(Most of) what I read in February

If you missed my January post, I’m trying to read 366 pieces of quality journalism in 366 days in 2020, and because I got a late start, I’m still working to play catch-up.

26.) The Myth of Authenticity Is Killing Tex-Mex by Meghan McCarron in Eater

Man, I enjoyed this story so much. This is such a perfect example of how taking a small idea and really digging into it can open up so many avenues to explore far bigger cultural, social and human issue. Terrific piece.

27.) The Last Time Democracy Almost Died by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker

Every story about how WW2 helped save democracy that ignores the fact that we put Japanese Americans into internment camps and the myriad other problems in 1940s society in the US really frustrate me.

28.) China Sacrifices a Province to Save the World From Coronavirus in Bloomburg

29.) An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter by David Freedlander in Politico

Interesting piece that didn’t address the central question I wanted to know: Why does Rachel Bitecofer curse so damn much?

30.) Stop Blaming History for Your All-White, All-Male Movie by Aisha Harris in The New York Times

I went in to this dubious about the premise. Instead, it was an articulate argument about the need for a better understanding of minorities in history rather than a refutation of the movies that have been made.

31.) The Danger of Befriending Celebrities by Michael Musto in Longreads

32.) Late Bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker

33.) ‘How do you get over it?’ Football, grief and hope two years after Parkland by Andrea Adelson on ESPN

Andrea is such a great writer, but the reporting on this is what makes it. It’s just spectacular.

34.) Behind the Scenes at Rotten Tomatoes by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in Wired

This is a great example of a story that, at its heart, is about analytics (though I doubt anyone at Rotten Tomatoes would see it that way) where the analytics still aren’t really explained. Why does Rotten Tomatoes do a bad job of comparing the quality of movies? Because that’s not what it measures. It measures the percentage of people who like the movie. It’s still a fine piece of writing, but as someone who deals with stats all the time, I really wish that, rather than lamenting the faults of a place like Rotten Tomatoes, we did a better job of explaining exactly what it is Rotten Tomatoes is trying to measure.

35.) The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln by Bill Jensen in The Washingtonian

This is from 2015, but it’s an excellent Presidents’ Day read. (Or is it President’s Day?)

David’s Story-A-Day Calendar (better title TBD, suggestions wanted) for January

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. But Jan. 15 resolutions? Well, that’s a whole other prospect. Actually, this was just an idea that came to me two weeks after it would’ve seemed fitting, but it was an idea none the less, and I wanted to follow through.

Here it is: I’m going to read a story a day for a whole year.

Now, I’ve got a little making up to do. The real goal is 366 stories in 366 days (happy Leap Year, btw) rather than one per day, since I got a late start. This also won’t be about reading a quick newser on Trump’s latest tweet or a gamer on a college basketball showdown. I’m talking about features, stories the writer put some real time and effort into. Mostly, I mean long form, but it’s not about length so much as depth. Does the piece try to say something? If so, it counts.

The reason for this plan is twofold. For one, I used to read a lot more than I have recently. I used to put out a list of my favorite stories at the end of each year, but I didn’t do it for 2019 because, frankly, I’d spent too much time watching TV and playing games on my phone than reading. But the second is, I think good writers get better by reading, and I want to get better. I want to read a lot, and I want to really give some thought to what the writer did with the story. Why did it work? Why didn’t it? How might I have approached it? And, of course, what can I steal from this for my own work?

So here’s the plan: I’ll read 366 stories in 2020 and post a link to each of them here. For some, I’ll write a bit about them. For others, just a link. But in a time when we could all use a reminder of why journalism matters, I hope it’ll at least be a good home for some quality work and, ideally, offer a little inspiration for me to do some quality work, too.

Got a story I should read? Please send me suggestions HERE.

1.) Lived In Bars by Helena Fitzgerald in Good Beer Hunting

Everyone who loves bars has at some point wrestled with some big questions about their own alcohol consumption. This makes me feel at least a little better about the idea that maybe it isn’t just the booze that keeps me coming back.

2.) How Toto’s “Africa” Became the New “Don’t Stop Believin” by Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone

I feel like there’s more of an idea here that’s not realized. Alas, Sheffield is still great and if you want a good book recommendation I suggest picking up “Love is a Mixtape.”

3.) He Is Our OJ by John F. Harris in Politico

4.) The Incredibly Happy Life of Larry David by Brett Martin in GQ

I generally hate celebrity profiles because they’re inherently just a story about the interview, which is lame. In this case though, the story of the interview really tells us a lot about Larry David, which should come as a surprise to no one.

5.) How Dog Parks Took Over the Urban Landscape by Alissa Greenberg at Smithsonian Continue reading David’s Story-A-Day Calendar (better title TBD, suggestions wanted) for January

Ranking the Rankings: ACC’s best teams

“Although we’ve come to the end of the road, still I can’t let go.” – Boyz II Men

OK, we made it through each set of position rankings in the ACC, and where did it leave us? Well, Media Days is upon us, so the good news is we’re ever so close to real football. But we’re not quite done with talkin’ season yet, because now’s the time when the real predictions begin.

