Ranking the ACC’s O-lines

Wrote earlier this week on defensive backs in the ACC. Today’s topic: The O-lines. Want a reason the ACC was down last year? It all starts here.

Now, let’s begin with a caveat: As bad as the O-line play was in the ACC last season, the D-line play was terrific. So, is it a chicken-or-egg discussion? Did the bad O-lines make the D-lines look better or vice versa? Hard to say, though the fact that the ACC had nine D-linemen drafted last year suggests that a.) the D-lines were good, and b.) life will get marginally easier for the O-lines in 2019. So there’s that.

Anyway, let’s look at some data points…

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*Note: All stats are vs. Power 5 competition, click on the graph to open in Google Docs. All stats from ESPN Stats & Info.

First off, I should say that Football Outsiders has their own metrics that are probably better than anything I’m using here, and you can find them by clicking HERE. The metrics shown above, however, should be pretty self-explanatory and hopefully illustrate a bit more clearly where teams struggled.

And struggle they did.

Only Clemson ranked in the top half of the league in all six of the above categories (and it helps they didn’t have to face the Clemson D-line). Across the board, teams tended to either be good run blockers or good pass blockers, but not both. (And then there’s Florida State and Louisville, which were awful at everything.)

When it comes to pass blocking, Clemson was elite, but North Carolina, Miami and Boston College weren’t far off. Problem is, UNC, Miami and BC were average or bad at run blocking last year.

Again, Clemson was elite at run blocking, but trailed Georgia Tech (more on this in a moment), while Wake, Pitt and UVA were all pretty good, too. Problem here is, Georgia Tech was awful at pass blocking, and Wake, Pitt and UVA weren’t a lot better.

See how this goes?

Now, to be fair, scheme plays a big part here. We knew before ever looking at the numbers that Georgia Tech could run block. Of course they could. They were an option team. And when GT passed, it was usually third down, when the defense could pin its ears back and attack. Of course they were going to struggle as an O-line in those situations.

Or take Boston College, for example. The Eagles ran into at least 8 defenders in the box on 29 percent of their first- and second-down runs. Meanwhile, Clemson did so just 5 percent of the time. Of course the run blocking would suffer. But there’s real talent on that BC O-line, and a healthy A.J. Dillon and Anthony Brown should force defenses into more tough decisions in 2019.

So the point here is, nothing is cut-and-dried. O-line play is subtle. We get that.

But then you look at those same numbers for Florida State. The Seminoles ran on first-and-second down 241 times. Only 8 were into an 8-man front. Why? Because the FSU run blocking was pitiful and there was no need to stack the box against them. In fact, look at that yards-before-contact number for Florida State. Zero point two-nine.

Fat, drunk and bad at run blocking is no way to go through life.

Or how about Louisville? The Cards ranked last or second-to-last in five of the six categories here. That’s atrocious.

And the really bad thing: This wasn’t the first year it was a problem for either one of those schools. The work that Louisville and FSU have to do up front — some of which we touched on here for Florida State — is immense. So immense, it can’t be fixed in one year. Yes, new systems are in place that should help the line. Should. But neither Rome nor O-lines are built in a day.

On the flip side, there are some teams that offer some hope for real improvement.

Wake Forest lost three starters, but should get Justin Herron back from injury and has some talent ready to step in. Add in that they won’t be playing with a freshman QB anymore, and those pass blocking numbers could go from mediocre to solid, giving the Deacons a pretty nice unit.

Virginia was surprisingly good at run blocking, too, and given that they have arguably the toughest QB in the ACC to bring down, even a small step forward in pass blocking could really help the Hoos offense.

Syracuse, too, looks like it could be in a good spot to improve. Its struggles were more situational, which you’d assume can be improved through scheme (and fewer third-and-longs). Add in what’s developing as a potentially dynamic backfield with Moe Neal (a breakout candidate, IMO), Jarveon Howard and Abdul Adams (and a more traditional pocket QB).

North Carolina’s success last year probably comes as something of a surprise. Unfortunately, with a ton of O-line turnover and a likely fresh-faced QB, it’s probably not overly likely the Heels will repeat that performance. Still, they’ve got a good enough backfield that even passable run blocking should provide the backbone of the offense.

