The Miami Hurricanes’ 2016 season is a beginning of a new era in a couple of ways. The program hired Mark Richt in order to return the program back to its glory years of the 1990s and early 2000s. On Sept. 3, the Hurricanes also will start playing in newly renovated New Miami Stadium, formerly Sun Life Stadium (among other names).
Despite finishing the 2015 season with an 8-5 record, many people believe the Hurricanes could play in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte as soon as this season under Richt’s guidance. The main reason for optimism around the program is because of junior quarterback Brad Kaaya.
In his first two seasons at Miami, Kaaya has not only become one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks but also one of its best players. If he can improve on his numbers (16 touchdowns, five interceptions) from a year ago and remains healthy, expect the Hurricanes to remain in contention in the ACC Coastal race throughout the season.
Taking a look at Miami’s 2016 schedule, it is more difficult than last season’s slate. Yes, the Hurricanes won’t have to play defending ACC champion Clemson in divisional crossover play, but the team adds Notre Dame, Appalachian State and NC State to its schedule.
Here are Miami’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult:
12. Sept. 3 vs. Florida A&M
Miami will begin its season against the Florida A&M Ratters, which were one of the worst teams in the FCS a season ago. Florida A&M is coming off of a 1-10 showing that included nine losses by double digits.
This is a perfect game for Kaaya and the Hurricanes’ offense to establish a good rapport with each other. A game against the Ratters also should give the defense under new coordinator Manny Diaz a lot of confidence as the schedule will only get tougher from this point.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Florida Atlantic
This game is a rematch from last season when the Owls from Conference USA trailed the Hurricanes by just three points (20-17) at the half. Miami would go on to outscore FAU 24-3 for a more comfortable 44-20 outcome.
FAU has posted back-to-back 3-9 seasons under head coach Charlie Partridge, but four of the Owls’ losses last season were by seven points or fewer. While FAU improved its defensive ranking from 110th in 2014 to 70th last season, Miami should have a relatively easy time defeating the Owls once again.
10. Nov. 12 at Virginia
Much like the Hurricanes, the Virginia Cavaliers also will have a new head coach in hopes to return their football program back to respectability. Bronco Mendenhall left BYU to take over in Charlottesville.
Virginia finished 4-8 in 2015, but appears to have hit a home run in landing Mendenhall. It will likely take some time for the Cavaliers to become a major player in the ACC. This is a game Miami should win easily.
9. Oct. 1 at Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech had a disappointing 2015 season as the Yellow Jackets finished with a 3-9 record and failed to make a bowl appearance for the first time since 1996.
Georgia Tech should produce better results in 2016 because the team has recovered from key injuries and welcome back quarterback Justin Thomas for his senior season. Last season in head coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense, Thomas threw for 1,345 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
If Thomas if can return to his 2014 form where he threw for 18 touchdowns and rushed for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns, the Yellow Jackets could contend in a wide-open ACC Coastal.
8. Nov. 26 vs. Duke
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has raised the bar in Durham. Before his arrival, the Blue Devils would have just been happy with a six-win season. Now, fans expect the football team to contend for ACC Coastal Division titles.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk tore his Achilles during a Feb. 9 conditioning workout and his status this season is unknown. Without Sirk, it could be hard for the Blue Devils to contend.
7. Oct. 20 at Virginia Tech
For the first time since 1986, Frank Beamer will not be patrolling the Virginia Tech sideline. Former Memphis head coach Justin Fuente is now the man Hokie fans hope will lead them to a fifth ACC championship.
Virginia Tech has traditionally played Miami tough, especially in Blacksburg. The Hokies’ offense has some good skill position players returning in Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, Bucky Hodges and Travon McMillan.
6. Sept. 17 at Appalachian State
Appalachian State’s transition to FBS has been a success so far. In 2015, the Mountaineers finished 11-2 and received their first-ever bowl invitation, beating Ohio 31-29 in the Camellia Bowl.
Miami will be traveling to Boone, N.C., to face the Mountaineers on their home turn in an interesting out-of-conference matchup. This will not be an easy game for the Hurricanes, especially on the road.
5. Nov. 19 at NC State
Dave Doeren enters his fourth season as the NC State head coach. Last season, the Wolfpack finished 7-6 and lost to Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl.
The Wolfpack be starting a new quarterback in Jalan McClendon. Getting running back Matt Dayes back from injury will help their offense. Dayes rushed for 865 yards in eight games.
NC State is a tough opponent in Carter-Finley Stadium, so the Hurricanes will have to be on upset alert.
4. Oct. 15 vs. North Carolina
Last season, the North Carolina Tar Heels gave eventual College Football Playoff runner-up Clemson all it could handle in the ACC Championship Game before losing 45-37. This season, Mitch Trubisky steps in at quarterback for the departed Marquise Williams.
North Carolina’s defense has always been a question and this is an area Miami should be able to take advantage of in this matchup. The two teams have split the season series the last four years with the Tar Heels winning last year’s game 59-21.
3. Nov. 5 vs. Pittsburgh
By the time this game is played it could have significant impact on the outcome of the ACC Coastal race. The Panthers will get back 2014 ACC Player of the Year running back James Conner back after missing all of last season while battling Hodgkin lymphoma.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi has given the program a bolt of new energy following a stretch of mediocrity. Sixteen starters return for the Panthers in 2016, so Pittsburgh could be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Miami playing in its first ACC Championship Game.
2. Oct. 29 at Notre Dame
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be one of the two preseason national championship contenders that the Hurricanes will face this season. Despite returning only eight starters, the Fighting Irish should have a productive team, especially on offense where they have averaged 33.5 points per game over the last two seasons.
It is a rivalry game so anything can happen, but it will be tough for the Hurricanes to go into South Bend, Ind., and come out with a victory.
1. Oct. 8 vs. Florida State
Miami’s game against Florida State is important for a number of reasons. The Seminoles have been the No. 1 team in the state of Florida since 2013 and the Hurricanes have not beaten their archrival since 2009.
The last two games in this series have been very tight. In 2014 at home, the Hurricanes led the Seminoles for most of the game until a late touchdown put Florida State ahead to stay in a 30-26 hard-fought victory. Last season, the Seminoles defeated the Hurricanes in another hotly contested battle, this one in Tallahassee.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.