And that brings us to this post: Ranking the rankings. We projected out each position group, so let’s tally ’em all up and decide on some overall rankings.

The chart below shows how we ranked each position group, but you can find the specifics here for QB, OL, WR/TE, RB, DL, LB, DB, ST.

Below, we simply added all the rankings up, then ranked those totals from smallest (best) to highest (worst).

(Note: Please appreciate my color selections. I feel it really ties the chart together.)

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 9.57.12 AM

What’d we get? Honestly, about what I expected.

Who’s the best team in the ACC?

That’s not a hard one. It’s Clemson, and we didn’t need all this math to decide that. The offense should not only be the best in the ACC, but it could be the nation’s best, too. Brent Venables’ history with the defense suggests they’ll weather all the turnover just fine, but I do have some concerns about stopping the run.

Who’s No. 2? The conventional wisdom (and last year’s records) say it’s Syracuse, and so do our rankings. I have my concerns about the Orange this year based on luck factors, but I also think Tommy DeVito will be fine at QB, and the Orange return one of (if not the) best defensive fronts in the ACC. So, there’s still a lot to like, too.

Who’s the best team in the Coastal? Well, I’ve been high on Virginia, and the ‘Hoos placement here is a bit disconcerting. Have I been a little too focused on the things I really like (LB, DB, QB) and ignoring the real problems (RB, WR)? Perhaps. But the other thing about ranking the teams this way is that it views all position groups the same, and I’m not sure that’s fair. Which leads us to…

Miami. Ask me who the most talented team in the Coastal is, and I wouldn’t hesitate in saying it’s the Canes. But when QB and OL (and WR, to an extent) have struggled as they did last year, it’s hard to win a lot of football games. So Miami is sort of the inverse of Virginia. Miami has more talent and no QB. Virginia has a very good QB and less talent elsewhere. Which situation would you rather be in? Honestly, the answers will likely vary.

What these rankings do show about the Coastal, however, is the other thing most folks seem to be predicting (mostly because it’s always a safe bet): It’s going to be close. Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Pitt are all fairly closely aligned here, and I can’t say I’d be shocked if any one of those four won it. Miami and Pitt need better QB play. Virginia needs more from its backs and receivers. Virginia Tech needs to figure out its D-line and have its secondary grow up a good bit to support a pretty good offense. All have real strengths and all have obvious flaws. So these rankings should make perfect sense intuitively.

If there’s a real shocker on the list, it’s the team at No. 4. Thing is though, I’m not too surprised by Wake Forest. If you asked me for a team that could be “this year’s Syracuse” — i.e. the team no one is talking about preseason that turns into a real contender — it’s Wake. Why? Well it’s easy to overlook the Deacons because I’m not sure they’re elite at anything right now. QB is the only position I have them ranked in the top 3, and that might be optimism on my part. But they’re also not awful at anything either. Receivers is the only group I had them ranked worse than eighth, and with two talented freshmen in the mix, that group could certainly take a big step forward. The schedule has some potential hiccups — Utah State in Week 2 — but it’s manageable if Wake plays well. There’s not a ton of depth at most spots, which is not unusual for a school like Wake, but if they have good health luck (as Syracuse did last year) the top-end guys — Essang Bassey, Sage Surratt, Carlos Basham, Justin Strnad, Cade Carney — all represent some serious All-ACC contenders.

The bottom half of the rankings also plays out according to my expectations, too. FSU, Boston College and NC State are effectively in a dead heat. I’d probably put NC State a tick ahead of the other two for the same reasons I like Wake Forest — they’re not truly awful anywhere. BC, on the other hand, could have some major issues on defense, and Florida State’s O-line and special teams are a nightmare. They’re just offset, to a degree, but players like A.J. Dillon and Cam Akers, Anthony Brown and Levonta Taylor. As we saw with FSU last year though, it’s a lot harder to overcome a black hole in one major area, even if the rest of the team might be good. So I’ll roll with the guys I think aren’t terrible anywhere and hope a few unexpected stars rise up.

At the bottom, we have the four teams I think are clearly in the biggest holes in the ACC: UNC, Duke, Louisville and Georgia Tech.

You can make a fair case that both UNC and Louisville are undervalued here.

For the Heels, they may not be as far off as most people think, as we wrote about earlier this year. And, of course, it’s hard to know for sure what Mack Brown’s version of this team will look like. But the youth at QB and the turnover on the O-line worries me, and I think there aren’t enough obvious wins on the schedule for the Heels to contend for the division this year. A bowl game? Maybe.

At Louisville, the path to success would seem steeper, mostly because last year’s team was so, so bad. But those stats can often be a bit deceiving. For example:

Team A: 0-5, 110 points scored, 216 points allowed, .583 opponent win%

Team B: 0-5, 94 points scored, 295 points allowed, .742 opponent win%

Team B is the final five games of the year for Louisville. Team A is the final five games of the year for Syracuse in 2017.