Virginia Tech’s O-line ups-and-downs have been at the heart of many of the team’s issues dating back to the Frank Beamer era, but this year’s group looks about as deep across the board as we’ve seen in some time in Blacksburg. Will it be a great unit? That might depend on how good the supporting cast is. But it should definitely be improved.

And then we have Georgia Tech. What to make of the Jackets? It’ll be a completely different scheme, and frankly, there’s no template for how this will work. There’s no way they’ll repeat the numbers the line has put up in the past. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a better all-around group. When I talked with Geoff Collins last month, he was optimistic that the group was getting a good handle on things quickly. Still, there’s going to be a steep learning curve.

Perhaps the most intriguing unit, however, belongs to Miami. For all the talk of the QB problems there, Malik Rosier, N’Keal Perry et al didn’t get much help last season, and the run blocking was pretty bad. What’s even more confounding is that performance on third-and-short. It was awful — which probably isn’t a shock for a line that struggled to block for its backs. But this isn’t new. Since 2010, the Canes have been better than P5 average just once (2013) and below 60 percent six times! This spans three different coaches’ recruits, so it’s hard to even blame scheme or style of recruit. It’s hard to explain. But seeing promising drives end with a stuff on third-and-2 is a frustration Miami fans have had for way too long. Fortunately, some of the solid recruiting done at the position under Mark Richt should be coming to the forefront now, and there’s some optimism for real improvement.

But let’s end with Clemson. Here’s the bad news for the rest of the ACC: The Tigers are going to be better up front this year. Yes, they lost four-year starter Mitch Hyatt. But there’s a good chance that Jackson Carman is better. And while Trevor Lawrence was exceptional last season, he also tended to sit in the pocket a bit too long — trusting his arm strength to bail him out. That’s been a focal point this year, as Dabo Swinney noted.

“It’s about him creating and extending plays with his legs,” Swinney said. “He’s so confident in the pocket, and he has this arm and ability to make every throw known to man, he will sit in the pocket too long. There’s times, where I felt like he could have — if you really study Trevor, he’s as deadly as anybody when he’s outside the pocket. A lot of guys don’t have a scramble arm. They scramble and have to run. He can scramble and make a throw that is just a dagger.”

So… good luck with that.

Anyway, remembering that all this is subtle, that lines can be very good at one thing and very bad at another, and that I’m an idiot 63% of the time, here’s where I’d rank the ACC O-lines as of today…

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

Ranking the ACC’s DBs

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.)

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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

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

Strength of Schedule is the friggin’ worst.

I hate strength of schedule.

It’s not that it’s a meaningless number, of course. It tells us… something. But what is that something? To hear fans and, too often, media discuss it, that something is nearly everything. Without a tough schedule, you can’t be great. But playing a great schedule makes you great, regardless of the outcomes. Or something like that.

But that’s wrong on myriad levels, which is the topic I wanted to explore here. Let’s give Strength of Schedule some serious thought and then discuss how much it should actually play into our basis for analyzing college football teams.

Here’s a thought experiment. Which team has a tougher schedule:

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Maybe the answer is Team A. They have to play multiple games vs. top-10 opponents.

Or maybe it’s Team B. They have three times as many games vs. top-25 opponents.

The real answer is… it depends.

Let’s say we’re talking about Clemson. Clemson is really good. They’ve got top-5 talent, so while facing off against a team ranked, say, 19th, isn’t exactly a cakewalk, we’d expect the Tigers to win. So, vs. Team B’s, there’s a good chance Clemson is going 12-0. But if Team A was Clemson, well now they’ve got two games vs. teams that, theoretically, have a similar level of talent on the roster. If those top-10 teams are Alabama and Ohio State, we might expect Clemson to go 11-1 or 10-2 against that slate. So, clearly Team A has the tougher schedule, right?

Well, let’s change the details a bit. Now let’s say we’re talking about Syracuse. The Orange are pretty good, too. They beat some good teams last year. They also lost to Pitt and nearly fell to UNC and were utterly smoked by Notre Dame. So, how would they fare against Team B’s schedule? Probably decent, but there are nine games on that docket where Syracuse could be challenged. Let’s say things go pretty well and they go 9-3. Now give them Team A’s schedule. They’re almost certainly going to lose those two top-10 games, but every other game on their slate is definitely winnable. They might be 10-2. So, Team B has the tougher schedule than, right?

