MIAMI -- At the beginning of the 1991 college football season, the University of Miami was overlooked on the short list of contenders for the national championship.
The Hurricanes were too young.
Quarterback Gino Torretta was too limited.
Florida State was too good.
"I saw one magazine picked us to lose three games," Torretta recalled yesterday. "We said, 'What, are you kidding us?' We haven't lost three games in a season in a long time. We set that goal of going 12-0 and we reached it."
With a 22-0 victory over Nebraska on Wednesday night in the Federal Express Orange Bowl, Miami completed a perfect season that included a 17-16 upset of the then top-ranked Seminoles on Nov. 16 in Tallahassee.
The reward for it was a share of the national championship with unbeaten Washington (12-0). The Hurricanes were voted No. 1 by the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, while the Huskies were the top choice in the USA Today-CNN coaches' poll.
"The scary thing," said linebacker Michael Barrow, "is that we're going to be better next year."
Though spring practice is still two months away, and the 1992 season is still nearly eight months off, the Hurricanes should be considered a strong favorite to repeat. There are 16 starters returning, along with head coach Dennis Erickson.
"It's a different situation every year," said Erickson, who ended all speculation that he was leaving for the NFL this year by telling his players last week that he would come back for a fourth year. "Each team is different. The bottom line is that as players, they keep growing."
While several players have been rumored to be thinking about giving up their final year of eligibility, only junior free safety Darryl Williams is expected to give the NFL serious consideration. Erickson said he wouldn't discourage anyone who was certain of being a first-round draft pick from leaving.
One of the more interesting situations is at fullback in Miami's one-back offense. Incumbent Stephen McGuire, who sustained a serious knee injury against Boston College Nov. 23, isn't expected back until late summer at the earliest.
Redshirt freshman Larry Jones, who moved into the starting role when No. 2 fullback Martin Patton was arrested on credit card fraud last month, emerged as a potential star against Nebraska, rushing for 140 yards on 30 carries, with a touchdown and taking most valuable player honors.
"Whenever McGuire comes back, I'm willing to step aside," Jones said yesterday.
The most clear indication as to where this program is heading comes from Erickson himself. With the speculation of his departure quieting down, and with the Hurricanes a bit less boisterous than in the past, the job doesn't seem to be eating at Erickson like it once did.
When Miami won its first national title under Erickson two years ago, he seemed to be in a power struggle with his players. Now they seem to have reached a common ground, if not a common goal: to win national championships with class, rather than crass.
"This one means more to me than the first one," said Erickson. "But I'm not going to give the first one back. This is the closest team that I've been around. One thing here is the tradition, and that starts with the players. It's always been like that."
Another Miami tradition that hasn't received proper credit is its defense. Much of that has to do with the long line of NFL quarterbacks and receivers the school has produced. But Miami wouldn't have gone 12-0 this season without its defense.
"Offense wins games, but defense wins national championships," said Rusty Medearis, who had four sacks against Nebraska. "There's no question who has the best defense in the country."
That's D for defense.
Co-national champions since 1950, when 2 polls were used for the first time:
Year AP.. .. .. .. Coaches
1954 Ohio State.. .UCLA (UPI)
1957 Auburn.. .. ..Ohio State (UPI)
1970 Nebraska.. .. Texas (UPI)
1973 N. Dame.. .. .Alabama (UPI)
1974 Oklahoma.. .. Southern Cal (UPI)
1978 Alabama.. .. .USC (UPI)
1990 Colorado.. .. Ga. Tech (UPI)
1991 Miami.. .. .. Washington
.. .. .. .. .. .. .(USA Today-CNN)
$Associated Press -- Miami
N.Y. Times Computer -- Miami
The Sporting News -- Washington
USA Today-CNN -- Washington
UPI -- Washington