What’s next for Clemson’s defense?

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Dabo Swinney didn’t mince words at the conclusion of spring practice when he said the biggest offseason worry remains the defensive line. Well, duh.

Clemson could win a dozen more national titles and never have a foursome quite like it’s enjoyed for the bulk of the past three seasons. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant were all legitimate stars, all big personalities, all incredibly close knit. That simply doesn’t happen very often.

But how bad should Clemson expect the loss of all four to sting this season?

To be sure, the off-field impact will be immense. We use the term “once in a generation” too often, but guys like Wilkins really are unique. Their personalities and work ethic are so outsized that they dictate the culture of a team. That’s not easily replaced, and no matter how good the underlying structure of a program is, every coach will tell you that great teams must be player-driven.

On the field, however, we can be a little more precise.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers from 2018 when all four linemen were on the field at the same time. They’re not too shabby.

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Yeah, those numbers are eye popping to say the least (and, of note, all but 21 snaps occurred in no-garbage time). Clemson’s D hit the QB more than half the plays that those four linemen were on the field together. They got pressure 43 percent of the time. They hit the ball carrier on run plays, on average, less than 1 yard from the line of scrimmage. Nearly one in three runs – not counting sacks – was stopped for a loss or no gain. They allowed just 3.43 yards per play. Only 2011 Alabama has allowed less over the course of a full season.

Of course, there’s the rub. The snaps when all four of the Clemson linemen were on the field at the same time didn’t constitute a full season. In fact, it added up to just 31 percent of the Tigers’ defensive snaps last year — which leaves us with a decent sample size of plays when the Power Rangers weren’t working together.

So, what happened when the No. 2s entered the game?

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Let’s start with the opposite end of the spectrum. What happened when none of them were on the field?

Yards-per-play went up by 43 percent. Yards before contact was up nearly 250 percent. Yards-per-dropback was up nearly 50 percent. And while pressure rate and QB contact remained steady, the defense didn’t collect a single INT and allowed more than 15 yards per completion.

Of course, those numbers are a bit misleading. All but 34 of those snaps came in obvious garbage time (with Clemson up by at least three touchdowns), and if the backups were all playing on the D-line, there were likely backups in elsewhere, too. Meanwhile, the opposing team was likely in a pass-heavy, hurry-up scheme, so it’s hardly a good way to tell how the same players might respond in a close game in the second quarter.

We don’t have much of a sample that exclusively excludes just one of the D-linemen (except for Lawrence, who was suspended the final two games), but we can see how the defense performed when any one was off the field and another remained on it.

Some conclusions:

Clelin Ferrell was probably the best of the bunch, and the impact on the D when he’s off the field, particularly on the passing game, was obvious.

The overall impact of the D-line seemed far more significant in stuffing the run than the pass. Some of this may be a result of specific down-and-distance usage, but the broader implication is that the backups are better at getting after the QB than filling gaps at the moment, which jibes with the spring talking points.

Austin Bryant had a bigger impact than most gave him credit for last year. Given that he was doing it while playing hurt should suggest the Lions might have gotten a steal in the fourth round.

Again, sample sizes here are a bit limited, and judging Clemson’s work without Lawrence, for example, can be skewed because it’s game against two really good teams, whereas some of the time spent sitting by the others were against lesser competition.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway as I dug through all these numbers — beyond the obvious that these four were really, really good — is that the rest of the defense is going to have to do more of the heavy lifting in 2019. And that led me to this last comparison.

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Yeah, Trayvon Mullen’s departure hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention, but there’s a case to be made he made as big an impact on Clemson’s D last season as anyone.

So, what should we be watching for in camp? Run stuffing and the cornerback rotation would be at the top of my list at the moment. The good news is, Clemson’s recruiting really damn well, so there are options. And as problem areas go, those don’t exactly rise to “panic” level compared with much of the rest of the ACC.