Now, that’s hardly and apples:apples comparison. Louisville ended on a 10-game losing streak, not five. And they were bad all year, whereas Syracuse fell off a cliff after the Clemson upset. But it’s also true that things deteriorated quickly last year for Louisville, and I’m not sure a single person in that locker room still wanted to be there by late October. So can we really judge the talent level when the effort wasn’t there? Moreover, Louisville’s schedule was no joke down the stretch. After a stunning snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory against FSU, every team they played the rest of the way went to a bowl game, and three of those opponents finished ranked in the top 15.

All of this is a long way of saying that Scott Satterfield’s biggest job is to take a train wreck and get it back on the tracks. Once that happens, it’s really anyone’s guess how far the train can go.

And that leaves Duke and Georgia Tech.

For the Yellow Jackets, it’s a huge rebuild. We all knew this would be the case. Geoff Collins has done a great job putting a positive spin on things, and he’s certainly marketing Tech better than anyone has done in a long time. I like the longterm future there. But the short term is this: No team in recent memory has endured such a massive offensive makeover, and that is compounded by the fact that Georgia Tech has arguably less established talent on defense than probably half the Group of 5 teams out there. If Collins gets Tech to five wins this year, he probably deserves a few coach of the year votes.

And Duke. Maybe I’m way off here. David Cutcliffe is a good enough coach that I wouldn’t be surprised if this team made me look like an idiot. But I look at the depth chart right now and I don’t see much to really like aside from the defensive backfield. Before digging into the numbers, I thought the running backs could be solid — so perhaps they will be. But the deeper dive stats sure didn’t show it. And maybe Quentin Harris becomes a true dual-threat star at QB. But Daniel Jones was a first-round draft pick and still didn’t put up monster numbers last year in his third season as the starter. Maybe the D-line improves and pushes the defense into the top tier of the ACC. Maybe. There are a lot of maybes with this team. I hate picking against Cut, but that’s where I’m at.

OK, so are these my official ACC picks for the year? Clemson vs. Miami in the ACC title game. Wake as the surprise team. A close battle in the Coastal between the Canes, Hoos, Hokies and Pitt?

Possibly. That all sounds about right to me. But I’m not quite ready to put it all in ink and mark it with my official seal just yet. Let’s see how camp goes, how some key position battles unfold, what injuries crop up and take a deeper look at the schedules before committing.

Ranking the ACC’s defensive lines

“I wish I could tell you Clemson’s defensive line fought the good fight, and 2019 will be different. I wish I could tell you that. But the ACC is no fairy tale world.” – Morgan Freeman, if he covered the ACC

Sure, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence are gone. But…

Xavier Thomas is back, and he might end up better than any of them.

Nyles Pinckney is back, and he’s been biding his time, licking his chops.

And Tyler Davis and KJ Henry and Justin Mascoli and Justin Foster and Jordan Williams and Logan Rudolph… all blue-chip recruits, all in a Clemson uniform on the defensive line again in 2019.

The names change. The results… well, here’s Clemson’s sacks and tackles for loss rankings under Brent Venables:

2012 – 20th
2013 – 12th
2014 – 7th
2015 – 2nd
2016 – 3rd
2017 – 2nd
2018 – 1st

2012 – 28th
2013 – 1st
2014 – 1st
2015 – 1st
2016 – 1st
2017 – 6th
2018 – 1st

And so let’s start here: Clemson will be very, very good again. Can anyone else touch them on the D-line?

Here’s a look at last year’s numbers (Click the chart to open in Google docs, stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info)…

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 11.49.11 PM

If I’d not looked at a single stat and simply guessed who the top four defensive fronts were last year and in which order I’d rank them, well… it’d look exactly like this.

Much like with our look at linebackers, there’s little real difference between Miami and Clemson in terms of production here, which certainly won’t make Miami fans feel any better about how much that elite defense was wasted. No surprise either that Syracuse comes in third after exceptional seasons by Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. Florida State’s D-line is really good, too, but was overshadowed, like Miami, by an offense that offered no help. Truth be told, I might’ve guessed the next two, too, though I would’ve certainly had Pitt ahead of NC State by a noticeable margin.

The point of all this, however is that there were six good D-lines in the ACC last year and eight that really didn’t play all that well. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s pretty much how things look again in 2019.

Let’s start with Clemson. It’s tough to project too much with all four starters moving on, but when you consider the history under Brent Venables and the fact that the line didn’t miss a beat following Dexter Lawrence’s suspension in the playoff last year, there seems to be no reason to think there’ll be a significant drop-off. The one concern, as I wrote earlier in the offseason, is the run defense. Clemson allowed barely more than 1 yard before first contact on average, and while there’s plenty of pass-rushing talent lined up and ready to go, I think there’s a real concern that stuffing the run — particularly with turnover at LB, too — will be a bigger chore.

Miami actually had more runs stopped for a loss or no gain last year than Clemson, which is pretty darned impressive. But the Canes also lost a couple pretty good linemen to the NFL with Gerald Willis and Joe Jackson moving on, but Jonathan Garvin remains one of the league’s best pass rushers, transfer Trevon Hill could be a boon off the edge, and there are some recent blue chippers — Nesta Silvera, Jahfari Harvey — waiting their turn. It should again be a very good group, but depth may be a concern if injuries arise.

