GREENSBORO, Ga. – Miami will rely heavily on freshmen this season after losing two-thirds of its starting lineup from last season.
As far as offensive tackle Jason Fox is concerned, the Hurricanes are better off without some of those departed upperclassmen.
"Some of the players we had to get rid of were kind of cancerous to the team and really brought us down," Fox said Sunday at the ACC Media Days at the Reynolds Plantation Ritz-Carlton Lodge. "They didn't care about football. They're gone now, which is really good for us. We can get back to focusing on football.
"Sometimes, the coaches were more worried about punishing the kids who weren't doing good than focusing on football, which really took away from what we needed to get done."
Fox's comments offered at least one explanation for how the ACC has turned upside down the past couple of seasons.
Miami joined the ACC in 2004 with the intention of annually competing with Florida State for the league title. It hasn't worked out that way.
The Hurricanes still are seeking their first conference title and are 12-13 overall the past two seasons. Miami hardly resembles the program that won its fifth national championship in 2001 and was a play away from another title in '02.
Florida State hasn't fared much better. The Seminoles won the 2005 ACC title despite enduring a five-loss season, but they've gone 7-6 each of the past two seasons.
At least one rival player believes the recent struggles of Miami and FSU aren't necessarily because of a lack of talent.
"Miami is still Miami, believe it or not," said Wake Forest cornerback and Pahokee (Fla.) High graduate Alphonso Smith, who grew up a FSU fan but didn't receive a scholarship offer from any of his home state's major programs. "Florida State is still Florida State, believe it or not. Michigan is still Michigan. All the big dogs are still big dogs and still getting five-star recruits and four-star recruits. They still have the same ability.
"The thing is, everyone else is good. You have good players everywhere. Every week you have to come in and bring it. You can't only go on potential: 'Oh, I was a five-star recruit, so I don't have to work as hard. I was this, I was that in high school.' When you get into college, that stuff does not matter. It really doesn't matter. That's the thing. I think those guys aren't really appreciating the game. They're not really bringing it, you know. They just have to bring it."
Smith wasn't finished.
"They no doubt have got some world-class athletes there," he said. "I don't know. It is surprising."
While they didn't comment specifically on Smith's remarks, FSU and Miami players offered similar theories. They cited a lack of a killer instinct rather than a lack of talent.
Seminoles defensive end Everette Brown believes complacency infected a program that had finished in the top five of The Associated Press poll every season from 1987 through 2001.
"Sometimes you do get complacent," Brown said. "You think, 'Oh, I got this spear on my head so everyone will lay down and everything will fall into place.' You look at the big stadium with all the trophies, and you think, 'I'm a part of that.' But you didn't earn any of that. You didn't play in the national championship game. You didn't play in the ACC championship.
"So now what are you going to do to build onto the legacy that was there before you? That's what we're doing now. We're all about the now. We're taking it one day at a time. We're not going to overlook anyone and go out with a chip on our shoulder to prove to everybody once again that we're Florida State."
But no matter what Smith and others might say, it's tough to make the case that FSU and Miami have as much talent as they boasted during their glory years.
Florida State has only two offensive linemen in its starting lineup with any college experience at all and will open the season with a defense decimated by suspensions. Miami doesn't have a single quarterback who has taken a snap in a college game.
Both will have plenty of freshmen playing vital roles, but the Seminoles and Hurricanes don't seem bothered by that prospect. They're hoping a change in attitude compensates for a lack of experience.
"It's a lot more fun, to be honest with you," Miami defensive end Eric Moncur said. "I don't think we had a lot of fun last year."
Miami's opponents had a lot more fun than the Hurricanes last season. Miami won just once after September – a 37-29 victory at Florida State – and was outscored 120-28 in its final three games.
That season-ending stretch included one of the most embarrassing losses in the program's history, a 48-0 shutout against Virginia in the last UM game ever played at the Orange Bowl, where the Hurricanes once owned the nation's biggest home-field advantage.
"We try not to bring back last year too often," Fox said. "We need to move on and get past that. But you can't help but think about that. It's always in the back of your mind. We're probably going to bring it against Virginia this year. It definitely hurts. We definitely use that in the weight room. We use it as motivation. We definitely don't want to repeat what we did last year."
The ACC can't afford that kind of repeat performance from its most renowned programs. The ACC's players and coaches continually preach that their league is one of the best in the nation, no matter how much the bowls and polls might suggest otherwise.
Their arguments would carry a whole lot more weight if FSU and Miami could move back into national title contention.
"I think that's real important," Moncur said. "Florida State and Miami were always at the top. This year I think we're going to get back to that – both teams."