Week 5 picks with Julian Whigham

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This week’s guest picker is the always insightful Julian Whigham, a former Syracuse defensive back who now provides analysis for the Syracuse IMG network and ESPN Syracuse radio. If you’re not already following Julian on Twitter, we highly recommend. He’s genuinely one of the best Xs and Os follows out there.

Q. What do you make of the Syracuse defense? The end of last year was a train wreck, but they’ve certainly played better so far in 2018.

A. The reason we saw the breakdown last season, I felt like, was the unit faced better quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson, John Wolford – who picked out the zone gaps inside the coverages and were able to exploit that. I don’t think teams earlier in the season did that. Against Clemson, they managed to knock out Kelly Bryant, and they faced a backup who couldn’t make plays. After that, they faced good quarterbacks and things fell apart. This season, there’s an emphasis in the secondary on tighter coverages. That’s not necessarily man coverage, but maybe a man emphasis type of coverage, if they get past a certain depth, you start to buy your guy and not play off so far. I think that’s played better for this defense, especially with improved defensive line play. They’ve done a great job of pressure from the front and tighter coverages.

Q. Dino talks all the time about tempo, and it feels like this year, the offense has full command of how to use it. Is that what you’ve seen?

A. You could see in the last game with Eric Dungey telling Coach, ‘Let’s ramp it up, let’s go, let’s go.’ You can see the guys, Coach Babers talked about there would be a year or two to click and everyone would just get it. Last season, the injuries midyear pushed back that process. Now we’re seeing it, Game 3, 4 and going into Clemson, that click that Coach Babers talked about, where guys just get it. There’s definitely a progression.

Q. A Syracuse optimist might say that the win last year shows the Orange can win this game. The pessimist probably says that it ensures Syracuse has Clemson’s full attention now. How do you think last year’s game impacts Saturday’s performance?

A. That defense Clemson has, that front four, I don’t know how this offensive line for Syracuse will handle them. They’ve improved, certainly, from last year to this year. They seem to understand their responsibilities that much more. But I don’t know how they’ll respond to that defense. Last year, Coach Babers had a very good game plan for Clemson’s secondary. They play a lot of man and will let their corners and free safety roam with a guy over the top, and they were using a lot of motions and bunch formations to really open up their guys. You saw the long pass plays to Erv Phillips and such. I don’t know if that’ll be there this year. I think Clemson will be much more sound defensively against what Syracuse wants to do.

And then with Trevor Lawrence, I’m not sure what he can do. He hasn’t been hit yet. He’s been sacked once. And this defense is playing really well right now for Syracuse. The front four has been playing really well the past few weeks. So you never know what happens once Trevor Lawrence starts getting hit. At first I thought Clemson was the clear-cut favorite, but I think Syracuse has a chance to really make this a close one in the same manner that Texas A&M did.

Q. What do you think a win Saturday does for Syracuse’s program in the bigger picture?

A. For me, and I think for this program, it would complete the 180 degree cultural change they’ve tried to put in place here. It’d signify a complete overhaul of what they want this place to be. Eric Dungey talks about not wanting to be considered a basketball school anymore. If they were to win this Saturday, I think Syracuse puts themselves on the map. Beating Florida State, it was a brand name program, but to beat Clemson two years in a row, to have a 5-0 start, to be back into the top 25 — it would make this a team with credibility that’s a real player in the ACC. It’s an opportunity for a program changing win. This could change the tide of Syracuse football for a very long time.

Q. OK, your pick for the game?

A. I can’t be the homer this year. I have to go with Clemson at home. They have too many weapons. But even if they’re 4-1 after this game and keep it as close as Texas A&M did, I think they have a shot at 10 wins. They don’t need this one, but a nice showing would do them a lot of good.

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Week 4 tiered rankings: With stats!

For the sake of adding some data to these tiers, I went through a small exercise for every FBS teams, ranking them 1-130 in each of eight key categories: Explosiveness, efficiency, finishing drives and converting third and fourth downs, both on offense and defense. To do this, I used the following stats:

Explosiveness = explosive plays/total plays, with explosive play defined as a run of 12 yards or a pass of 16.
Efficiency = plays per point
Finishing drives = % of drives inside opponents’ 40 that resulted in TDs
Conversions = 3rd coversions + 4th down conversions/total chances

Again, we did this for each team on both sides of the ball and added up their rankings for a total score. So, the best you could get is an 8 (1st in all eight categories) and the worst is 1,040 (130th in all eight categories). For what it’s worth, the actual best score belonged to Alabama (82) and the worst to MTSU (907). We didn’t include FCS games, so this skews things a bit for a team like MTSU which has just two FBS games so far.

Anyway, what did we come up with?

Here’s how the tiers shape up using a rough breakdown of those points, looking for large gaps from one spot to the next.

Tier 1

Alabama (82) — They’re the only team with a score under 100, and the difference between Bama and No. 2 is 49 points. So yeah, they good.

Tier 2

Ohio State (131), Penn State (160), West Virginia (175), Clemson (203) — I fudged this a bit to include Clemson, which is closer to the next group than it is to West Virginia, but it’s my stat, so I can do what I want.

Tier 3

Mississippi State (214), NC State (220), Michigan (234), Kentucky (241), North Texas (247), Oklahoma (251), Colorado (264), Wisconsin (279), Georgia (280), Buffalo (281), Washington (289), Notre Dame (301) — Here’s where we see issues of sample size. One blowout or one close game can skew things quite a bit. So you see Mississippi State and Michigan ahead of teams they lost to head to head. That’s fine. It’s to be expected this early in the year.