Syracuse returns its two edge rushers for 2019. Fun fact: Robinson got pressure last season on 16.4% of his pass rushes. That was better than Brian Burns, Clelin Ferrell, Joe Jackson or anyone else in the ACC. Chris Slayton is gone, but McKinley Williams, Josh Black and KJ Ruff all have experience in the middle of the line. The yards-before-contact number is a bit higher than you’d like to see, and the consistent knock you hear from scouts is that this is a better pass rushing line than a run-stuffing one. But it’s not like the group can’t improve either, and there’s a lot here to work with.

In totality, it’s hard to say how good Pitt’s line will be, but Amir Watts is strong at tackle, and Rashad Weaver may be the most under appreciated pass rusher in the country. Here’s a quick “Guess Who” for you…

Player A: 16% pressure rate, 5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 3 missed tackles
Player B: 16.4% pressure rate, 5.5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 4 missed tackles

Player B is Mr. Weaver, from Oct. 1 through the end of the season. Player A is Florida State’s Brian Burns, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. So, no, Weaver is no slouch.

As for Florida State, the loss of Burns and Demarcus Christmas hurts. Both were impact performers. Joshua Kaindoh didn’t break out as I would’ve expected in his sophomore campaign, but he still has the potential to be an All-American caliber of player. His pressure rate in 200 pass rush attempts last year was a solid 11 percent, which puts him in the same group with Zach Allen and Jonathan Garvin. He just needs to finish more of those plays. Meanwhile, Marvin Wilson could easily blossom into the best interior lineman in the ACC — and maybe the country. This can be a special group if it all comes together. (We’ve been saying that a lot about FSU’s defense.)

NC State lost a ton of star power to the NFL after the 2017 season, but still turned in a decent year. James Smith-Williams is solid, though his pressure rate was just 27th among ACC defenders with at least 100 pass rush attempts, Latrell Murchison is a nice piece in the middle, and C.J. Clark and Alim McNeill offer some potential among younger guys. Look at NC State’s pressure rate without bringing the extra pass rusher (11th in ACC) and its QB contact rate (also 11th), however, and it’s clear there’s got to be some real improvement if the Wolfpack want to get back to the genuine impact line they had two years ago.

We’ve talked a lot about the insane lack of fundamentals on Virginia Tech’s defense a year ago, and it shows up again here: The Hokies allowed 2.72 yards before contact on run plays, second-worst in the league. Brutal. That the line didn’t get a ton of pressure and didn’t do a great job of getting off the field in winnable situations only served to underscore the weaknesses elsewhere on D. But while I’d expect some real improvement in the back end for VT, the line is the big question mark for me. Houshun Gaines is still recovering from an ACL injury. Ricky Walker’s gone. There are just a ton of question marks and not much depth.

UNC’s place on the list is troubling, given that their best rusher, Malik Carney, is gone now. Tomon Fox arrived with a ton of talent but has yet to truly blossom into a star. Maybe that happens this year. Jason Strowbridge has a lot of experience under his belt, and the new defensive coordinator should improve things. This could be a decent group, but the stats from last year offer a reminder of how far it has to go.

A lot has been made of the job Geoff Collins has in moving away from the option offense, but honestly, there may be bigger concerns on D for the Yellow Jackets. The stats are brutal from last year, and Georgia Tech lost its best lineman for 2019. Moreover, depth was less of an issue with the offense running the option. It meant fewer plays for the D. What happens now when Tech has a 3-and-out and only takes 75 seconds off the clock? And look at that stop rate on thrid-and-long. That’s not just bad. That’s historically bad. I don’t know how that even happens. I think Collins will eventually make Georgia Tech relevant, but boy they could be in for a long, long year.

Which brings us to Louisville. As we’ve said so often, simply turning the page from Bobby Petrino and Uncle Rico – er, we mean Brian Van Gorder — should help. But hoo-boy. Louisville stopped just 10 percent of run plays for a loss or no gain last year. That’s 50% worse than the next worst ACC team. Meanwhile 87% of third-and-short runs were converted for a first down. That’s 16 percentage points worse than the next worst team. Setting up traffic cones for the offense to run around might’ve been more effective last year.

One quick note on Duke: The numbers weren’t great, which is surprising from a Ben Albert-coached unit. But the back end of the D was terrific. So, if Duke can improve just a bit on the D-line — and they have some real players with Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan — the D could be pretty darned good in 2019.

OK, on with our last rankings of the summer…

1. Syracuse (consider this a favor to Dabo)
2. Clemson
3. Miami
4. Florida State
5. Pitt
6. NC State
7. Virginia
8. Wake Forest
9. Duke
10. North Carolina
11. Virginia Tech
12. Boston College
13. Louisville
14. Georgia Tech

Ranking the ACC’s special teams

Special teams is always tacked on to the end of any analysis, but we’re not doing that because we respect punters in our household (#RileyDixonForHeisman). So, while we still have a few more position groups to cover, let’s dig into the overlooked geniuses who play special teams.

(BTW, if you missed my story from earlier this year on how punters and kickers keep themselves entertained during practice, you can find it HERE.)