Your recruiting success is already decided

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any football team. We know this. Recruiting is also a rigged game. Intuitively, we know this, too. Hoping your team is going to the Playoff this year? Well, unless it’s one of, maybe, a dozen programs like Clemson, Florida, Alabama and Texas, it’s probably not. And that group has been surprisingly consistent for years.

None of this should be overly stunning, but after I posted my piece on Virginia Tech a few weeks ago, there was a lot of hand wringing over Justin Fuente’s current recruiting class (though, can two guys really constitute a “class”?) and I thought it might be worth digging in a little deeper.

So, I took the past 11 recruiting cycles (or what we’d call the Dabo era in the ACC) and looked at average class score (not total points, which is based in part on quantity, but average of all recruits, for a slightly more quality-based metric) along with number of 4/5-star recruits signed.

Let’s start with the scores.

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What you’ll see is essentially three tiers. The gold, purple and green lines represent FSU, Clemson and Miami, respectively. Those three programs are recruiting at an entirely different level than the rest of the conference both historically and — especially — currently. This also really lays bare how good Dabo has been since that first title team in 2015, with three straight classes (and soon to be four) ahead of FSU’s.

The next tier — the middlings as we’ll call them — include Virginia Tech, North Carolina and NC State, with Louisville, Pitt and (surprisingly) Duke hanging around the fringes.

Then there are the bottom dwellers. Syracuse, Wake Forest, BC, Georgia Tech and Virginia holding fairly steady (save a year or two under Mike London at UVA) in this group.

What stands out is the consistency of it all. The standard deviation over this 11-year span is greater than 2 points for just one team: Clemson. That’s the Dabo Factor + a whole mess of resources.

(BTW, largest standard deviations: Clemson, NC State, Miami; smallest is Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia Tech.)

Let’s break this into specifics, say Tier 1 (88+), Tier 2 (85-87.99) and Tier 3 (less than 84.99).

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We find that six of the 14 teams moved between groups one or zero times during this 11-year span, with four more doing it just two or three times. Most of those followed a major shift (coaching change) or are part of a current trend (Duke has effectively moved into the middle tier the past four seasons, NC State was in the lower tier often under T.O.B.). Only Louisville and Pitt — two teams that have shifted conferences and head coaches quite a bit in this span) have had real fluctuation.

The scale in these graphs is a little tough, too, because of the FSU/Clemson/Miami skew, so let’s remove them for a moment.

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Again, it’s clear no one team has made a real stride into an elite recruiting tier at any point, nor has one completely plummeted beyond a minor blip. What’s perhaps most intriguing is how all of the Tier 2 & 3 teams have bunched together in recent years. Why? That’s probably a discussion for another post.

And perhaps even easier to see, here’s the full ACC with trendlines for the 11 years. Only Clemson has made a marked upward march, and the Tigers already started from a high point. Duke, NC State and Syracuse, to a lesser degree, have taken steps from the basement to the middle class.

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The lines of demarcation are even more clear when we look at elite recruits. They pretty much all belong to three schools, while a few at the bottom virtually never land one.

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Over the span of this timeline, FSU has inked 144 blue chippers. Clemson has 111. Miami has 93. Meanwhile BC, Duke, Syracuse and Wake Forest have 24. Total. Combined. Over 11 years. For comparison, that’s three fewer than Alabama signed last year alone.

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So, does that mean there’s no hope if you’re not a fan of Clemson, Florida State or Miami?

Mostly, yes.

We can look at the trend lines here and see real progress at places like Duke or NC State. The job Dave Doeren has done in both recruiting better talent and developing that talent into NFL prospects is really under-appreciated. But those are still incremental changes — going from an average of about 82 to about 86, as Duke has. It’s going from Section 8 housing into a middle class ranch house in the suburbs. But if you’re looking for the penthouse, better start playing the lottery (or following Hugh Freeze’s playbook).

