Last year, I went through each position group and put together ACC rankings as a preview for the season. It was certainly not an exact science, and it got a lot of stuff wrong (Syracuse) but also highlighted some teams primed for failure (Louisville) and some huge red-flag areas (FSU O-line). So, I figured it was worth doing again. Can’t promise how consistent these posts will be, but we’ll get them wrapped at some point before the season.
Anyway, first up: Defensive backs
Some quick note here:
1.) Don’t get hung up too much on “position group” nomenclature. This is shorthand for “back end defense” really. We’re looking at how each team performs down the field and on the edges — not necessarily at the specific value of safeties and corners.
2.) The “trend” references in the graph is simply a measure of guys lost/guys returning/young players who got experience, etc. It’s a gut feeling sort of thing. A way to use general knowledge of where a team’s depth chart stands to counter metrics carried over from 2018.
And speaking of those metrics, here are some of the key numbers I looked at in analyzing each team’s 2018 performance. (Click the graph to access data in Google Sheets.)
I used the color coding to differentiate what appear to be clear tiers of performance, as well as highlighting a few key numbers in blue. So let’s start there.
* Duke’s secondary was woefully undervalued last year, largely because their defensive front was mediocre at best. But look at that yards-per-attempt allowed when the D doesn’t pressure the QB. That’s exceptional. Only Clemson was better in the ACC.
* We’ve talked before about how Virginia Tech’s season was marred by an absurdly young defense, and that really showed up on the back end. Those numbers — particularly when the front doesn’t get pressure and big plays downfield — are just horrendous. Good news for VT is there’s nowhere to go but up.
* Florida State is an interesting case here. Our metrics we used are certainly not a full story by any means, but they essentially tell the story of a rather bad unit. S&P+, on the other hand, has FSU as the fifth-best passing defense in the ACC last year. I’m inclined to give that a little more weight here, and with Levonta Taylor returning from an injury (along with an improved, healthier Stanford Samuels), this has a chance to be a terrific unit in 2019.
* Georgia Tech allowed teams to convert 43% of their third-and-long chances. That’s just next level awful. No team has been worse since 2009 (Colorado State) and no Power 5 team last season had a rate worse than 35 percent. As we’ll see in future posts, the complete lack of pressure up front was a key cause. With a young secondary again this year, there may not be a marked improvement in most categories, but there’s just no way they can repeat this.
* Syracuse is a really interesting case. On the one hand, the Orange were exceptional at getting off the field on third-and-long last year. Best in the nation, actually. On the other hand, when the Orange didn’t get pressure up front, the secondary really struggled (8.3 yards/attempt). And look at that horrific yards/dropback on first down. That’s a sign of a really bad secondary, but for the most part, that wasn’t the narrative. On the third hand, however, Syracuse gave a lot of playing time to true freshmen Andre Cisco and Trill Williams last season, and while both held their own, there’s a lot of refinement that could come this year to even things out. So, I’d argue we can probably expect a better overall performance from the Orange DBs in 2019 — though that may not translate to as many big plays (INTs) or as positive a narrative (Cisco for All-American).
Beyond all that, I’d expect the top teams — Miami, Clemson, Virginia and Duke — to still be good again in 2019.
Losing Trayvon Mullen is big for Clemson, and with tons of other holes to fill on the line and at linebacker, it’s flown a bit under the radar. But this is also Clemson we’re talking about. There’s ample talent to step in.
Miami returns Trajan Bandy, one of the most underappreciated corners in the country, and brings in an interesting transfer in former USC safety Bubba Bolden. Given the talent on the defense overall and Manny Diaz still pulling the strings, this has a chance to be the ACC’s best secondary.
Duke may have some struggles this year, but it won’t be due to the secondary. The big question — as we wrote about earlier — is whether the talent can translate into more big plays. Getting better push up front would help a lot.
Virginia lost Juan Thornhill, which is a significant blow. He was, arguably, the best DB in the ACC last year. But the defensive front should be a bit better in 2019, which should also help the secondary. It’s a good unit still, but probably a notch below where it was last year (which, FWIW, was borderline elite).
Of the teams outside the “good” category, I think Florida State and Pitt have the best shots to move up. The Panthers return some very good players, Paris Ford has a year of playing time under his belt, and the defensive front, led by Rashad Weaver, should give the DBs some real opportunities to make some big plays.
Boston College is the team I could see falling the farthest. The Eagles lose a lot from the secondary, along with their two best pass rushers up front. Steve Addazio always seems to find a way to have a solid defense, but this feels like a year where A.J. Dillon and the offense are going to have to carry the load.
OK, on to the rankings for 2019. These are based in part on last year’s results, in part on who’s been added and who’s left, and in part on my own personal opinion. Am I wrong a lot? You betcha. But that will just give you something to complain about. Note, too, this is simply a 1-14 ranking. So, for example, I think Pitt’s secondary will be vastly improved this year — but still think four other secondaries will be better. In other words, this only shows the unit relative to others in the ACC rather than relative to last year’s performance.
ACC Secondary 2019 Preseason Power Rankings
2. Florida State
10. NC State
11 Virginia Tech
12. Boston College
14. Georgia Tech