The point here is that schedule strength requires us to choose the same context and apply it to all teams, even if that doesn’t entirely make sense in reality. The truth is, there’s a ton of context that impacts the difficulty of a team’s schedule beyond the simple metric of “how many good teams did they play?”

Take the 2014 Ohio State team. Remember them? They won a natty. They also lost at home to Virginia Tech in Week 2. That was a BAD loss. That Hokies team wasn’t very good. But let’s remember the context: Ohio State had injuries on the O-line. J.T. Barrett was making just his second career start. Virginia Tech finished that season just 7-6 but its defense was ranked 11th in S&P+ and had 109 tackles for loss, sixth-most nationally.

In other words, 2014 Virginia Tech wasn’t helping anyone’s strength of schedule, but if you had a green QB and a beat-up O-line, the Hokies were NOT the team you wanted up next on the docket.

Here’s another question: What was Purdue’s strength of schedule last year? Go ahead, you can Google it. This is an open-book quiz.

What’d you find?

Answer: Purdue had the No. 3 strength of schedule in 2018, according to ESPN.

But what if you looked at Sagarin instead? No biggie, they were fourth there.

Oh, but what about Football Outsiders? There Purdue was 27th.

Or the Colley Index? They had the Boilermakers at 15th.

Or FEI? Yikes, now Purdue’s 40th!

It almost is as if Strength of Schedule was an arbitrarily determined metric that’s inconsistent from source to source.

This isn’t to say these outlets are simply plucking numbers out of thin air, but just that the formula for figuring out strength of schedule differs from one place to the next.

In fact, here’s your next quiz: What is the formula for strength of schedule? How does, say, Football Outsiders determine it? Does it account for recruiting rankings? Or home-field advantage? Or injuries? Or who you played the week before? Or potential trap games? Or particularly bad personnel matchups like that Ohio State-VT game? Is it based on last year’s records or the last 10 years of records or what we expect this year’s records to be? Does it take travel distance into account? Thursday games after a Saturday game? Second-order wins? Are all FCS games treated the same?

(Note: No knock on Football Outsiders, who’s given this more thought than almost anyone.)

The answer here is, you probably don’t know. And you certainly don’t know for every outlet. And you most definitely don’t know for the metrics being used by the playoff committee. So you’re simply trusting that an outlet like Football Outsiders or ESPN has a reliable enough track record that you’ll trust their computations. And that’s fine. But when studying data, these are still good questions to ask.

Next question. A team’s non-conference games are The Citadel, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida. True or False: This is a good non-conference schedule?

Again the answer is, it depends.

If this was 2018, when Florida and Notre Dame were both top-10 teams, Oklahoma State was good, and The Citadel gave Alabama one of its toughest games of the year, you’d say this was a really tough non-conference slate.

But, way back in 2014, when this was Florida State’s actual OOC schedule, it was something of a joke. FSU’s strength of schedule for the year, despite having three Power 5 OOC games and playing Clemson, Louisville and Miami, was ranked 34th by Football Outsiders.

So, if FSU scheduled big-name programs out of conference, doesn’t control its ACC slate, and still ended up 34th (and undefeated!), what’s a team supposed to do? Identifying a problem should also come with an action item. Here’s how to fix it. But scheduling isn’t fixable. It’s out of the team’s control.

Games are scheduled years in advance, so who knows how good, say, Notre Dame might be in 2023? When FSU faced Oklahoma State in 2014, the Cowboys had a healthy starting QB and played well. But J.W. Walsh got hurt a week later and didn’t throw another pass that season for a team that finished 7-6. Notre Dame was 6-0 entering its game vs. Florida State. It was an epic battle decided on the final play. And then… the Irish went 2-4 the rest of the way to finish 8-5. If anything, we could suggest FSU took all the wind out of Notre Dame’s sails, which you might think was a positive for the Noles. Instead, the struggles of the Irish down the stretch hurt FSU’s strength of schedule. And teams shouldn’t be in the position of rooting for their former opponents months later in hopes of bolstering their own resume.

