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A Golden Opportunity

Whatever difficulties Mike London and the Virginia football team have endured this season pale in comparison to Al Golden's trial by fire during his first season as Miami's head coach.

When the Hurricanes (4-3, 2-2 ACC) host the Cavaliers (4-3, 1-2 ACC) tomorrow night, Golden will have his full arsenal of players available for the first time this season. Prior to the start of Miami's 2011 campaign, the NCAA suspended eight Hurricane players for receiving improper benefits, including six projected starters.

Senior quarterback Jacory Harris and senior linebacker and Butkus Award semifinalist Sean Spence missed Miami's opener against Maryland, while preseason All-ACC junior safety Ray-Ray Armstrong also served a four-game suspension. Junior defensive end Olivier Vernon returned from a six-game suspension last week, but senior defensive tackle Micanor Regis sat out after punching a North Carolina wide receiver in the groin and stepping on a running back's hand.

Without their starting quarterback, the Hurricanes fell to the Terrapins by eight points, and missing players also loomed large as Miami lost two more close matchups against No. 15 Virginia Tech and No. 10 Kansas State.

"I think we all know that [the suspensions] were a big factor, I don't think there's any question when you look at the players involved and of course at the impact they've made," Golden said. "To say ... any of those guys wouldn't have made a difference early in the season - I think it's fair for us to say they would have made a difference."

The suspensions stem from a larger controversy surrounding the Miami football program. Shortly after accepting the Miami job, Golden was blindsided by NCAA allegations that Hurricane players accepted more than $2 million in impermissible benefits from booster Nevin Shapiro between 2002 to 2010. Before he had faced his first opponent, Golden battled threats of lost scholarships, probation and even the "death penalty," the NCAA's total ban from competition, so the coach views his team's 4-3 record as a success within that context.

"We've played a tough schedule amidst a transition year, amidst a lot of adversity that we could not foresee coming," Golden said. "But now we're starting to get some traction ... and they're starting to see results."

Miami has won two straight games and seeks to stretch that streak against Virginia tomorrow night. The Cavaliers are not oblivious to the storm that surrounds the Hurricanes, but they refuse to concern themselves with the controversy.

"We really don't pay too much attention to [the violations]," senior wide receiver Kris Burd said. "We're aware of that situation but we focus on ourselves and the Virginia Cavaliers. We have our own adversity to overcome."

Virginia's adversity hardly matches Miami's in magnitude, as the program boasts a comparatively sterling reputation regarding rules violations. London served with Golden as an assistant at both Boston College and Virginia and considers the coach a "close friend," but he has avoided the NCAA accusations that victimized his colleague. Whereas Miami's historical rap sheet runs almost as long the list of NFL talent "The U" has produced, Virginia's most significant scandal dates back to the Truman presidency, when the team faced possible NCAA banishment for providing scholarships to its athletes - a serious transgression at the time.

The Cavaliers have stayed unscathed during college football's current era of blockbuster recruiting scandals, but from an on-field standpoint, London's season has been just as frustrating and inconsistent as Golden's. After walloping William & Mary during the season opener and stealing a comeback win at Indiana, Virginia dropped winnable games against North Carolina and Southern Mississippi and barely survived perennial WAC punching bag Idaho. The Cavaliers seemingly earned a signature win two weeks ago against then-No. 12 Georgia Tech but regressed last week during a 28-14 loss to N.C. State.

Both London and Golden began their respective ACC coaching tenures with optimism, but their visions have yet to materialize. Instead, fans have rewarded their energy with indifference, and flailing attendance figures are just another of the coaches' shared difficulties.

Miami enjoyed the country's 13th-largest increase in average attendance last year, improving from 47,551 in 2009 to 52,575 in 2010. However, the Hurricanes have slipped back to the anemic attendance levels that have curiously plagued the program since its last national championship in 2001. After 66,279 watched Miami thump then-No. 17 Ohio State Sept. 17, the Hurricanes have averaged just 42,630 fans per game during Al Golden's inaugural season. The lack of support at Sun Life Stadium - which houses 74,916 fans at full capacity - cannot be blamed on a schedule loaded with creampuff competition. Beyond the Buckeyes, Miami also has already played No. 10 Kansas State and then-No. 20 Georgia Tech at home.

While Virginia hardly can claim the same pedigree of success as five-time national champion Miami, the Cavaliers drew an impressive average of 59,824 fans as recently as 2007 - the 32nd-highest attendance in the nation. That season, stud defensive end Chris Long led the Cavaliers to a 9-4 record and Jan. 1 Gator Bowl appearance. Fan support since has steadily dwindled to an average of 45,459 for London's first season in 2010 and has hardly improved through five home games this year. Virginia currently averages 45,745 fans per game despite a winning record and the victory against the Yellow Jackets, the Cavaliers' biggest upset since beating No. 4 Florida State 26-21 in 2005.

Several Virginia players voiced their frustration at the fanbase during postgame interviews last Saturday, including freshman quarterback David Watford, who admitted the mass exodus from Scott Stadium "does have an effect" on players.

"You want to have the fans that stick with you through thick and thin, good and bad," Watford said.

Tomorrow night's nationally televised game provides the perfect opportunity for both programs to recapture their fans' attention and craft much-needed positive headlines.

"Provided that you play well and you're competitive, it gives you an opportunity to get your name out there and to get your brand out there," London said. "Playing well on national TV against a very, very good opponent is something that every program looks for."

When the two coaching colleagues clash in Coral Gables, one will secure his season's fifth win and take a giant step toward righting the rebuilding effort - with a bowl bid the likely reward. The other will drop to the definition of mediocrity, facing a .500 record and more questions than answers.

"Everybody's watching," senior safety Corey Mosley said. "It's a chance to show everybody what we can do and what this program has become"