Week 10 ACC picks with Ahmad Hawkins

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Virginia could be on the cusp of a Coastal Division title, and that’s a big surprise to most ACC fans. One person who’s not as shocked by the Hoos’ run is Ahmad Hawkins, a UVA legend — he caught the game winner the last time the Cavaliers won in Blacksburg — and a current analyst for the team. We checked in to get some insight on this year’s Hoos.

Q. Virginia is 6-2 and most folks are pretty surprised. Could you see this coming?

A. You could see some of it coming, but the thing that’s surprised me the most is how we’ve adjusted our defensive scheme due to the injuries and the lack of pass rush. They used the bye week to form some new schemes to help alleviate the need to get to the passer as much and help the secondary perform better. We knew that was our strength.

Q. Bryce Perkins isn’t putting up numbers like Tua, but it seems like he’s really transformed the Virginia offense with his athleticism. What’s been the impact from your viewpoint?

A. Just having a quarterback that’s mobile. That’s something Coach Bronco has wanted from Day 1. They inherited Kurt Benkert, who was more of the classic pro-style quarterback, and he’s with the Atlanta Falcons now. He had a live arm, but he didn’t move like a Taysom Hill type. When they brought Bryce in, I knew he’d help overshadow some of the deficiencies we had on the offensive line and allow that group to actually gel and scheme for those inside zone-reads. And his ability to use his legs really occupies those linebackers and doesn’t let them get a beat on what we do offensively. He’s not going to wow anyone with his passing numbers, but the one thing in college football that’s so scary is having that dynamic quarterback that can run with the football.

Q. I love chatting with Bronco Mendenhall because he’s unlike any other coach out there. He’s thoughtful about so many things most coaches probably take for granted. What’s been your experience dealing with him?

A. Coach is very thoughtful. He’s very strategic even when you’re having a good time with him. One thing is, he wants to make sure the energy he puts out is genuine and positive and he understands that people hang on every word you say, and he doesn’t want to say anything out o character. He’s a lot of fun to be around, and I said when he got hired, he’s the type of coach you run through a wall for.

Q. I don’t feel like Virginia is playing the “Nobody believes in us” card so much as they just really believe in themselves. Fair assessment?

A. Oh yeah. It’s basically the “if you build it, they will come” mantra. They understand our fan base hasn’t viewed a consistent winner. So you can’t complain about fans if you’re not putting out a great product. Last year, we got to six wins, but the product wasn’t as attractive. Now, the product fits what you see with the record. We’re 6-2, but this team is also fun to watch. And the fans have been there, but we want to get them to come to the stadium, too.

Q. What does UVA have to do to beat Pitt on Friday?

A. It’s going to be tough physically because Pitt comes right at you. They’re going to hit you in the mouth, they’re going to pull guards. It’s power football. When they take a shot in the passing game, it’s off of play-action. So that’ll test our defensive front and our linebackers to be very disciplined and understand that all that weight lifting and conditioning you did is going to come in during this game. We’ve played some finesse teams, and now we’re going to see the run-it-down-your-throat team. It’s going to test our fortitude.

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Week 9 ACC picks with Jeff Cameron

Screen Shot 2018-10-25 at 1.33.56 PMThis is a picture of Jeff we found via Google Image search.
It’s the best picture we could find. The next best one was of Corey Clark.

OK, so what if Clemson-Florida State isn’t the signature game of the season that it used to be. It’s still a matchup of quite possibly the two most talented rosters in the ACC, and plenty of these guys will be suiting up on Sundays soon enough. Plus, FSU has been playing better of late, so we checked in with our pal Jeff Cameron of ESPN Tallahassee to talk about where the Seminoles stand and if they’ve got a shot of pulling the upset.

Q. Last year’s team obviously had it’s on-field issues but seemed as much as anything a failure of culture. This year, the personnel problems are obvious, but how would you say Willie has managed the locker room?

A. Coach Taggart inherited both personnel issues and a fractured locker room upon his arrival in Tallahassee. It’s a lot to overcome in a Coach’s first season but if there is an area that has improved appreciably it is within the culture of the program. When you speak with Coach Taggart it is apparent that this is an aspect of program building that Willie takes very seriously and has largely succeeded in fostering during his first season.

