It should be really easy to project this fallâ€™s college football results. All we have to do is:
– Assess what went right/wrong in 2008.
– Subtract contributions from â€œgraduatingâ€ players.
– Add in contributions that we will see from new players.
– Subtract lost contributions due to injuries.
That should leave us with a clear picture of the upcoming season. [/sarcasm]
Hopefully, that little opening explains why I put so little faith in pre-season projections. Rather than focus on predictions, I prefer to look at these articles to gather information on teamsâ€¦especially on the ACC teams that I donâ€™t have time to study as closely as we look at Stateâ€™s team.
For instance, when I find a preview pointing out that WF only has four returning starters on defenseâ€¦then this preview provides some value. This one piece of information doesnâ€™t necessarily mean that WF will struggle defensively next yearâ€¦but it does point out that possibility. So when I watch a WF game this fall, one of the things that I will take a close look at is their defense.
Now letâ€™s suppose that WFâ€™s defense is as good as last yearâ€™s (or even nearly as good). Does that mean that our little piece of info was worthless? OF COURSE NOT. Long time readers will probably remember that I never throw information away. If WF is able to replace seven starters on defense and still maintain a high-level of play, then that result says a whole lot about Jim Grobe, his staff, and his recruiting.
So Iâ€™ll climb down off my soap box about the value of pre-season projections and try to provide some data that will hopefully prove useful as the football season kicks off in 2 Â½ months.
2008 IN REVIEW
You could say the ACC’s early  season performance wasn’t anything to write home about, but that would be missing the point.
The ACC’s players didn’t even have to write home to inform friends and family members about their struggles. No college football fan on the East Coast could turn on a TV or radio this fall without hearing skeptics bemoan the conference’s lack of an elite team.
“My mom said whenever we had away games, they were bashing our conference on TV,” North Carolina free safety Deunta Williams saidâ€¦.
If the ACC can go 6-4 or better in its bowls, it would lend credence to the notion that this league’s extraordinary depth made up for its lack of national title contenders. But if the league goes 4-6 or worse, skeptics will point out that those 10 bowl bids simply rewarded the ACC’s mediocrity.
When this piece came out last Christmas, I started to do what I generally despise others doingâ€¦.make some predictions of my own. My projection would have been much gloomier than this article. I saw no chance for the ACC to do well in the bowl games, where this author said that a good showing was at least a possibility. So let’s take a look at why I was so down on the ACC last year:
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS???
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against the ACC football turns out to be NC Stateâ€™s record last year. To illustrate what I mean, here are the national defensive rankings for the ACC teams last year.
As you can hopefully see, NC State ranked dead last in the ACC in three of four defensive categories last year (even worse than 2003). In 2003, State had one of the top offenses in the country to offset a bad defense. So how did State win in 2008 with such a bad defense?
THE TALLEST MIDGET CONTEST
That question is rather easily answered. When you play in a conference with no offensive punch, then it doesnâ€™t really take that much defense to be in a position to win games.
Hopefully, everyone can appreciate the fact that when 10 of 12 offensives rank in the bottom half of Div 1 that this is not a good thing. What makes this even worse is that the pathetic offensive performance across the entire conference is not new. We saw the same thing last year.
For a little historical perspective, here is a comparison between 2003 and 2008.
Anyone that is confused about whether the ACC had terrible offenses or outstanding defenses must not have watched much ACC FB last year. This confused person must have especially skipped the bowl games; where the ACC had a losing record for the second straight year. The bottom line is that the ACC wonâ€™t be significant on a national level until it produces some well-rounded teams with something resembling a coherent, productive offense.
From time to time, someone tries to make a big deal over turnover margin. While no one denies that giving the ball away is â€œbadâ€ and getting it handed to you is â€œgoodâ€, this single stat doesnâ€™t necessarily tell you anything. Need proof? WF was 5th in the nation (top in the ACC) in turnover margin. But their scoring average is virtually the same as their total offenseâ€¦which says that their offense didnâ€™t convert those â€œextra possessionsâ€ into points. Turnovers matter….but points for/against matter more.
The only semi-bright spot for ACC offenses is the relative youth across the conference at the QB and RB position. As State fans should remember, you can not count on dramatic improvements as QBâ€™s gain experienceâ€¦.but there is always that hope. Here are the leaders in total offense and the top rushers from the ACC for 2008:
Not everyone on the internets will agree with my assessment of 2008 ACC FB. Tomahawk Nation draws a different conclusion and does a really nice job of explaining their view (even if I donâ€™t agree with their method or conclusions.) However, this article is still worth while reading because they do an absolutely fabulous job of previewing the NCSU/SC game that will open the season for both teams this fall.
