terms of personnel, Miami is frighteningly far off from competing for the MAC title.
So that's 2014 in a nutshell: Miami has a new lease on life but lacks the weapons needed for Martin to perform a miraculous worst-to-first reversal – though the fan base would be happy with a worst-to-middle-of-the-MAC shift, I think. UMass should be a win, as should Eastern Kentucky, but the rest? At least six losses: Marshall, Cincinnati, Michigan, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Ohio. The rest are tossups, but none tilt in the RedHawks' direction.
Dream season: Miami goes 5-7, beating Eastern Kentucky in September and splitting eight games against MAC foes.
Nightmare season: Winless for the second year in a row.
Who's No. 121? This team has averaged 32.7 points per game in its wins during the last four years.