Q. The FSU D-line is really good, but the comparisons to Clemson’s unit seem a bit overstated to me. What’s your take?

A. Marvin Wilson would not start for Clemson right now. Marvin Wilson will likely be a first-round pick in future. Brian Burns might start for Clemson but there isn’t another guy on FSU’s front that would. Clemson has an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line that is rightly the envy of every team in the ACC and moreover, the country.

Q. We’ve talked about the timeline of turning around an offensive line. What’s the bigger picture timeline for Willie? Does it feel like each year you’re not catching up to Clemson, you’re falling behind?

A. Things change quickly in college football because you only get kids for four years.

Q. You can bring on any four people for a radio show, dead or alive. Who you interviewing?

A. Isaac Newton, Jane Goodall, Edward S. Curtis, James Baldwin, (Bonus: Eunice Kennedy Shriver)

Q. Does FSU stand a chance, and if so, what has to happen?

A. They have a chance. Not a great chance mind you but if the defensive line can neutralize Clemson’s running game and force a Freshman QB to beat them on the road who knows how he’ll respond? Trevor Lawrence is obviously a special player but if it’s close in the second half all of the pressure is on Clemson and perhaps the weight of that causes Freshman mistakes. At the end of the day, FSU will need help in the way of turnovers and big plays on special teams to pull off the upset as I just can’t envision the offense being able to block Clemson consistently enough to sustain drives.

Our picks…

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Week 8 Tiered Rankings: Who is “somebody”?

We’re at an interesting inflection point of the college football season, when records start to look substantial, but still come with the universal qualifier of “they ain’t played nobody.”

I find a pretty good way of weeding out that argument is to look at records vs. teams that should count as “somebody,” and that starts with a firm definition. For now, we’re using this: The top 40 in S&P+ along with any other Power 5 programs that have 2 or fewer losses and Group of Five teams with 1 or fewer losses.

That list ends up including 51 teams, which is probably a little more than we’d like, but it’s a good starting point that ensures we’re not ignoring anyone. More importantly, it’s a precise definition. Fans tend to think anyone other than Alabama is nobody, which makes for an impossible standard. Teams don’t set their own schedules, and they don’t control how other teams perform against other opposition, so using a lofty strength of schedule bar essentially eliminates everyone. Instead, we’re setting a reasonable bar that, over the course of a 12-game season, tends to even out.

So, if that’s our list of “somebodies,” how do teams stack up?

By record, we’d start with Clemson. The Tigers are 4-0 against somebodies (A&M, Georgia Southern, Syracuse & NC State) with an average margin of victory of 18 points. Now, we know what you’re saying. Those aren’t “somebody.” And to be sure, we can have degrees of Somebody-ness. But by our definition we started with, yes, those are all somebodies.

The only other team with four wins over somebody is LSU. The Tigers are 4-1 with wins over Miami, Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia. It’s a strong resume, even if the underlying numbers — 15th in S&P+, 19th in offensive efficiency — aren’t exactly stellar. Being elite at one thing and decent at all the others is enough to be pretty darn good.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Arizona State. The Sun Devils have four losses this year, all by 7 points, and all against “somebodies.” Perhaps we’re underestimating the work Herm Edwards has done so far.

The same is (sort of) true for Nebraska and UCLA. No, Scott Frost and Chip Kelly have not righted the ship in Year 1, but they’ve also combined for nine losses to “somebodies.” Granted, those games haven’t been particularly close, but as we evaluate their performances during the debut season growing pains, it’s worth a reminder that they’ve not exactly had it easy.

But what perhaps stands out the most is this: Even casting a pretty wide net in defining our “somebodies,” there are only 17 teams that have multiple wins against that group. That’s it. Of 130 FBS teams, only 17 have two ore more wins vs. the 51 teams that can make a case for being kind-of, sort-of good, and it’s a list with plenty of surprising names. So maybe most teams really ain’t played nobody.

Anyway, here’s the list of multi-win teams:
Clemson, 4-0
LSU, 4-1
Notre Dame, 3-0
Texas Tech, 2-1
Iowa State, 2-2
Virginia, 2-1
NC State, 2-1
Alabama, 2-0
Florida, 2-1
Kentucky, 2-1
USC, 2-3
Washington State, 2-0
Michigan, 2-1
Washington, 2-2
Purdue, 2-1
Missouri, 2-2
Stanford, 2-2

Names you don’t see here: Texas, West Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Penn State, UCF, Texas A&M, Miami. All have one or zero wins over our Group of 51.