That doesn’t mean your teams can’t win. Louisville has had its moments. NC State, too. Duke makes bowls. Syracuse just won 10. Do that long enough, and recruiting can improve a bit — but not a ton.

So what does that mean?

For one, perhaps schools invest too much in recruiting. Sure, at the top, one or two more blue chippers might be the difference between getting to the conference title game and winning it all. But for the most part, you get the kids you get, and it’s hard for any coach to screw it up too badly or improve it too dramatically. The changes are incremental. Decisions on the culture you want and the specific recruits you go after is probably more important than the ability to sell generic blue-chip recruits on the school. (And, of course, these graphs don’t reflect recruits who transfer, are booted from the team or flame out.)

Even at a place like Clemson, where so much of the recruiting edge is pegged to culture and resources, the Tigers didn’t really surpass FSU in recruiting until AFTER they passed FSU in winning. Perhaps coaches that are stronger in player development should be valued a good bit more than the supposed recruiting geniuses. In fact, winning games is probably the best recruiting tool any program has.

It also means that if the playoff is the only real arbiter of a great season, then there are going to be a lot of disappointed fans. That may be why the Pac-12 and dozens of other locales have been more than a bit disenchanted with the current version of college football. I’m for expanding to eight teams in the playoff with guaranteed bids for conference champs. This tends to offer at least a shot for some of the middle tier folks.

Lastly, it probably also means that if player compensation ever becomes a reality, it’s probably not going to change the landscape much. If anything, it might help level the playing field a bit so schools with money but bad geography have some additional cache. But it’s doubtful.

Does this hold up across conferences? I dunno. I didn’t feel like compiling that much data. My suspicion is there’s a little more short-term volatility in the SEC, but the rest of the country reflects the ACC’s model, which says you are who you are, and the chicken (winning) comes before the egg (recruiting).

So is Virginia Tech’s current class concerning? Sure. But Fuente has also inked more blue chippers the past two years (14) than Frank Beamer had in the previous four seasons, and it’s not likely that, when all is said and done, the Hokies are going to wind up with a disaster on their hands.

Has Dave Doeren disappointed in some big games? Yeah, but given the difficulty of changing recruiting fates, the influx of talent in Raleigh probably warrants more praise than we’ve given.

And Dabo Swinney? Well, regardless of your thoughts on how much of that $93 million should be going to players rather than a coach, it’s definitely not been wasted money for Clemson.

Duke’s DBs should see more INTs in 2019

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Duke’s 2018 defense was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. Especially the back end.

Some stats for the Blue Devils:

29th nationally in pressure rate (33.9%)
20th in completion% allowed
48th in QBR
33rd in passer rating
21st in yards/attempt
41st in TD/attempt allowed

In case those numbers don’t appear particularly striking, here’s the list of teams that exceeded them in 2018: Penn State, Miami, Southern Miss and LSU. That’s it.

So, given all that context, here’s the number that really stood out: Four.

That’s Duke interception total last season. Four. Only Oregon State (3) finished with fewer.

We’ve talked a lot about turnover luck, but there are things teams can do to tilt the odds in their favor. Forcing more passing attempts. Getting pressure up front. Putting teams in third-and-long.

Thing is, Duke did all that at a reasonable clip. Again, nothing extraordinary, but certainly well enough you’d assume even bad luck would’ve resulted in a bunch more INTs.

There’s really not a ton of historical precedent. In the past decade, Duke’s rate of 1 interception per 47.25 incompletions is the sixth-worst among all Power 5 defenses.

But here’s the good news for Duke. We looked at every team from the past decade that averaged at least 30 incompletions for every 1 interception, and their follow-up campaigns showed that the luck really did even out.

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For what it’s worth, it’s a short list. 29 teams in 10 years, with five of those happening in 2018. Why is it more frequent lately than a decade ago? Your guess is as good as mine.

The other thing of note is that there aren’t a ton of good teams on this list. Yes, a lack of turnovers likely correlates with a lack of wins, but also the other way around. Turnover rates go way up when a team is trailing, so if this group wasn’t leading many games, the opposition wasn’t as likely to take risks.