Let’s start, as usual, with some stats (click the chart to open in Google Sheets).

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 11.25.52 AM

Special teams is a pretty broad term. Connecting on your field goals is likely the most impactful thing they do because it actually changes the score, but there are dozens of little things that happen on special teams that can add up to something big.

Case in point: Syracuse and Florida State.

We typically assume that, in the aggregate, the difference between the best punter and the worst, or the best kickoff team and the worst, is still relatively small. But that’s not exactly true. In the fat part of the bell curve, sure. (See our average kickoff starting field position differentials, in which 8 of 14 teams are between +2.1 and -2.1.) But on the outskirts – being really good or really bad — there’s a genuine impact.

Last season, Syracuse’s average starting field position was 7.3 yards better than its opponents. Florida State’s was 9 yards worse.

Think about that for a second. That’s the difference of 16 yards per possession in field position between being the Orange or the Seminoles. That matters a lot.

Of course, a lot goes into starting field position, right? Good offenses nab first downs, so even when they punt, they’re punting from further downfield. Same is true on the opposite end with a great defense. But even when we filter that out and look, for example, just at kickoffs, FSU was nearly 4 yards worse than its opponents, while Syracuse was 3.5 yards better. How much difference does 7 or 8 yards per possession make? Maybe not enough to turn a 5-win team into a 10-win team (as was the margin for FSU and Syracuse, respectively) but certainly enough that it could flip a close game here or there.

Syracuse was a perfect example of a team that got better all around last year — but got a lot better on special teams, and it made a huge difference. Andre Szmyt was the nation’s best kicker, but punter Sterling Hofrichter was exceptional, too. We created our own metric here called effective punt rate. It’s a bit oversimplified, but it’s essentially adding up punts from inside your own 40 that resulted in a fair catch or no return plus punts from outside your 40 that were downed inside the other team’s 20. Syracuse’s rate of effective punts was 53 percent — more than double what Florida State managed. That’s the kind of stuff that sets a defense up for success, and of course, the Orange saw marked improvement defensively in 2018, too.

It’s worth mentioning how important blocking and tackling is, too. North Carolina needed all the help it could get last year, and it got a good bit on special teams, where it netted more than 5 yards differential on punts. That’s in part due to a terrific punt returner in Dazz Newsome (back for 2019) and in part due to really great coverage skills on the other end, where Carolina allowed 7 or fewer punt return yards in nine of 12 games (and allowed more than 20 just once).

On the other side of the coin, there’s Miami, which sheds few tears over the transfer decision of punter Zack Feagles, but got nothing more from replacement Jack Spicer either. The Canes ranked 119th in net punting, were 12th in the ACC in effective punt rate and 13th in special teams efficiency overall. Of course, we’ll assume this will all change in 2019 as Miami brings in the most badass punter in sports history.

Of course, that was nothing compared with Florida State. For as much criticism was leveled at the offensive line, the special teams may have been worse. FSU opponents had 12 drives start in plus territory following a punt last year. Only Arkansas was worse among Power 5 teams. Only 18.1 percent of Florida State’s punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20. Only Charlotte was worse in FBS (and interestingly, Alabama was the next worst Power 5 team at 20.8%). No ACC team had a lower rate of effective punts. Ricky Aguayo missed six field goals, second-most in the ACC. Opponents averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, the seventh-worst in the country. The numbers were just brutal all around.

An ugly stat for Virginia, too: The Hoos missed seven field goals overall, including six of less than 40 yards. For a team that lost three games by 4 points or less, that’s a big issue. As we noted in an earlier preview of Virginia, the Hoos played about as close as anyone last season, so mistakes in special teams loom large.

BC is another example of some atrocious kicking. This has been an ongoing issue for the Eagles for a while. Last season, they missed five PATs (only Buffalo and Alabama missed more) and only attempted nine field goals (only New Mexico tried less). As a result, BC went for it on fourth down inside the opponent’s 33 (what would’ve been a 50-yard field goal or less) 17 times (12th most nationally). Usually we’re big fans of going for it on fourth, but doing so because you don’t have an alternative is suboptimal. BC’s special teams were salvaged by an astonishingly good season from Michael Walker (1,294 return yards) but he’s gone for 2019, and that leaves a big hole to fill.

A quick word on Georgia Tech: The best part of switching away from the option is that the Yellow Jackets may punt more, so we’ll get to see more of Pressley Harvin. We love Pressley Harvin. How can you not?


Then, there’s Clemson. I suppose you can make the case that if Clemson and Alabama were the two best teams in the nation last year, and both were abysmal on special teams, maybe special teams don’t matter all that much. That’s probably true for teams with elite talent on offense and defense, but likely not so true for everyone else. But what’s clear is that Clemson was indeed awful on special teams. The Tigers ranked dead last in the ACC in special teams efficiency, dead last in net punting margin, committed 15 penalties on special teams, had three fumbles on punt returns, and missed six field goals on the season. Will any of that matter if the offense and defense play like they did last year? No. But after looking at how dominant the Tigers were in every other category, might as well relish this moment if you’re a fan of another ACC team.