OK, another question: Team A is 12-0, has the 50th-ranked strength of schedule, and has an average margin of victory of 31 points. Team B is 11-1, has the 4th-ranked strength of schedule, and has an average margin of victory of 12 points. Which team is better?

Team A has clearly won in more impressive fashion, but it hasn’t had to play nearly as many tough games. But Team B actually lost a game, so can we simply ignore the outcome and rank based on degree of difficulty?

Or how about this: Team A is 13-0 with the 17th-ranked SoS, and Team B is also 13-0 with the 76th-ranked SoS. Which team is better?

If you answered Team A, good work. You noticed that they played a harder schedule to get to the same record. Of course, Team A in this scenario is Alabama entering last year’s playoff, and Team B is Clemson. And as it turned out, on the field, Clemson was significantly better.

The reason: Strength of schedule is not a metric to determine how good a team is. It is simply a measure of our confidence in the quality of those teams.

Let’s say Bill Belichick was found deflating balls and spying on other teams again, and so the New England Patriots are relegated to the Sun Belt next year. Fun, right? But Tom Brady is still Tom Brady, so the Patriots go 12-0 and win the Sun Belt with ease. They win every game by 30 and rest their starters in the second half routinely. Still, their SoS at year’s end isn’t going to be great. The highest ranked Sun Belt team last year, per ESPN, was Louisiana-Lafayette, which ranked 90th.

So, are the Patriots, with that 90th-ranked SoS, making the playoff? Hell yes! Because we know who Tom Brady is, and we know the Patriots are great, and so we don’t need a metric like SoS to tell us that. We don’t need a measure of certainty for the Patriots because we’re already certain. UCF? We’re less certain about them. And that’s what a bad SoS tells us. It says, “We don’t know.” And that’s ALL it says. It doesn’t say UCF is bad. It says we don’t know. A good SoS says we’ve seen teams tested, so we know more. A bad SoS says we’ve not seen teams tested, so we’re not sure. The rest is up to us (or, at least, other metrics).

Last question: Last year, Maryland had the 20th-best strength of schedule, per Football Outsiders. Nebraska had the 30th-best. How much better was Maryland’s schedule than Nebraska’s?

Was it 10 better? The Terps were 10 spots higher.

Football Outsiders does give us an SoS score, with an average top-5 team projected to have an .861 winning percentage vs. Maryland’s schedule, and an .868 vs. Nebraksa’s. They’re essentially the same, right? They’d have to play more than 100 games before we’d expect a difference of just one win in outcomes.

In fact, if we look at the SoS scores and add one standard deviation, plus or minus, it covers every team from No. 18 Florida State (.850) to No. 112 New Mexico State (.959). In other words, when discussing how an “average top-5 team” would perform, the difference between the 18th-toughest schedule and the 18th-easiest schedule could be decided by relatively normal fluctuations — a few strange bounces of the oblong ball.

If we were to take, instead, an “average top-25 team,” we’d see a bit more fluctuation, but the general point remains. For good teams, there are only a handful of real-world schedules each year that would create a dramatically different outcome.

OK, so we’ve been through all this now and shown that strength of schedule isn’t a metric designed to measure a team’s quality and can vary based on which formula you use and even then misses out on some key context that should be applied when analyzing specific teams. But when we get to November, you’ll still be arguing that strength of schedule matters a lot. Hell, in January, folks were arguing Alabama only lost to Clemson BECAUSE of its difficult strength of schedule. Why?

The thing that feels reasonable to us about strength of schedule is the idea that doing a difficult thing repeatedly makes it less likely you’ll continue to succeed at that difficult thing. Think about bench pressing 250 pounds. Maybe you can lift it once. Maybe two or three times. But you’ll start getting tired by that fourth rep and, damn, by the fifth one, your arms are jiggling and you’re yelling for a spotter to save you from certain death. Same idea with schedule strength, right? Keep playing really good teams, and you’ll wear down.

But is that actually true? Let’s test the hypothesis.

Last year, there were exactly 26 Power 5 teams that played three or more games vs. teams ranked in the FPI top 25 prior to Nov. 1.