It’s worth noting that defenses that are challenged deep more often are just as prevalent in this list as ones who weren’t. Less than half the passes that 2012 Virginia team defended were thrown more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, while 2016 Texas Tech defended 67 percent of its pass attempts beyond 5 yards. So while you might point to Duke’s stellar linebacking crew in 2018 as a reason teams avoided risky throws over the middle, there’s not really a precedent that suggests that’s reason for the low INT numbers.

But more than anything, what this data should tell you is that things will change this year. On average, the teams in this data set nearly tripled their INT totals in their follow-up campaign. Of the 24 teams, 21 at least doubled their output. Teams like 2010 Michigan State and 2018 Syracuse went from being among the worst at getting INTs to among the best in just one year.

Will that happen for Duke? There’s reason for optimism beyond this historical precedent. Michael Carter established himself as an exceptional corner last year. Marquis Waters and Josh Blackwell got valuable experience as freshmen. Brandon Feamster returns, too. The young unit that had its ups and downs in 2018 should take a nice step forward in 2019, and this time around, luck should be on their side.

Syracuse’s luck could shift in 2019

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 3.44.17 PM.pngSyracuse ended the 2017 season with five straight losses. It allowed 162 points in its last three games. It finished with 4 wins or less for the fourth straight season.

Syracuse ended the 2018 season with a dominant bowl victory, a 10-win season, its first top-25 ranking in nearly two decades and was one snap against Clemson away from clearing the path to an ACC championship.

How in the heck does that happen?

There are a lot of reasons, of course. Dino Babers’ system was finally starting to click. The pass rush blossomed from a unit that had just 16 sacks in 2017 to one with 43 in 2018. Eric Dungey was Superman.

But there was another big reason for the huge turnaround, too, and it might also prove to be a huge red flag for 2019: Turnovers.

Historically, turnovers are an incredibly volatile statistic. Luck plays a huge role, and it’s rare that one team manages to keep a high turnover margin year after year. It’s one of the stats most prone to regression to the mean.

Which leads us to Syracuse.

In 2017, Syracuse’s defense ranked 115th nationally in takeaways with just 12. The Orange were 113th nationally with a -52 margin in points off turnovers. And they were 121st nationally with a turnover margin of -12.

In 2018, Syracuse was 5th in turnover margin (+13), sixth in points off turnovers margin (+65) and third in takeaways (31).

That’s a lot of volatility, even for a statistical metric that’s prone to volatility. In fact, just looking at points off turnovers margin, the standard deviation for change from one year to the next is about 31 points. Syracuse’s change was 117. In fact, Syracuse’s 19 additional takeaways from one year to the next is the most by any Power 5 program in the past decade.

So say it with me: Regression. To. The. Mean.

Historically, the numbers suggest a huge shift back for Syracuse. We took the past 10 seasons of data, calculated the absolute value change in points off turnover margin for every FBS team, then looked at what followed in Year 3 for the biggest outliers.

Put more succinctly: We looked at all teams whose change in points off turnover margin shifted by more than three standard deviations from Year 1 to Year 2, then asked what happened to them in Year 3.

For example:

In 2012, Florida State had a points off turnover margin of +30. That’s right in the expected wheelhouse for any team (i.e. within one standard deviation of the average, which as you’d guess, is about zero.)

In 2013, when FSU won the national championship and dominated the entire season, the Seminoles had a points off turnovers margin of +163. That is insanely good. In fact, it’s the best mark in the past decade — a full 12 points better than the next-best team. Only 6 other FBS teams have even had a mark of +120. In other words, it’s WAY outside the expected range of fluctuation.