We all love to pick on Heather at ESPN, but her post-spring wrap-ups on each ACC team included a brief line on returning starters. (Letâ€™s hope her math is better than some of the other things weâ€™ve read from her.) Iâ€™ve highlighted the instances where over half of the offensive or defensive squad will have new starters.
Unfortunately, this table doesnâ€™t tell us all that we would like to know. If you are replacing a graduating starter with a RS-JR that has played a significant amount of time on the two-deep, then you may not be as concerned. But then again, no one on the two-deep is going to make up for losing an NFL first-rounder (cue concerns about WFâ€™s defense again.)
So while this table isnâ€™t perfect, it does provide basis for an interesting observation. Those fans expecting their team to â€œmove upâ€ in the conference based solely on the number of returning starters may end up disappointed because nearly every team has a significant number of starters returning.
This would appear to be a good time to dissect one of the lines frequently used by sports fansâ€¦._______ will be better this year. Sometimes they are talking about a particular player and sometimes about a specific unit. It is important to note that â€œimprovementâ€ in anything other than the W/L record is more likely hot air than anything real.
With the whole ACC bunched together in nearly every category AND the fact that nearly everyone that matters returns a significant number of starters on both sides of the ballâ€¦â€improvementâ€ may not be enough. The weak areas on a given team need to improve MORE than those on other teams if your favorite team is going to take a step forward.
SO NOW WHAT?
Weâ€™ve already had several FB entries (and a poll) that should have let everyone vent a little of the pre-season enthusiasm that always hits this time of year (even when there is little to justify the optimism). I am also going to do an more in-depth review of Stateâ€™s 2008 season as a springboard to some NC State specific talk. So I would like to focus the comments to this article on observations about the other teams in the ACCâ€¦or links to any INTERESTING preseason reports that you might have run across.
A lot of State fans will know more about some ACC teams than others. If we pool our insights into the other ACC teams, then we should be able to build up a collection of things to look for in the new season. So Iâ€™ll start with a few thoughts about several teams:
With 17 returning starters, the reigning ACC champion will most likely be the consensus pre-season pick for a repeat championshipâ€¦and why not? Until proven otherwise, I am going to assume that Bud Fosterâ€™s defense will be more than enough to handle the anemic offenses in the ACC. Defense alone might be enough (and might have to be enough) to get VT back in the ACC championship game.
The offense is the obvious weak link in the VT armorâ€¦with Tyrod Taylor single-handedly keeping both teams in the ball gameâ€¦7 TDs vs 10 INT while also being the 9th leading rusher in the league. Some of the passing problems last year might be attributed to losing their four best WRs from 2007 (3 to graduation and one to a pre-season injury). Weâ€™ll have to see if Taylor and the WRs can improve their 111th ranked passing attack from 2008.
VT returns one of the best RBs in the ACC in sophomore Darren Evans. VT fans (and those that actually pay attention) understand that a key portion of Beamer Ball includes a mostly conservative offense (along with strong defense and special teams). The VT offense isnâ€™t quite as boring as Big-10 footballâ€¦but thatâ€™s probably because VTâ€™s offensive line usually ranges from poor to mediocre/average. That story may change this year because VT has one of the most experienced returning offensive lines in the country.
Some preseason projections are running far ahead of anything that I hear from my co-workers (VT alums). If VT can develop something resembling a passing attack, then they could be very dangerous team. If not, then we might get to see how their experienced offensive line does against a steady diet of eight-man fronts. VT opens the season against Alabamaâ€¦which might easily be VTâ€™s toughest game this year.
State will travel to Bâ€™burg this year for the first time since Mario Williams and company planted Byron Randall 10 times in a defensive struggle in 2004. As I stood with my son to watch the final VT FG attempt that year, I was reminded of standing with my wife in 1986 to watch a VT FG attempt at the end of the Peach Bowl. It doesnâ€™t seem possible that one game was played before the current undergraduates were in collegeâ€¦.or that the other game was played before they were born.
