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For UM, Houston is a crossroads

On paper, this game against Houston means absolutely nothing. On paper, the University of Miami can lose 57-0 and still win the ACC and go to the Orange Bowl. On paper, win or lose, UM gains nothing and loses nothing Saturday.

But to me, it's the most important game UM has played since it lost to Ohio State in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Saturday, we find out if these Hurricanes really are a failure, if they really are as bad as Umforumthey've looked and if248 this program is really headed toward a rebuilding project for the next several seasons. Win and it will be the first step in proving a 1-2 start was a result of some tough early scheduling and that this team is really only as good as what we all lost cite of (nothing more than ACC title contenders). My money is on the latter.

Say what you want about what UM has done on the field through three games. They deserve to get booed. By UM standards, their performances have looked about as bad as when the program was on probation in 1997. But I don't buy that this football team is as bad as it looks. To me, this program looks more like an inexperienced 21-year old boxer stepping into the ring for only the second time with a new set of trainers, a new set of gloves and new style of fighting, this after being KO'd in the previous fight.

I know what your thinking, the KO (the 40-3 loss to LSU) was more than 9 months ago and the new trainers have had a long time to make the new style of fighting effective. But be that as it may, had Miami started the season against Houston, North Carolina and FIU, they wouldn't be 1-2. Schedule Florida State, FAMU and Louisville after that instead and they might have gone 2-1.

For starters, I think we've all forgotten the sideshows this program has had to endure in the past nine months. Players the Canes were counting on to be impact players (Willie Williams) have come and gone while others (Ryan Moore) have gotten suspended indefintely, haven't come back as strong as everyone was hoping (Tyrone Moss) or really haven't healed from injuries (Carlos Armour, Glenn Cook, Tyrone Byrd). It all led to a horrible start. The bottomline is this team never really envisioned things getting this bad.

In the preseason, all the talk was "Our offense is unstoppable." "The offensive line looks better than its ever been." "The defense is still one of the best."

Miami was stunned when it lost to Florida State. In that locker room the only things being said were: "We'll be back," "We'll see FSU in the ACC title game, "We still have a shot at the national title, "Our offense will get better -- FSU's defense was tough."

The worse thing that could have happened next to Miami was false hope -- FAMU and the first eight minutes against Louisville. In a sense, the players really believed they had magically repaired everything and the old U was back, ready to play for a national title. 31 Louisville points later, the truth was unleashed: this team is still a rebuilding project.

Teams coming off back-to-back 9-3 seasons who replace assistants that have been around for decades, and lose key players to suspensions and transfers, and believe they are better than they really are, don't just show up and magically beat two ranked teams in the first three weeks of the season. It doesn't matter what color the jersey is or what letter graces the team's helmet.

Change and progress takes time (look up USC and Oklahoma). Nobody was willing to give any time to grow. Not the media. Not the fans. Not the Hurricanes themselves. The fact this program hadn't played for a national title in four years made everyone down here crazy. It's like everybody was expecting Larry Coker to snap his fingers and make this team a title contender again overnight.

Saturday, Houston (4-0) will show up at the Orange Bowl believing it can deliver the final knockout blow to the Canes -- and it can. If the Cougars beat UM here, I fear the confidence in the Hurricane locker room may not come back for several seasons. Opponents' fear of the Orange Bowl will most certainly evaporate. And that's why most of the nation figures to be cheering on the Cougars (No matter what Butch Davis did in cleaning up this program, The U will always be seen as "the dark side.")

But here in lies the crossroads and opportunity for UM to avoid the big debacle South Florida forsees. Here, is where I believe coach Larry Coker's players begin pulling their coach away from the guillotine. Houston has talent. But this UM team has more. For three weeks, it's just been covered up by overconfidence, hype, sloppiness and now the dirt UM fans have begun heaving from the hole in ground their digging for Coker.

Saturday, UM won't beat Houston like it used to crush underdogs in the Orange Bowl. But that's not the point. This UM doesn't need a blowout. It needs a win, the first of four recovery steps in building some much needed confidence -- in themselves and in their coaches. North Carolina, FIU and Duke are the next three dominoes. Easy ones at that.

If it all falls into place accordingly, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech could realistically be next. Not because this UM is great, but because those Yellow Jackets and Hokies aren't either. And because this UM team, void of proven stars until proven otherwise, should find its twinkle, gain its confidence and pick itself up from the canvas.

There's no guarantee it will happen. UM could come out and lose to Houston and finish the season an ungodly 7-5 or 6-6. Most UM fans believe this team is already done. And if you look at what's transpired on the field, you have no reason to believe otherwise.

But, somehow, this UM will find its groove the way Stella did. Greg Olsen will get open. Kyle Wright will throw touchdowns. Lance Leggett will begin catching them. Javarris James will begin to look like his famous older cousin. And the defense, which looked like swiss cheese against Louisville, will get pressure on the quarterback, create turnovers and score touchdowns.

How do I know this will happen? How can I honestly believe this team will respond? Because that's all UM has ever done. UM thrives on this negative energy. And the bottomline is this team isn't that bad. Are they going to win the ACC? Probably not. But they aren't going to lose to Houston and they're not going to fall apart. They've still got too much talent for that. And now, finally, they'll begin playing some teams that will allow them to show it.

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