Again, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good teams. It’s critical to remember that strength of schedule is an independent variable that measures our level of confidence in a team’s quality, not the underlying level of quality. If Alabama played Kent State 12 straight times, it wouldn’t make the Tide any better or worse. It would just mean we didn’t have much data to tell us how good they were. Instead, what we can say from this exercise is that Clemson, despite protests about its weak schedule, actually HAS played somebody, and done quite well. So have LSU and Notre Dame. And while that doesn’t mean those teams won’t lose moving forward, it offers us some evidence that those losses won’t be due to a lack of ability to beat good teams.

This week’s tiered rankings, using the above data points:

Tier 1: Elite (2)

Alabama, Clemson

I wrote a little on the inevitability of Tide-Tigers Part IV last night (and yes, I’m now kicking myself that Fredo is actually the OLDER brother. I’ve killed too many brain cells with whiskey.)

Tier 2: Knocking on the door (12)

Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Washington, Ohio State, UCF, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Texas

Tier 3: Pretty, pretty good (11)

App State, Fresno State, Penn State, Wisconsin, A&M, Utah, West Virginia, Washington State, Purdue, Houston, USF

Tier 4: Resume builders (22)

Miami, Auburn, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Utah State, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, North Texas, NC State, Duke, Temple, Iowa State, Oregon, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Michigan State, USC, San Diego State, Arizona State

NC State, App State & Bama reads

Few quick reads for you on a Thursday…

Week 8 ACC picks with Nate Irving

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This week’s guest picker is Nate Irving, an All-American in 2010 at NC State and went on to a five-year NFL career with the Broncos and Colts. We talked with Irving about this year’s Wolfpack, the impact of strength coach Dantonio Burnette, and his pick for the game against Clemson.

Q. NC State hasn’t gotten a ton of big wins yet, but they are winning more consistently now. Where do you think this program is?

A. I feel like [Dave] Doeren has gotten his guys in, a recruiting class has come through there, and [Dantonio Burnette] — we call him Thunder — he’s working wonders in the weight room. It’s paying off. It’s bringing more success for the guys on the field, and the more success there is, the more people want to come join us. I think with Doeren, he’s been able to stick around, get his guys in, coach them up and that’s starting to pay dividends.

Q. What would a win over Clemson mean for NC State?

A. Against this team, it’s very big. The last couple games, it’s been close. Being ranked, going against another ranked opponent — it’s a good test. And it’s a rivalry, whether they want to say so or not. Textile Bowl. It’s going to be a great game.

Q. What do you think of how the defense has performed after losing so many big names?

A. I think they’re playing good. It’s opportunities for guys to make a name for themselves after a lot of guys left. Germaine Pratt, I’ve been really impressed with what he’s been doing. We’re inexperienced, but the games we’ve played, it’s been experience. But this game will be what tells us where we are and where we need to be.

Q. When you talk about coaches being given time, to me that’s about building a sustainable culture that lasts beyond one class of great players. Is that sort of what we’re seeing happen at NC State?

A. Today’s age, we want results instantly, but every coach isn’t striking gold with every player they recruit. Things happen, injuries happen, life happens. There are things you can’t account for. Stuff you have to adjust to. It takes time. If you could just walk into a place and get the No. 1 class every year, everyone stays, everyone’s healthy — that’s one thing. But things happen. Football happens.

Q. You mentioned Coach Burnette. He seems to be at the center of so much of the Wolfpack’s success. What do you think of the job he’s done?

A. Man, I’ll send Thunder a message every now and then just to give him a hard time because when I was there, and the difference now, it’s night and day. As a former player, you’re like, damn, I wish we could’ve been a part of this. What he’s doing is great. And it’s strength and nutrition. They have a great nutrition staff. And the weight program is about lifting and power and explosion and the things that relate to football. When I was there, it was more about stretching and getting flexible. That’s good. But at the end of the day, you have to do things that relate to football.