So, what happened in 2014? Despite returning the bulk of its talent from that national championship team, having Jameis Winston at QB and a host of future NFL players on defense, and despite going undefeated in the regular season again, FSU’s points off turnover margin dropped to minus-44. That’s a shift from Year 2 to Year 3 of a whopping 207 points. Or, more precisely, over a 14 game season, FSU had to make up 14.8 points per game just based off its shift in turnover scoring. No wonder a team that dominated in 2013 had to endure so many escape acts in 2014.

But here’s the thing: That shift is not uncommon. If a team is way outside the expected norm in points off turnover margin one year, odds are it’ll take a hefty swing back in the other direction the following season.

We looked at 65 teams from 2009-2018 that fit the criteria of falling more than three standard deviations from the mean in points off turnover margin — both good and bad. Of those 65 teams, 15 of them again fell more than three standard deviations from the mean in the opposite direction the following year.

Think about what that means: Teams have about a 95 percent chance (based on our data) of falling inside the meat of our bell curve each year, but 23 percent of these teams beat those odds two years in a row. It’s just that one year they beat the odds on the positive side, and the next on the negative (or vice versa).

That’s not just statistically meaningful. If you’re Syracuse, it should be statistically terrifying.

Looking at the more broad data set, teams that saw an improvement beyond three standard deviations from Year 1 to Year 2 saw a reduction in points off turnover margin of, on average, 65 points. That’s an impact of about 5.2 points per game. Only two of the 26 teams matching our criteria failed to see a regression of less than one standard deviation.

What that essentially means is, if all else is the same in terms of Syracuse’s performance in 2019, it likely is going to be about 5 points per game worse this year, just based on the expected correction in points off turnovers margin.

Now, Syracuse’s wins came by an average of 12.3 points per game last year, and only North Carolina was a particularly close call, so perhaps none of this will matter beyond creating a few more close games that still result in a W.

And Syracuse does return the bulk of that defensive front and talented secondary that accounted for all those takeaways, so maybe the regression falls on the low side of things and the Orange can repeat the success more than most teams have previously.

But history says that the path will be tougher this year. In layman’s terms, we usually say Syracuse won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, but the data actually says it’s more about what’s being handed to the Orange or, for 2019, what might not be.

*Note: John Casillo of Troy Nunes blog had a follow-up to this looking at some factors working in Syracuse’s favor. Worth a read HERE.

For reference, if you’re the type who might like to wager on team win over/unders, here are the really big outliers in POT margin last year:

Kansas +162
Georgia Southern +124
Syracuse +117
Air Force +105
North Texas +88
Louisville -125

Others worth watching: K-State (-73), South Carolina (-73), Florida (+77), Cincinnati (+75).

The sky isn’t falling at Virginia Tech

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A year ago, Justin Fuente was a hot name. Virginia Tech fans were terrified he might be lured away to a bigger job, and much like the halcyon days of the Frank Beamer era, it felt like, if things simply kept progressing on schedule, the biggest of goals were within reach.

And then the Hokies went 6-7, lost their bowl game, and watched a half-dozen players transfer after the season.

Suddenly, Fuente’s star isn’t shining so brightly.

But is the criticism of Fuente fair?

First, let’s be clear about Fuente’s strengths. He’s a QB developer and an offensive guy. When he arrived, it was to inject life into a listless Hokies offense and to, essentially, let Bud Foster keep doing his thing on D. That’s not to suggest Fuente has no hand in the defense or that he holds no responsibility for how Foster’s crew performs, but the point is, when you have a DC of Foster’s caliber, that’s not the area the head coach needs to focus the bulk of his attention on.

So, how has Fuente done at rejuvenating Virginia Tech’s offense? Answer: A whole lot better than most people seem to realize.

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Virginia Tech was quite good in Year 1 when Fuente had a handful of veteran holdovers from the Beamer era. Year 2 was a concerning step back that still resulted in nine wins. Year 3? The year that’s earned all the criticism?