And while we’re knocking Clemson, might as well offer a rare tip o’ the cap to Louisville, which ranked second in the ACC in special teams efficiency. Why? Ya got me. They were bad in a number of the categories we looked at and committed 32 penalties on special teams (most in FBS) but smarter people than me calculate efficiency numbers, so maybe I missed something. How’s that for a backhanded compliment?

OK, time to rank ’em for 2019. Here goes…

1. Syracuse
2. Georgia Tech
3. Virginia Tech
4. Wake Forest
5. NC State
6. North Carolina
7. Duke
8. Louisville
9. Virginia
10. Clemson
11. Miami
12. Pitt
13. Boston College
14. Florida State

Ranking the ACC’s receivers

The last of our offensive groups: Receiving production.

We’re including receivers, tight ends and catches out of the backfield in this discussion, and when it comes to the passing game, it’s obviously impossible not to take QB production into consideration, too. But for the purposes of this analysis, we’re trying to look more closely at the stats that define receivers. To wit: Drop rate, % of catchable targets completed, yards after the catch, red zone TD rate, % of catches that resulted in a first down or TD and yards rushing beyond 10, which we’re using as a stand-in for downfield blocking.

Here’s how the numbers look (click the chart to open in Google Sheets):

Screen Shot 2019-07-06 at 11.53.03 AM

Is this a perfect analysis? Of course not. I’d be hard pressed to make the case that UNC, Pitt, Virginia Tech or Syracuse had a better receiving corps than NC State last year. And while Virginia’s passing game may have been more effective than Miami’s, I’d swap the names on receiver depth chart any day of the week. And as we see in S&P+’s passing down rankings or something simpler like yards per catchable target, there are some obvious inconsistencies.

So, what’s the point? Well, we’re hoping to isolate some issues and highlight some areas that perhaps flew under the radar.

For example, look at Virginia Tech. The Hokies actually ranked fourth in our analysis overall, 35th nationally in passing down S&P+ and second in the ACC in yards per catchable target. That’s all very encouraging. Then look at where VT came up a bit short: Drop rate and downfield blocking. Those are two areas where fundamentals are the likely bigger issue, and that often means they can improve dramatically year over year. So, take what was a pretty good receiving corps last year and add a year of improved fundamentals and, voila, you’ve got potentially the best receiving group in the ACC outside of Clemson. Then look at the names: Damon Hazelton, Tre Turner, Dalton Keene — all will play on Sundays, and all were freshmen or sophomore last year. There’s a lot to be excited about in Blacksburg when it comes to the passing game in 2019.

On the flip side, it’s fair to wonder how much Miami‘s quarterbacks are to blame for the struggles of the passing game last year. Yes, the Canes have guys with talent. But boy, that group did not perform particularly well last season. Miami was 13th in the ACC in reception rate on catchable targets, 13th in percentage of catches that went for a first down or touchdown and last in the ACC in yards per catchable target. Was that a function of the style of play? The performance of the guys throwing the ball? The lack of production from receivers? All of the above? Your answer may vary, but the bottom line is that if Miami’s going to get better QB play in 2019, it also needs to have more impact performances from its receiving corps.

Here’s the scary number on Clemson: The drop rate and catch rate were both fine, but probably suffered a bit from a young group getting used to working with Trevor Lawrence. And to look at any group that includes Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and two of the top incoming freshmen in America and suggest it has some real room to improve? Well, that’s a scary thought.

Virginia has a star at QB in Bryce Perkins. But does he have any real weapons to work with in the passing game? High drop rate, few yards after the catch, bad downfield blocking and a passing down S&P+ that was the fifth-worst in FBS. Now remember that Virginia lost its best receiver in Olamide Zaccheaus. The lack of big plays killed Virginia last year in both the rushing and passing game, and it’s tough to see how that changes a ton this year. Hasise DuBois was serviceable last year. Joe Reed had some big plays in the return game, so could blossom if UVA can find him in space more often. Bronco Mendenhall is high on Terrell Jana. So maybe there are some diamonds in the rough here, but for now, I’d be concerned.

Louisville’s numbers, not surprisingly, were brutal across the board. But like we’ve discussed earlier, can we really evaluate a team that clearly checked out at midseason because its coaching staff had given up? We saw Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick perform well when Lamar Jackson was leading the offense, so I have to believe there’s a chance to return to form in 2019. Charles Atwell had a nice freshman campaign last year, and Hassan Hall proved to be a solid option out of the backfield. I’m bullish on this group and wouldn’t be surprised if Louisville’s offense overall takes a sizable leap forward in 2019.

Duke’s drop rate of 9.3% was awful — especially for a team that prides itself on doing all the little things well. The lack of an elite receiver has plagued Duke since Jamison Crowder and Max McCaffrey departed, which is yet another reason I think Daniel Jones was unfairly critiqued for his college numbers. Now the Blue Devils turn to a QB who’s primary skill set is as a runner not a passer, and they lose their four leading receivers from last year. Things just aren’t shaping up well for this Duke offense in 2019.

