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Despite struggles, Miami sitting atop ACC

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) - Miami has given up more first downs than any team in the nation this season, has been beaten by at least 38 points on two separate occasions already and is on pace to obliterate school records for points and yardage allowed.

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Those defensive numbers - beyond dreadful.

There is, however, one stat that doesn't make Mark D'Onofrio cringe.

``We're 3-0 in the ACC,'' the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator said Monday, ``so that keeps me positive.''

Go figure. Among all the numbers that spell disaster, the ones that matters most are the ones in the standings.

Widely picked to finish toward the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Miami (4-2, 3-0) is one of only three remaining unbeatens in league play, along with Duke (2-0 ACC) and Maryland (1-0 ACC). And while a pair of blowout losses - a 52-13 debacle at Kansas State last month, followed by a 41-3 embarrassment this past weekend against Notre Dame - show that while the Hurricanes have their problems, the ACC race may be an elixir of sorts.

``We're in the tournament right now,'' Miami coach Al Golden said.

The tournament - a phrase Golden used last year as well, but still fits - starts in earnest on Saturday, when the Hurricanes open a stretch of three home games by facing North Carolina (4-2, 1-1). What happens over that homestand, which also includes prime-time rivalry matchups with Florida State and Virginia Tech, will almost certainly decide Miami's fate in the Coastal Division race.

``It's there for the taking,'' Miami running back Mike James said. ``But it goes to show you, it's not about what people write down or who's writing the books. Look where they wrote us to be. It's all about who's the best team on that day.''

That's been proven time and again in the ACC already this season.

Miami was tabbed to finish fifth in the Coastal, ahead of only Duke - and combined, those teams are 5-0 in league play so far. Two weeks ago, the Hurricanes enjoyed a smorgasbord of offensive success in a 44-37 win over North Carolina State. Miami followed up that win by getting rolled by Notre Dame; the Wolfpack followed up that loss by knocking off then-No. 3 Florida State, 17-16.

``N.C. State showed up and played,'' James said. ``They're a good ball team, a good ball club, a lot of people overlooked that team.''

And after getting beat by 38 points, on national television, Miami might just be a team some people are overlooking as well.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora insists that he's not among them.

``They got talent,'' Fedora said. ``They're as talented as any team in the league, really. ... They've got the players there.''

What Miami hasn't had is enough plays. The Hurricanes have allowed 158 first downs in six games - by comparison, Florida State has allowed 75 in six games - and have allowed opponents to convert 45 percent of their third-down chances. Miami has given up 208 points already; the school record is 314, set during 13-game seasons in 1984 and 2008. At this rate, if the Hurricanes play 13 games this season, they would allow 451 points.

In fairness, Miami's two losses have come against teams currently ranked No. 6 and No. 7 in the country. Also in fairness, the Hurricanes are simply giving up tons of yards against everybody - 510 per game so far, which means they're on pace to yield more than 6,000 by the end of the regular season alone.

The Hurricanes' record for yards allowed: 4,369 in 1997, school officials said.

Unless Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get eligibility restored and return to college, that number would seem to be a lock to get topped soon enough.

``We have a month here at home where we've got an opportunity to get better, and I don't think you can discount ... playing 26 or 28 guys in a game,'' said D'Onofrio, whose defensive two-deep is almost entirely composed of freshmen and sophomores. ``I don't think anybody can really understand what that entails and the commitment that that takes, not only in the short-term but in the long-term.''

No matter what the numbers say, the chance is there for Miami.

The Hurricanes aren't the only team in the ACC that controls their own destiny - at this point, just about everybody does - but there's a hope in Coral Gables that having the best league record at this point means something as they head into this stretch.

``We need our fans, we need our students, we need to have a home-field advantage,'' Golden said. ``It should be a lot of fun.''

---

Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

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