Across the board, the Hokies’ offense rebounded, nearly matching 2016’s numbers. Overall, Virginia Tech’s offense actually mustered more yards-per-play (5.87) than any season since 2010, was dramatically better on designed run plays (up 16 percent from 2017) and nearly matched its 2016 offensive S&P+ mark. The Hokies did all this despite an injury forcing a QB change in September.

(Of note: Nearly all the dip in VT’s yards/pass rates were a result of a shorter passing game designed for Ryan Willis after Josh Jackson’s injury.)

Now, there’s a fair argument to be made, perhaps, that having the 41st-ranked offense in S&P+ isn’t quite the progress Hokies fans should’ve expected from the offensive guru in his third year, but keep in mind where things where when he arrived. In Beamer’s last three seasons, the Hokies ranked 57th, 86th and 77th.

The real concerns, of course, were on D.

The numbers:

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From ninth to 77th in defensive S&P+. More than doubling points/drive allowed. A 55 percent uptick in yards/designed run — a margin made up entirely due to a woeful 3.2 yards/rush allowed after first contact. Everything was out of character for a Bud Foster defense.

So what’s your bet: Youth reared its ugly head too often last year in a perfect storm type of season, where injuries and NFL departures left the defense incredibly thin? Or Bud Foster forgot how to coach and won’t be able to fix Virginia Tech’s D for 2019?

Of course, that leads us back to personnel. Jackson is gone. So are three of the better options in the passing game – Sean Savoy, Chris Cunningham and Eric Kumah. That’s got to hurt the offense and it sure seems like an indictment of the culture in Blacksburg, right?

Again, not necessarily.

Jackson had clearly been surpassed by Willis (and there were more than a few folks around the program that felt like Willis should’ve been the starter from Day 1 last year). Willis had a fine season, and figures to be better prepped for the job now. Jackson had 9 TDs and 7 turnovers in his last six games vs. Power 5 opponents in a VT uniform. And, of course, Quincy Patterson could be the QB of the future.

Kumah never had a 100 yard game.

Savoy had 2 or fewer catches in 13 of his 21 games.

After catching four TDs as a freshman in 2016, Cunningham had just three more in the next two seasons combined.

Despite an encouraging finish to 2017, DeShawn McClease saw his role diminish in 2018 and averaged less than 2 yards per rush five times in 11 games.

Not every breakup has a villain, and in each case, it seems like Virginia Tech and the player had better options than the status quo. And on defense, where the real problems existed, Foster returns his entire starting LB corps and secondary.

Again, none of this is to suggest there isn’t reason for concern. Even Fuente has said there needs to be a boatload of improvement from last year to 2019. But the “sky is falling” narrative doesn’t quite fit either. You’d hope after Year 3, there was more of a foundation and less ongoing transition, but that can be chalked up to circumstance as much as failures on the coaching staff. Beamer took seven years to get things rolling, so Fuente’s still well ahead of schedule, right?

Sure, 2019 will tell us a lot. It may well define Fuente’s future at Virginia Tech. But there’s no reason to assume that has to be a bad thing.

Mack Didn’t Come Back to a Train Wreck

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Here’s a crazy thought: What if Mack Brown isn’t off his rocker to think UNC could contend this year?

OK, I’m not ready to crawl out on a limb quite that rickety just yet. The QB situation at UNC remains a mess, and a new coaching staff typically needs at least a little time to get things fixed when they’re as far off the rails as things are at UNC.

But.

Here’s an interesting tidbit that felt like it was worth considering. Last season, UNC finished 2-9. That’s bad. But 65.6 percent of the Heels’ offensive drives came in game situations when the score was within 8. Every single team with a higher rate last year won at least 7 games. In fact, every team but one that played at least 60 percent of its snaps within a TD (30 teams) won at least 5 games, and USC, Kansas State, Air Force, Tulsa and Colorado were the only ones that didn’t make a bowl.

This is all logical. It’s unlikely that a really bad team will spend so much time playing in close games. In fact, teams that won four or fewer games last season lost by an average of 13 points. But UNC’s average was just 7.

