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After 20 games, Golden's Hurricanes at a crossroads between mediocrity, winning path

Taking a team from mediocrity to greatness is probably the toughest coaching challenge in all of college football.

But it's a feat that's been achieved here before at the University of Miami. Not once, but twice really.

Howard Schnellenberger took over a 6-5 program in 1978 and in five years went from 5-6 to 9-3 to 9-2 to 7-4 and a national championship in 1983.

Then, in 1997, after NCAA sanctions began to take their toll on UM's program, Butch Davis went from 5-6 in 1997 to 9-3, 9-4 and then 11-1 before the Canes won a national title the following season under Larry Coker.

Why the history lesson? Because that's what Randy Shannon failed to do after he took over in 2007. And now, it's what Al Golden is attempting to do after Shannon was cut loose following the 2010 season. 

Our Linda Robertson wrote a column today that it's time for Golden's Hurricanes to make a statement. I couldn't agree more.

Golden, who will coach his 21st game tonight for the Hurricanes, is in a unique position -- a lot like Davis was after his first two seasons. He knows sanctions are going to cut scholarships, bowl games, etc. It's going to make recruiting even tougher.

UM gave Golden a contract extension through the 2019 season because they knew finding somebody to deal with this mess isn't going to be easy. Golden seems eager, passionate about his task.

But does that necessarily mean the program will be resurrected like it was under Schnellenberger and Davis? Will the Canes eventually head down a championship path?

After 20 games it's really hard to answer that question -- especially with the NCAA hammer still hanging over head. In the end, none of us really know how far the rabbit hole goes when it comes to punishment.

But so far, after his first 20 games, Golden appears to be on a path more similar to Shannon than he does Schnellenberger and Davis. I went back and looked up the first 20 games for all four coaches (Davis I studied his third and fourth seasons because that's when he really dealt with the NCAA scholarship reductions) and found some interesting numbers to share with you in terms of what they accomplished.

> For starters, Davis and Schnellenberger never lost to teams with losing records in their first 20 games at Miami. Golden and Shannon did twice.

Shannon got beat by what turned out to be 4-8 North Carolina team in 2007 and a 5-7 North Carolina State team later that same season. Golden lost his first game to what turned out to be a 2-10 Maryland team last year. He finished the season by losing to a 4-8 Boston College squad.

> Golden and Shannon each went 10-10 through their first 20 games. Two of Golden's wins came against FCS opponents (Bethune-Cookman twice). Shannon only played one FCS school (Charleston Southern).

Golden, meanwhile, is 1-4 versus ranked opponents -- his only win coming against an Ohio State team that eventually finished 6-7 last year. Shannon went 1-5 versus ranked opponents -- his only win coming against a Texas A&M team that finished 7-6.

Shannon eventually finished his second season with four straight losses including the bowl game to Cal. UM was 7-6.

> Howard Schnellenberger went 11-9 in his first 20 games, but beat three ranked opponents -- at No. 18 Houston in 1980, at No. 19 Penn State in 1979, and at home versus No. 9 Florida State in 1980 -- and suffered six of his losses to ranked teams including an 11-1 Florida State team, 12-0 Alabama, 9-2-1 Notre Dame and a 10-2 Penn State team. Schnellenberger went on to finish his second season with five straight wins including a 20-10 win over Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl.

> Butch Davis went 12-8 (one win over an FCS school) over his first 20 games amid NCAA sanctions. His best win during that 20-game window? Knocking off 13th-ranked West Virginia in 1998. The Mountaineers went on to finish 8-4 and play in the Insight.com Bowl. Davis would close out his second season with an embarrassing 66-13 loss to Syracuse, but bounced back the following week to beat No. 3-ranked UCLA and then win a bowl game against N.C. State by 23 points.

The point here is Golden and UM have an opportunity to deliver a message over their final four games. They can finish strong like Davis' group did in 1998 and Schnellenberger's team did in 1980. Or they can limp toward the end of the 2008 season like Shannon's highly-touted, freshman loaded team.

The schedule certainly isn't that tough. Virginia Tech is 4-4. Virginia is 2-6 and winless in the ACC. USF is 2-6 and winless in the Big East. And Duke is 6-3, but still Duke.