Wake’s red zone production was exceptional, and the group had one of the league’s lowest drop rates. But the rest of the stat line was problematic, including the 101st-ranked passing down S&P+. They also lost Greg Dortch and Alex Bachman. So, there are some red flags. On the other hand, Sage Surratt really blossomed, Scotty Washington is a terrific physical threat in the passing game, Kendall Hinton is just starting to come into his own, and Wake nabbed two pretty good freshmen in the recruiting class in Donavon Greene and Nolan Groulx. Dave Clawson is actually pretty high on this group, and with the advancement at QB, I can see reason for optimism.

NC State is an interesting team. There’ll be a new QB, and two elite receivers are gone. What’s left though is solid. Emeka Emezie is a burgeoning star, and a couple different coaches have mentioned him as a guy who played beyond his reputation last season. Thayer Thomas had a nice year as a freshman, too. And while we didn’t see a ton from transfer tight end Cary Angeline, the guy has NFL talent and could become a much bigger part of the passing game in 2019. I’d be more concerned about QB than the guys he’s throwing to in Raleigh.

Wrote a little last year about the horrendous run of receiver recruiting at Florida State, and the 2019 numbers certainly didn’t change that. Sure, FSU has had some guys come through and perform adequately, including Nyqwan Murray last year. But they’ve not had a 1,000-yard guy since Rashad Greene left, and they’ve watched a bunch of blue-chippers flame out entirely. There’s reason for some optimism this year though. For one, the passing game almost has to improve. Secondly, there’s every reason to believe Tamorrion Terry becomes the superstar receiver FSU has been waiting for after a stellar freshman campaign. D.J. Matthews and Tre McKitty add options, too, and Keith Gavin is a guy I like in 2019. A lot of his targets last season were well out of his catchable zone and, yes, drops were an issue. But he’s got talent, and with a little refinement and better luck, he could end his FSU career on a high note.

No one put up stellar numbers in Pitt‘s receiving corps last year, but as we noted in our QB analysis, that’s probably more about Kenny Pickett. The numbers here underscore that notion, with Pitt’s guys looking solid in everything outside of red-zone performance, which again feels like more of a QB issue. The duo of Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench has a ton of potential, and if the play-action game can improve, they can be elite big-play guys. That Mack had just one touchdown last year is less an indication of his flaws than Pitt’s offensive hiccups. New coordinator, improved QB play, and this can be a pretty good (if not particularly deep) group.

So, how do we rank ’em for 2019? Argue away…

1. Clemson
2. Virginia Tech
3. Syracuse
4. Pitt
5. Florida State
6. NC State
7. UNC
8. Miami
9. Wake Forest
10. Louisville
11. Boston College
12. Virginia
13. Duke
14. Georgia Tech

Ranking the ACC’s ground games

So far we’ve previewed the ACC’s QBs, offensive lines, linebackers, and defensive backs.

Next up: The ground games. (And again, we’ll refer often to “running backs” here, but the discussion is larger than that… this is more about how we expect each team to perform running the ball in 2019.)

Another caveat here: It’s tough to separate out the work a running back does from the work his O-line does. We’re going to try, but none of these stats are a panacea. They tell us something, but certainly not everything.

As you’ll see with a team like Florida State, the more OL independent a stat is, the better their backs look. But the OL was so bad, that it was hard to truly gauge the performance of their RBs. On the other hand, you can look at a team like NC State, that really struggled in the backfield, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario whereby the line was pretty good (they were excellent pass blockers) and the runners did little to help.

Anyway, let’s start with the numbers from last year. You can click on the chart to bring it up in Google Sheets.

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 12.44.12 AM

There’s a lot to digest here, but let’s start with Clemson because, like virtually every position we’ve looked at, the Tigers weren’t just No. 1 — they were No. 1 by a country mile.

A lot of the credit here belongs to Travis Etienne, who is as good a big-play back as there is in the country. Some credit goes to Trevor Lawrence, who forced defenses to respect the passing game (less than 4% of first down runs were against a stacked box) and was smart about getting the offense into the right play call. And, of course, a good bit of credit goes to the line, which was far more physical in 2018 than any of the previous playoff teams Dabo Swinney has put out there.

None of this should come as a big surprise, though I’ll point out one number that really seemed worth noting: Clemson actually allowed a lower sack rate on blitz plays than non-blitz plays. Sure, that’s great recognition from the QB, but for a group of backs that’s heard a ton from Tony Elliott over the years about pass protection, they seemed to do a really good job in 2018.

*More than a few folks might be surprised to see North Carolina at No. 2 on the list, but the Heels’ backfield was actually quite good last season. The O-line did a nice job of run blocking, and Michael Carter & Co. were excellent at finding yardage downfield. The line will be a bigger question mark heading into 2019, but the running back stable remains exceptional, and with marginally improved QB play, this should remain one of the ACC’s better units.

