CORAL GABLES — The starting quarterback, gone. The team's most productive runner in a decade, gone. The top two receivers, gone. The best defensive player and unquestioned locker-room leader, gone.
Still, hope is not gone at Miami.
Even after a 6-6 season, and even with the NCAA investigation into compliance practices that overshadowed last season still unresolved — sanctions are expected to be handed down early next year — the Hurricanes are heading into Al Golden's second year insisting they can contend in the ACC.
"For us to get back to where we want to be in the college football world, we can talk about everything and what the expectations are and anything on the outside," Golden said. "But the reality of it is, for us at the University of Miami, right here, right now, there's only one way out, and that's (win) the (ACC's) Coastal Division."
If that's the case, the Hurricanes might need more time.
Miami has not won an ACC title since joining the league, and few expect that to change in 2012. The Hurricanes tied for fourth in the Coastal last season at 3-5, and were picked fifth in the six-team division in this year's poll.
"We want to set our mark," said freshman defensive back Tracy Howard, a heralded recruit who may start right away. "We want to be known as the guys who brought 'The U' back."
On offense, there are new faces in key roles.
Stephen Morris starts the year having assumed the quarterback role from Jacory Harris (2,486 yards, 20 touchdowns as a senior in 2011). Mike James becomes the featured running back now that Lamar Miller (1,272 yards, nine TDs in his final college season) is with the Miami Dolphins — though freshman back Randy "Duke" Johnson will likely see tons of carries by the time the season ends. Tommy Streeter left early and Travis Benjamin graduated, a duo that combined to catch 87 passes, 11 of them for touchdowns, last season.
"It feels different," James said. "It has to feel different. It looks and feels different. Guys have a real competitive edge to them. They know what we have to get done and they're doing that."
Of all the newcomers, Johnson might be the most talked-about. He was Florida's high school "Mr. Football" award winner last season, after leading Miami Norland to a state championship and piling up 266 all-purpose yards in the Class 5A title game. Johnson had 208 carries as a senior; he averaged 10 yards per carry.
Miami imposed a bowl ban last season because of the ongoing NCAA investigation that started into claims made by a former booster and convicted Ponzi scheme architect who said he provided extra benefits to athletes and recruits over an eight-year period. The hits have kept coming since: A number of underclassmen left early, and not long ago safety Ray-Ray Armstrong — one of the players linked to that investigation — was dismissed.
Golden said the "football intelligence" of where the Hurricanes are now is superior to a year ago. Time will tell if that translates into more wins.
"I believe the system is better than 6-6 right now," Golden said. "I just think we have to all be on the same page."