Q. And as a guy who’s played football and had so much success, he’s not just coaching guys about how to get in shape, but like you say, it’s specific to what they’re trying to do.

A. And players notice that. He’s a guy who’s been through it and can tell you what you need to do to get there, players listen to that. But I also think he’s great at relating to the players. A lot of times, you’ll get guys from all over the place, and that’s his home. He’s home. That stands out. Guys are like, ‘He’s from here, he lives here, he went to school here, he’s part of this program. And he came back here.’

Q. OK, so I’m assuming you’re picking NC State. What’s the key for them to pull off the upset?

A. We have to do a good job in the secondary, but the defense has to play big. They run the ball really well, and if they get to running the ball on us, we can be in trouble. But if we can get off on third down, create a couple turnovers, we’ll be OK.

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Midseason All-ACC team: Finley, Willis lead the way

Get ready to get angry! After consulting with the far more insightful Andrea Adelson, here are our midseason All-ACC selections. Keep in mind, we based this exclusively on production thus far, not accounting for preseason expectations or predictions on where things will end. Some spots are obviously tougher to judge than others, and some teams look underrepresented largely because they had a lot of runners-up. In the end, this is what we came up with, so feel free to mock us at your leisure.

And if you’re interested, ESPN’s midseason All-America team is HERE and our all-Freshman team is HERE.

QB: Ryan Finley, NC State
RB: Travis Etienne, Clemson
RB: A.J. Dillon, Boston College
WR: Kelvin Harmon, NC State
WR: Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia
TE: Brevin Jordan, Miami
OT: Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
OG: Chris Glaser, Virginia
C: Justin Falcinelli, Clemson
OG: Parker Braun, Georgia Tech
OT: Tyler Jones, NC State

DE: Brian Burns, Florida State
DT: Christian Wilkins, Clemson
DT: Gerald Willis, Miami
DE: Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
LB: Shaq Quarterman, Miami
LB: Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
LB: Germaine Pratt, NC State
S: Juan Thornhill, Virginia
S: Jaquan Johnson, Miami
CB: Levonta Taylor, Florida State
CB: Bryce Hall, Virginia

K: Andre Szmyt, Syracuse
P: Sterling Hofrichter, Syracuse
AP: Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
We went with Dillon by a hair over Jordan Ellis as our No. 2 back, despite his absence for the better chunk of the past three games. His 652 rushing yards still rank second in the league, and he’s averaging more yards per carry than Ellis, Qadree Ollison, or Travis Homer.

Putting Dortch at all-purpose makes sense given his success in the return game, and it also gives us an out at receiver, where it would’ve otherwise been a tough call after Harmon. But Zaccheaus belongs in the conversation in his own right. His 36 catches rank second (behind Dortch) and his six TDs are tops. And while Dortch has been great, he’s also been targeted 19 more times. And Zaccheaus is averaging 8.6 yards after catch per reception, which is the second-most in the ACC for receivers with 20+ catches.

Glaser is arguably the surprise pick on our O-line, but he’s done a terrific job at opening up running lanes. Virginia is averaging 6.8 yards per carry when running between the tackles to the left side, which is tops in the ACC and fourth in the Power 5.

We knew going in that defensive end would be the toughest position to narrow down. The fact is, we get two spots, and there are about 10 guys worthy of discussion. In the end, we took Ferrell narrowly over Jonathan Garvin, Wyatt Ray, Alton Robinson, Kendall Coleman and Zach Allen due to the impact he’s made in some huge wins, and the fact that his overall sack totals are incredibly impressive given that he’s faced three option offenses so far.

Safety was a shockingly tough selection, too. Johnson had to make the list. He’s been exceptional, as usual, and Miami is allowing just 8.32 yards per drop back on passes of 15+ yards downfield and is fourth overall in yards-per-attempt. Thornhill is arguably the most under appreciated player in the ACC, and his two picks against Miami last week spurred one of the league’s big upsets of the season. We only wish there was space for Reggie Floyd, Dylan Singleton, Andre Cisco and Lukas Denis.