*Pitt and Georgia Tech should come as no surprise. What stands out is that the Panthers performed nearly as well as Clemson when facing 7 or fewer defenders in the box, but that was far less common for Pitt than it was for Dabo’s crew. Pitt faced an extra defender in the box nearly four times as often as Clemson on first-down runs last season. And as we noted in the QB post, that didn’t translate well to success on play-action either. Now, Pitt says goodbye to both its 1,000-yard rushers, and I think there are real questions about whether that kind of performance is repeatable if the passing game doesn’t pick up some slack.

*There’s little doubt Georgia Tech has a nice stable of backs. If there’s one thing Paul Johnson managed to recruit, it was running backs. But what should we make of this group in a different system behind an O-line with an entirely different blocking style? I certainly wouldn’t expect 7 yards a carry on first down again, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tech remains in the top half of the league here.

*The lack of second-level yardage for backs at both Miami and Duke seem strange. Both teams have guys who should thrive on speed and elusiveness, but that just wasn’t routinely the case. At Duke, in particular, their backs offered virtually nothing downfield, finishing last in the league in missed tackle rate, second-to-last in second-level rushing and 11th in yards after contact. If one’s going to improve, my money’s on Miami. A better passing game — better, right? — will help, and DeeJay Dallas and Lorenzo Lingard should make for a dynamic duo.

*Can we take a second here to stand in awe of Louisville‘s 21.11% missed tackle rate? Finally, a stat Louisville led the ACC in that wasn’t something bad. A lot can be credited to mobile QBs, but Louisville’s ground game was actually pretty good overall, and the Cards were exceptional at creating yardage downfield when the opportunity presented itself. This is one reason I think Louisville needs to find a way to get Malik Cunningham on the field regularly — even if Puma Pass remains the starting QB.

*Oh, Florida State. Poor Cam Akers. Look at the first three categories there — all which include a pretty hefty dose of blocking in the mix. FSU is awful across the board. But look at things like second-level yardage and yards after contact, and the backs suddenly don’t look so bad. What’s most telling is that FSU saw a stacked box virtually never — because frankly, why bother respecting the ground game when the Noles could barely muster 4 yards a clip when defenses didn’t stack the box?

*With a runner like A.J. Dillon, it’s strange to see Boston College so far down the list… but then look over at how often Dillon & Co. were running into 8 defenders in the box. That’s an astonishing number — nearly double the next highest rate in the ACC. All things considered, BC wasn’t bad when running into the teeth of the defense, particularly considering that Dillon was banged up a lot last season, and as we noted in our QB roundup, that actually translated to some really strong numbers for Anthony Brown throwing vertically. A healthy Dillon this season should make BC’s offense extremely dangerous.

*There was a lot to like about Virginia‘s season, but the big missing link is the big-play thereat. The Hoos simply didn’t have it in the passing or running game, but here we see just how dramatic it was. Virginia was dead last in the league in second-level yardage and yards after contact. UVA backs had just 26 runs of 10 yards or more last season — worst in the ACC and 124 nationally. If the Cavaliers are going to take the next step and win the Coastal this season, that has to change. I’m far from sold that PK Kier is the guy to do it, so Virginia should be hoping one of the young guys blossoms in fall camp.

*Syracuse’s overall performance was pretty meh, with the backs not doing much to gain yards that weren’t handed to them by the line. Still, the arrival of Abdul Adams will help, and I’ve been told by a number of folks that Moe Neal was one of the most improved runners in the league last year.

*Similar questions for NC State, which was just dismal running the ball way too often last season. Against Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Texas A&M — all losses — NC State’s backs managed just 3.77 yards per carry with 3 TDs and 29 runs stopped for a loss or no gain. A healthy Ricky Person should add some power running against better defensive fronts, and three freshmen could figure into the mix, too, with Zonovan Knight making for an intriguing big-play threat.

*Virginia Tech is another big mystery. The Hokies haven’t had the same player lead the team in rushing in consecutive years since Brandon Ore in 2006 & 2007 (and that streak is guaranteed to continue in 2019). VT hasn’t had three straight games with 200 rushing yards since 2011. They haven’t had a back with 1,000 yards and 10 TDs since 2009 (Duke is the only ACC team with a longer stretch).

Of course, there’s some reason for optimism for the Hokies. Deshaun McClease returns after a dalliance with the transfer portal. And last year’s non-QB average of 5.11 yards-per-rush on first down — while good for just 6th in the ACC — was the Hokies’ best mark since at least 2003 (I couldn’t go back any further without a lot of effort).

On the other hand, McClease saw his role diminish as last year went on, and Justin Fuente has never seemed to feel overly comfortable with his running backs. And as we noted in our QB piece, Ryan Willis didn’t exactly stretch the field to open up the run last year.

So what’s the answer? Like with almost everything VT this year, I think there’s upside. But there’s too much history here for a ton of optimism.

My rankings:

1. Clemson
2. UNC
3. Boston College
4. Miami
5. Wake Forest
6. Syracuse
7. Pitt (a wait-and-see approach is probably warranted here)
8. Georgia Tech
9. Virginia Tech
10. Louisville (RBs are a huge question, but QBs offer an alternative)
11. NC State (lots of room to move up… but need to see it to believe it)
12. Florida State (love their backs, if only that’s all that mattered)
13. Duke
14. Virginia