(Note: We’re using FPI top 25 as an arbitrary stand-in for “good team.” The numbers wouldn’t shift dramatically if we used AP top 25, for example. And these are stats based on year-end ranking, so we’re not including, say, LSU’s game against Miami since the Hurricanes proved not to actually be very good.)

The first takeaway from this should be: Wow, nearly half of the P5 played 3 or more games vs. FPI top 25? That’s a lot. And, it’s worth noting, only six teams played four games vs. FPI top-25, and only Tennessee played five. So, the distinction of a team that’s playing some merciless schedule really doesn’t exist but for maybe one or two teams, while nearly all teams are tested to some degree. (And even those numbers include the implicit assumption that SEC teams typically make for a tougher opponent than other teams.)

Taking this a step further, of the 46 bowl-eligible Power 5 teams, 17 played back-to-back games vs. teams ranked (at game time) in the top 25. That’s 37% — or a little more than one-third. But guess how many played three in a row? One. Just LSU. That’s it. No other team played three consecutive weeks vs. a ranked team during the regular season. Again, there’s always one or two outliers, but most teams are not challenged by an elite opponent on a weekly basis. Brutal scheduling is a myth.

But set that aside. Let’s look at how those supposedly tough schedules impacted teams.

First, let’s look at the teams with tough September/October slates.

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Shockingly, the group was essentially the same before and after. Even if we filter out games vs. top-25 teams and only look at how they performed vs. lesser teams, they had essentially the same win% before and after Nov. 1, and actually won a bit more impressively afterward.

Or how about those teams that had back-to-back games vs. top-25 opponents. They’re beaten up, right? They’re emotionally drained, right? Well, a few actually had an off week the following week (because good ADs go out of their way to try to make the schedule easier) but the ones that didn’t went 9-5 in games following their top-25 doubleheaders, which is right about the record we would expect. Aside from TCU beating Oklahoma State, there wasn’t even a legitimate upset in the mix.

We can repeat this for any season using pretty much any metric, and in the aggregate, there is zero evidence to suggest that playing a particularly arduous schedule correlates to a team performing worse as the season progresses. In other words, it’s harder to beat good teams and easier to beat bad teams, but that doesn’t change based on who you played previously.

One metric we don’t have: Injuries. I’d love to see a data set that compares how many injuries occur vs. each team and compare that with win-loss records. My instinct is that most injuries are flukes and can happen vs. anyone, regardless of the opponent’s physical acumen. But it’d be nice to have some real proof of that.

So, what’s all this mean? Should we just abandon strength of schedule as a metric?

Of course not. A win against Alabama is more impressive than a win against Alabama State. No one should argue this. But what needs to be remembered is that if Team A beats Alabama, and Team B beats Alabama State, we cannot then use that information to definitively say that Team A is better than Team B. All we can say is that, all other information being equal, we’re more certain that Team A is legitimately good than we are about Team B.

The entire point of the college football playoff was to allow actual games to determine our champion, and to remove the liability of inherently unequal scheduling by affording the four best teams a chance to decide it on the field. Instead, what we’ve gotten is one logical fallacy after another, based on little evidence, using metrics that most fans don’t actually understand. Numbers should be used to illuminate a narrative, not to create it. Strength of schedule shouldn’t be telling us the opposite of what our eyes have seen. So let’s be smart out there. Let’s use strength of schedule the right way. And let’s not spend all season bickering over why losses don’t matter if the opponent was good enough.

OK, I know. That ain’t happening. But a guy can dream, can’t he?

What’s Trevor Lawrence’s ceiling?

I wrote a story this week on Trevor Lawrence, and how he builds off a freshman campaign that essentially has no equal.

The story focuses largely on Lawrence’s growth away from the field. It’s as insightful as I’ve heard him to date, with some real candidness about how much he still has to learn about the world, and how he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career being nothing more than a QB.

Of course, he’s pretty good at being a QB, too, so I figured it’d be interesting to just take a quick look at how his season progressed last year and project that forward.

First off, let’s take a look at his performance relative to his competition. In the chart below, you’ll see Lawrence’s yards-per-attempt represented in orange, and the average yards-per-attempt of all other FBS QBs to face those same teams represented in purple.