VTâ€™s other cross-divisional games are against BC and UMD. Weâ€™ll have to wait and see how things shake out before determining how hard VTâ€™s schedule is compared to the other Coastal teamsâ€¦.but it seems unlikely right now that VT will end up with the toughest schedule in the Coastal.
I donâ€™t know any big Wahoo boosters, but I have to believe that Al Grohâ€™s seat is really hot. And I know that his seat is really hot among fans in Central Virginia over Vic Hall. For those that donâ€™t know, Vic Hall was the QB at a small high school in Gretna VA (about halfway between Danville and Lynchburg). Hall led Gretna to back-to-back state championships and was the first QB in VA to gain 4000 yards of total offense in a single season.
At 5 ft 9 inches with 4.4 speed, Hall was quickly relegated to corner back after red-shirting his first year. Now this all seems rather sensible for everyone involved until Hall starts at QB for the last game of the yearâ€¦.against the Hooâ€™s biggest rival, VT. Hall rushed for over 100 yards, with two TDsâ€¦but only attempted one pass. For a fan base that already had concerns about Grohâ€™s coaching ability, this just added fuel to the fire. Itâ€™s very possible that UVAâ€™s best QB wasnâ€™t even playing offense for the last two/three years.
Three QBs played during UVAâ€™s spring gameâ€¦.Jamie Sewell (2007 starter) returning from a one-year suspension; Marc Verica (2008 starter); and Vic Hall. Thereâ€™s an old clichÃ© that when you have two QBs, you really have none. So what do you have when you have 3 â€œstartingâ€ QBs?
Most reports that Iâ€™ve read have Hall as the starter with a new offensive coordinator that was brought in to run a spread offense. Last week, I saw a TV commercial for UVA season tickets that focused on Hall and â€œhow it felt good to have the ball back in my hands on offenseâ€. Doesnâ€™t that suggest that Groh has made his QB decision?
Those that like to watch train wrecks should keep an eye on Câ€™ville. It might turn ugly this year.
State will be playing in Atlanta in 2010, so I plan on watching GT play as much as possible this year. Itâ€™s hard to label Paul Johnsonâ€™s first season at GT as anything other than an unqualified success. But here are some longer term questions I have about PJ and GT:
– Weâ€™ve all seen that a dominating defensive line can shut down the WF rushing attack. Will the same thing hold true for PJâ€™s offense?
– With Jon Tenuta at DC, GT was always known for strong, attacking defenses. Will PJ be able to maintain those defenses?
– Will PJ expand his offense beyond the â€œrun-onlyâ€ version we saw in 2008? (4th nationally in rushing; 116th in passing)
GT looks to have a tough schedule this year with Clemson, WF, and FSU as their cross-divisional games. I would guess that most people will pick the Coastal as coming down to either GT or VT.
As much as I enjoyed last yearâ€™s game, Iâ€™m not convinced that anything that we saw that day will carry over to this yearâ€™s game. I wonâ€™t complain if we see another blow-out this year, but Iâ€™m not counting on it.
I found an interesting analysis of UNCâ€™s 2008 season here:
What kind of team manages to go 8-5 while being outgained by 64 yards per game? For some context on that number, UNC played 10 teams last year that finished with winning records. All but one of them, Maryland, averaged more yards per game than it allowed, and the Terps’ deficit (14 yards per game) was nowhere near the Tar Heels’. The only two teams in the ACC that missed bowl games, Duke and Virginia, both stacked up better than UNC in terms of yards gained vs. yards allowed. Minus-64 yards per game is the mark of a bad team.
The 2008 UNC team overcame their offensive woes by having a great turnover ratio. The linked article also shows that UNC lost every game where they had a negative turnover ratio. Weâ€™ll have to see if UNC can improve their offense at the same time that they have to replace two quality WRs.
I saw one report that projected a much-improved UNC defense this year. Since that report didnâ€™t provide any justification for that conclusion, I really canâ€™t say If it was based on something real or if they were caught up in the pine trees like Heather at ESPN.
I only saw one WF game last yearâ€¦.their win against FSU. So itâ€™s obvious that the team that I watched that day didnâ€™t make many (any more?) appearances last year. So does anyone have any idea what happened last year after the FSU game? You canâ€™t blame the entire season on losing Sam Swank, can you?
If any one follows WF closely, then I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Thatâ€™s all I have folksâ€¦.time for you to fill in the blanks that Iâ€™ve left across the ACC. Save your NCSU specific comments for my next entry.