With a young roster and an emerging star quarterback, Miami is already optimistic about next season. First, it wants to end this one on a high note.
The 14th-ranked Hurricanes take on No. 24 Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl on Tuesday, the Badgers’ second straight postseason trip to Orlando.
Miami began the season unranked, but leaped to ninth in the AP poll after a pair of opening wins over ranked opponents - the first time the Hurricanes were ranked in the top 10 since the final regular-season poll of 2005.
Miami (9-3) won four of its last five, closing the year with a 31-10 victory at South Florida on Nov. 28. Now the Hurricanes are looking to secure their first 10-win season since 2003.
“It shows that coach (Randy) Shannon is really taking the time to put a lot into the team, and it has progressed since he has been here the last three years,” quarterback Jacory Harris said. “Wherever we are, we are just having fun and that is the reason we are 9-3 and that’s the reason why we have had such a success this season thus far.”
To get its 10th victory, Miami will have to win its first bowl game since 2006. After a one-year absence from bowl play, the Hurricanes lost 24-17 to California in the Emerald Bowl last year.
Much of the Miami’s improvement has been due to Harris, who ranked 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 3,164 passing yards. The sophomore had 23 touchdowns, although he also tied for the most interceptions in the nation with 17.
Harris won’t have star left tackle Jason Fox protecting him during this game due to a knee injury that required surgery. Fox started 47 games in his Miami career, third all-time behind William Joseph (50) and Ed Reed (48).
“He’s done a nice job here at the University of Miami, been working well and helped us get where we’re at right now,” Shannon said. “He worked hard all season long and was playing with some pain all season, so this was best for him.”
Harris could put up big numbers against Wisconsin, which is ranked 66th against the pass at 219.9 yards per game.
The Hurricanes also boast a versatile ground attack. Graig Cooper led the team with 666 rushing yards while Damien Berry ran for 587 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.
While Miami averaged 31.7 points this season, the defense took a while to match that level of play. Miami held three of its final four opponents to fewer than 20 points while giving up an average of 264.0 yards over those four games.
“We finished strong,” Shannon said. “That tells you about this team. If we get everybody on the right cylinders and doing all the right things, we’re going to be fine. I’m very proud of this football team, this coaching staff and what we’ve done this year.”
The Hurricanes have increased their win total in each of their three seasons under Shannon, and unlike previous years, avoided a late-season swoon in 2009. They dropped three in a row to end last season and four straight to close 2007.
Wisconsin (9-3) will be the Hurricanes’ first Big Ten opponent since they lost to Ohio State in the BCS title game to end the 2002 season.
Like Miami, the Badgers finished strong by winning four of five, beating Hawaii 51-10 in their finale Dec. 5.
Wisconsin averaged 39.0 points over its last five games, relying on a bruising ground attack that will provide a contrast in offenses to Miami’s pass-oriented approach.
John Clay, the Big Ten offensive player of the year, rushed for nine touchdowns over the last five contests and ran for 1,369 yards and 16 TDs on the season.
The Badgers ranked 14th in the nation in rushing at 206.7 yards per game.
Wisconsin is looking to win 10 games for the first time since going 12-1 in 2006. That was also when they won their last bowl game, taking the Capital One Bowl in coach Bret Bielema’s first year.
The Badgers are eager to try and erase the memory of last season’s Champs Sports Bowl defeat, 42-13 to Florida State.
“(That loss) really left a bad taste in our mouth,” defensive back Chris Maragos said. “The whole offseason we wanted to prepare and make sure that didn’t happen again. … We put ourselves in the position to redeem ourselves.”
Miami and Wisconsin both averaged more than 30.0 points, and their defenses also appear to be equally matched. Wisconsin is 18th in the country at 310.4 yards allowed per game while Miami is 25th at 321.0.
The Badgers were better at forcing turnovers with a plus-6 margin, while the Hurricanes are at minus-2.
This will be the fourth meeting between the teams and the first since 1989. Wisconsin’s only win in the series came in 1958.