Look at scores through three quarters. Those 4-win or worse teams trailed, on average, by 10.3 points. The really bad teams were far worse. Louisville trailed entering the fourth quarter by an average of 20. Rutgers by 16. Oregon State by 14. But UNC’s average deficit to start the fourth quarter was just a field goal.

Those margins should mean something intuitively intuitively, and it tends to play out historically, too. (More on that in a moment.)

So, let’s look at the recent history of bad teams that spent a lot of time in one-score games.

In 2017, just three teams had at least 96 drives (UNC had 95 that year, so that’s our line of demarcation) when the score was within 8, and still didn’t make a bowl game.

Eastern Michigan (5-7)
UMass (4-8)
Syracuse (4-8)

EMU improved by two wins in 2018 and made a bowl game for just the second time since 1987.

UMass still stunk, finishing 4-8 again. But it’s UMass. What’d you expect? (And actually, UMass looked a lot better in 2018 than it has in a long time, but it just couldn’t get over the hump.)

And Syracuse. Syracuse got a little better. Yeah, the Orange went from 4-8 to one snap away from potentially winning the ACC.

Go back one more year and look at 2016. That season, 10 teams matched our criteria. Ball State and Kent State both managed to stink again in 2017. Cincinnati stayed even — but then broke through for a massive gain in 2018. The other seven all saw significant improvements in their final record, including FAU (3 wins to 11), Georgia State (3 wins to 7) and Virginia (2 wins to 6).

On the whole, over the past two iterations, teams that fit this bill improved by 2.6 wins.

And sure, 2.6 extra wins still leaves UNC short of a bowl game and not very good. But how about this for some historical precedent…

UNC’s 101 drives when within 8 points is the most by a 2-win team since 2009.

The last team to do that? Maryland. The Terps were 2-10.

What happened the next season? Maryland went 9-4 and Ralph Friedgen won ACC Coach of the Year.

There are plenty of other numbers that suggest UNC isn’t far off.

The Heels were a woeful -68 in points off turnovers differential last season. That’s a number that tends not to be repeatable. So get them a little closer to even, and suddenly all those close games turn into potential Tar Heels wins.

UNC was also a dreadful 128th nationally in goal-to-go TD rate (54.5%). Turn a few more of those easy scoring chances into touchdowns, and another block falls into place.

Meanwhile, UNC allowed TDs on 88.9 percent of goal-to-go situations, which was well above the FBS average (even though they were right at the average on inside 40 scoring and red-zone TD rate). Go from awful to average, and we’re again taking a potentially big step forward.

UNC converted just 34.5% of its third downs last year, 111th nationally. But on the ground and in short yardage, it was actually pretty good — 51st in rushing conversions, 49th in third-and-short. So cut down on a few of those third-and-longs and get a little better QB play and…

OK, we’re rambling. That’s still a lot of “what ifs” and if the Heels don’t find a QB, it’s probably going to be another long season.

Still, the margin between train wreck and respectable may not be as big as you think. And if Mack Brown can get UNC back to respectability in Year 1, well we’ll all have a little egg on our face for suggesting this hire was crazy for a rebuilding program.

The Goal for FSU’s O-line in 2019: Slightly Less Awfulness

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 6.18.49 PMIf you watched much Florida State football and you’re an astute, educated observer, you may have noticed a slight flaw in the Seminoles’ offensive attack. Turns out, their O-line was not very good.

OK, so this was no big secret. You’d be hard pressed to find an O-line that bad at a big-time program in recent history. The line was dreadful.

But no one wants to live in the past (except maybe Tennessee fans), so let’s ask the more pressing question: How much can FSU’s line improve in 2019?

Let’s start by setting the groundwork. Just how bad off was FSU?