Team totals:
Clemson – 5
Virginia – 4
Miami – 4
NC State – 4
Syracuse – 2
Florida State – 2

Week 7 Tiered Rankings: The Myth of the Final Score

This sounds dumb, I know, but here’s an important part of analyzing teams: We overreact to wins and losses. Obviously, the ultimate arbiter of a game is the final score, and we don’t award titles to the teams with the best metrics. But the final score is often really deceiving. Perhaps a fluke play happens. Was Auburn really better than Alabama in 2013? Perhaps the small sample size of one game allows for anomalies. Perhaps a team falls behind early due to something unforeseen, and the game plan gets thrown out the window, so a close loss turns into a blowout. The point is, what happens during the game often tells us more about a team than the final score.

Here’s a quick example of how small and/or unlikely things (stuff controlled by luck or not often repeatable) impact the outcome of a game from three different teams:

Washington Huskies

Washington has lost two games by a total of eight points, including one in overtime. In those two games, they’ve had 10 drives enter the red zone. Only two of them have resulted in touchdowns. Just one more apiece in each game, and they’re undefeated. Additionally, they’ve allowed Auburn and Oregon to combine to convert 18-of-36 third downs and 4-of-4 on fourth (which, given that a forth negates the missed third, equates to a 61.1 percent conversion rate). Add in the missed chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation against Oregon, and the 5-2 record says one thing, while the actual game performance suggests another.

Georgia

A lot will be made of the LSU loss, but let’s consider that a.) LSU is an elite defense, b.) the game was in Baton Rouge, and c.) it’s the first time Georgia’s offense was held to less than 21 since 2016. Beyond that though, the real issue seemed to be play calling. In the first quarter, Georgia ran the ball 11 times for 69 yards and trailed 3-0. On its second drive of the third quarter, the Dawgs got the ball at their own 4 and threw three straight times, culminating with an INT. That interim stretch involved 22 plays, just seven of which were designed handoffs to the tailbacks. Meanwhile, the passing game in that stretch was 7-of-17 for 60 yards, an INT and two sacks, while the score went from 3-0 to 19-3. This game was bad, but I’m not sure it reflected who Georgia really is on offense. Or, maybe Georgia is still trying to figure out who it is on offense.

Michigan State

The loss to Arizona State came on the road, across the country, against a team with little film to work from. Michigan State also finished just 4-of-12 on third- and fourth-down tries. The loss to Northwestern was more baffling. They outgained the Wildcats 425-381 and held Northwestern to 8 yards on the ground, while also winning the turnover battle. In the last decade, Michigan State is one of just two teams to lose a game when winning the turnover margin, the yards margin and holding an opponent to less than 25 rushing yards. The other was Clemson’s baffling 2014 overtime loss to Florida State.

Clemson Tigers

They’re undefeated, but it feels sort of like they’ve underperformed, right? Well, the QB whirlwind was one problem, particularly against Syracuse. The trip to Texas A&M was a game where the Aggies clearly had an upper hand in prep — Jimbo knew Clemson, Clemson didn’t know what Jimbo had planned with his new personnel. And then there’s this: The Tigers rank 18th in offensive efficiency (skewed by the Chase Brice game), 1st in defensive efficiency, but 108th in special teams efficiency. Even an average special teams performance this year would’ve made for a far more dominant look.

Clearly we undervalued Michigan State heading into the Penn State game. In this week’s polls, Washington and Georgia tumbled. This is because we use wins and losses to determine how good a team is. Again, that’s fine. That’s the point of the whole endeavor, right? But when we’re looking ahead to predict future results, or when we’re trying to parse teams with similar records, it’s probably better to ignore the outcome and focus on the input — especially in a sport with such small sample sizes as college football.

Anyway, on to our Week 7 tiered rankings

Tier 1: Poised for the Playoff (5)

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Texas

Tier 2: Legit playoff threats (6)

Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, UCF, Oregon

Tier 3a: Can’t ignore due to record but limited evidence (5)

Iowa, Kentucky, USF, Cincinnati, NC State

Tier 3b: Good, but not real threats (7)

Florida, West Virginia, Washington, Penn State, Michigan State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin

Tier 4: Resume-builders (25)

App State, Fresno State, Utah, Duke, Mississippi State, Utah State, Syracuse, Washington State, Missouri, Iowa State, TCU, Colorado, Miami, Stanford, Purdue, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Houston, Texas Tech, Maryland, USC, Ole Miss, Baylor, San Diego State