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What’s interesting is, as good as Lawrence’s numbers looked last year — and certainly there’s more to an effective QB than just yards-per-attempt — he really wasn’t doing anything special until late November. He had a solid game against Florida State, was well below average against Louisville (when he threw just 12 passes), and was essentially right in line with the average in every other game until Week 13. And then?

Yikes.

Sure, the Pitt game is an outlier here. That’s explained a bit by the fact that Pitt allowed nearly double its yards-per-rush average to Clemson’s ground game. The Panthers went all out to stop the passing game, and Clemson had no need to force the issue. In fact, here’s Pat Narduzzi on Lawrence’s game: “Great player. Not sure we’ve seen a guy so polished and calm. He has an incredible release and will be a force in the ACC for a few more years.” So yeah, he impressed even Pitt.

But back to the numbers.

Compared to other FBS QBs, Lawrence’s yards-per-pass were just slightly better than average (0.13 yards per attempt) in Weeks 6 through 12. (Note: We’re not counting Weeks 1-4, as Lawrence played sporadically, and in Week 5, when he was hurt in the first half).

Then, from the regular season finale against South Carolina through the national title game, Lawrence averaged 2.8 yards-per-attempt better than those team’s other opponents (and that’s with the Pitt game included). That’s an insane number that, keep in mind, also came against some of the best competition he played all season.

So what’s that all mean? Well, it means Lawrence was just hitting his stride by year’s end, which is a scary thought since he’s now had a full offseason to get better.

With that, we figured we should look for comparison points. Who else finished with a four-game stretch that looked as good as Lawrence’s (65% completions, 9 TD, 0 INT, 9.0 YPA)?

The answer? Well, no one. At least, no one hit all four of those bench marks in the past decade.

So, we dug deeper to find the guys with the most apt comparisons. For that, we came up with a list of 22 Power 5 QBs who at least came close to mirroring Lawrence’s final four contests. Here’s the list.

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A few things to notice:

  • The list includes 11 guys who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting that year.
  • The list includes nine first-round draft picks, including seven taken first or second overall
  • The list does not include a single name who had been on campus fewer than three seasons besides Lawrence.

Of course, the list also includes some really out-of-nowhere names: Joe Burrow and Feleipe Franks? Jake Coker? Bryn Renner? Keith Price? All fine QBs but… surprising to see them here.

There are certainly guys who make an apt comparison point in one way or another to Lawrence. Coker, for example, had been relatively average most of the season, then caught fire in the playoff and led Alabama to a title. Of course, he was a fifth-year senior.

Only a handful of these guys spent another year on campus, so that also provides us with relatively little groundwork for comparison. Luck might be the obvious choice here. He returned for another season and essentially matched his 2010 performance. Of course, he finished second in Heisman balloting in 2010, so it’s not like that four-game stretch to end the year represented a turning point.

No, what we keep coming back to is that Trevor Lawrence is an anomaly. There just isn’t a ton of data to suggest how good he’ll be moving forward because we haven’t seen many guys like him. Go even broader, and look for any Power 5 QB in the past 15 years who matched Lawrence’s overall stat line: 65% completions, 30 TD, 4 INT, 3,280 yards. Here’s the full list…

Russell Wilson, 2011
Cody Kessler, 2014
Marcus Mariota, 2014

Mariota won the Heisman. Both Mariota and Wilson were starting NFL QBs the next year. Kessler didn’t blossom the same way, but he followed up with a senior season at USC in which he again accounted for 30+ TDs, 3,000+ yards and 65% completions. And again, none we’re freshmen.

Perhaps the best comparison to Lawrence is the guy who preceded him by a year, Deshaun Watson. Dabo Swinney is fond of the comparison for many reasons, but the stat lines are one of them. If we adjust Watson’s freshman campaign to match Lawrence’s number of passing attempts, we’d get this line: 68% completions, 40 TD, 6 INT, 4,248 yards. That’s a good line.

Of course, Watson didn’t play all those snaps. And the ones he did were largely against lackluster defenses. He didn’t do it against Notre Dame and Alabama.

So maybe Lawrence is a healthier Deshaun Watson. That’s high praise. And yet, it still feels like we’d be selling him a little short.

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.