Here are the numbers on the ground (not counting sacks, out of 130 FBS teams):

129th in yards-per-rush (3.73)
129th in % of runs stopped for a loss/no gain (25.8%)
130th in yards/rush before contact (0.74)
116th in third-and-short rushing conversion rate (56.5%)
114th in S&P+ rushing (88.6)
121st in Success Rate+ (85.0)

Here are the numbers when pass blocking:

85th in sack rate (7.3%)
77th in passing down S&P+ (98.3)
113th in non-blitz pressure rate (46.5%)
115th in QB contact rate (42.6%)
122nd in third-and-long conversion rate (18.4%)
130th in blown pass blocks (77)

Those numbers are bad, but I wanted something that really would sum up how badly a team’s O-line sucked, so I created the O-line suck rate. It’s a simple enough formula. Runs stopped for loss/no gain + pass plays under pressure divided by total snaps.

Florida State’s suck rate last year? 31.75 percent. Four teams were worse: Arkansas, ECU, Tennessee, San Jose State. That’s not good company.

But again, the question isn’t about whether last year’s O-line was bad. It was. The question is whether it can get better. So let’s look at historical precedent.

I calculated the suck rate for every team for each of the past five seasons. One interesting tidbit is the trend line for the average FBS team…

2014: 19.51%
2015: 19.11%
2016: 19.36%
2017: 22.06%
2018: 24.05%

In other words, the rate of penetration by the D-line is essentially 25% higher in 2018 than it was in 2015. Is that a product of scheme? And does Willie Taggart’s offense tend to lean into that scheme issue? It’s also worth noting that FSU, despite what was clearly a woeful O-line, ranked 111th nationally in use of 7 or more pass blockers.

Anyway, let’s look at the truly terrible blocking teams during the Playoff era. We’ll define that as teams that were more than 1.5 standard deviations from the FBS average in suck rate. Here’s your list…

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What does all this mean?

Well, the good news for Florida State is almost no one got markedly worse the following year. Partially, this is because — how much worse can it get? But mostly, teams saw real improvement. Nowhere to go but up, as they say. Of the 32 teams considered, 27 improved their suck rates from Year 1 to Year 2, 17 saw improvements of at least 10 percent reduction is pressured snaps, and six saw reductions of at least 20 percent.

So, history says Florida State will be, on average, about 12 percent better on its O-line next year.

But what does a 12 percent improvement mean?

Well, there’s the bad news.

First, of those 32 teams we considered, all but two remained worse than the FBS average in suck rate their follow-up year, so even getting back to the middle of the pack is an almost impossible task for really bad O-lines from one year to the next. Most were still at least 10 percent worse than the FBS average, which isn’t good. And in FSU’s case, even if it sees that 12 percent improvement, it would still have a suck rate of about 28 percent, which last year, would’ve ranked 113th nationally.

The problem is, most awful O-lines that blossom into decent units — see Wake Forest, Boston College and Missouri of late — are units that grow together over time. It’s rarely a quick fix. Even when there’s a massive overhaul, as FSU is likely to encounter this year, the new group needs time to gel. It’s not like there were a ton of top-tier free agents out there to be signed.

So, where does that leave the Seminoles?

The line is likely still going to be bad, and James Blackman is probably not the ideal QB to be playing behind such a woeful unit. But bad is relative. It won’t be as bad as it was in 2018. The coaching should be better. The scheme, one would hope, can adjust a bit to help. And some of the elite pass rushers FSU faced won’t be back for another round. All of that is the lipstick on this pig.

Truth is, the offense is going to have to work a good bit to make a big leap forward. With Cam Akers and Tamorrion Terry, that’s possible. And maybe the steps forward, however gradual, are enough to flip a few close games — though Miami was really the only close one FSU played that didn’t go in their favor a year ago, and it’s just as likely that improvements from other teams turn some close wins (Samford, Louisville, BC) into losses.

Best case scenario, FSU can get back to a bowl. That means something.

Does it mean enough to tamp down a potential inferno under Willie Taggart’s seat? Well, now that’s a really big question.