Tier 4

Cincinnati (306), Michigan State (307), Oregon (311), South Carolina (316), Baylor (317), Stanford (324), UCF (334), Florida (335), Boise State (345), Memphis (347), Houston (348), Miami (357), Maryland (360), Vandy (364), Fresno State (368) — Again some very meh teams here mixed with a few we have ranked much higher by the eye test.

Tier 5

Virginia (390), Oklahoma State (392), Arizona State (396), BC (403), USF (406), Purdue (412), ECU (413), Minnesota (414), FIU (415), Temple (415), Auburn (417), Duke (420), Syracuse (434), TCU (435), Hawaii (444), Missouri (446), Iowa (446), Southern Miss (446). – A real mixed bag here, but what should be noteworthy here is that teams we think of as pretty darned good like Auburn and TCU are all the way down here in Tier 5, and some others like Washington, Texas, Texas Tech, Utah and BYU aren’t on any of these lists at all.

Again, sample size means a ton here, so there’s no need to take any of it too seriously at this point. But what we can say is that, through four weeks of games, it’s clear who the most dominant teams are (and the numbers really do match the eye test here), while some of the teams we think are playing really well based on the end results may have a few more question marks than what’s shown up in the standings.

For what it’s worth, if you’re interested in separating out offense and defense, here’s how we ranked them:

Top offenses

1. UCF
2. Alabama
3. Penn State
4. Oklahoma
5. Ohio State
6. Hawaii
7. Houston
8. Mississippi State
9. Memphis
10. Boise State

And on defense…

1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. North Texas
4. Utah
5. Cincinnati
6. Cal
7. West Virginia
8. Ohio State
9. Iowa
10. Minnesota

Of note, Clemson was 11th on offense and Florida State was 11th on defense.

The purpose of professionalism

Not to rehash the issue, but I got into a bit of a debate Thursday night on Twitter regarding professionalism among journalists. The debate revolved around a young intern who, I think, made an honest mistake in handling a situation, and I genuinely hate the idea that anyone felt the need to berate her. She’s learning, and everyone deserves the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. But my frustration came not from the mistake, but from those trying to defend it rather than learn from it.

Perception in this business is everything, because beyond any skill at writing or reporting or talking on camera, the most important asset journalists have is their reputation, and it needs to be protected above all else.

In discussing all of this, a Twitter follower offered a query to me and a few others:

This is posed as an either/or question, but I wanted to expand on why it’s really not.

We live in a very different media landscape than the one I grew up in, and in some ways it’s better. There are more voices, more outlets, more information being shared, more of a feedback mechanism for readers and fans. All of that is great.

There’s a downside, too, though. With the proliferation of fan-run blogs and Web sites, there is a diminished level of professionalism on many beats. I do not say this as a critique of anyone individually or of fan-run sites in general, many of which are excellent, professional and assets to the larger conversation surrounding a team or sport.

It’s just that, for those of us who went to journalism school, had mentors in the business, interned at big newspapers or TV stations, worked our way through the ranks — we learned something about how the job is done along the way. We learned how to deal with the incredibly difficult balancing act of building relationships and addressing reader demands while not sacrificing our objectivity, integrity or ability to be an adversarial voice when needed. This, I assure you, is not easy, and even the best of us still struggle with it routinely.

But if the barrier to entry into the marketplace of sports reporting is simply a keyboard and a Web site, there will be (and are) many folks on any given beat who don’t understand — or frankly, don’t care — about that balance. They are fans. And that’s fine. I love sports fans. I’m a sports fan. Sports fans are why I have a job. But when those fans enter a press conference or locker room or press box, they skew the perception of what our job is really about.

I know this sounds like a grumpy old man, “get off my lawn” type of oratory, and just another MSM complaining about independent voices and the loss of our gatekeeping power. I assure you, that’s not the case. I’m all for more people covering teams. I just want them to do the job the right way.

Imagine now that you’re a 19-year-old college football player. You’ve probably already been warned repeatedly about the dangers of interacting with the media. You work incredibly hard behind the scenes, and that work doesn’t always translate onto the field, and it certainly isn’t understood by reporters on the outside. You have a bad game. You do something silly off the field. You get hurt. Whatever it is, it invites some uncomfortable questions, and it’s our job to ask them.

But if there are fans on the beat, too, and they’re not asking tough questions, not writing unflattering things, creating excuses and suggesting bias from professional journalists — what’s that 19-year-old think? Which media members do you think he likes more — the guy who asks tough questions or the one who writes every loss into a win?

Imagine a  player — let’s call him, C. Newton. No, that’s too obvious. Cam N. Anyway, he spends a full season being lobbed softballs and sheltered from tough questions by the team’s handlers, then loses the Super Bowl. Two tough questions into the press conference, he walks off stage because he’s not used to being grilled. How does that help his reputation? How is it good for the reporters doing their jobs? How does it benefit the fans of that team? But it’s inevitable.

A coach has stories written about him by fawning media again and again, proclaiming him a hero, a builder of men, a truly virtuous member of society. Then a scandal breaks and suddenly every text message on his phone is deleted and an entire fan base wonders why that’s a big deal.

Again, it’s fine to be a fan. Fandom is why all of us started doing this in the first place. But you have to be able to check that emotion at the gates to the stadium and act as a professional, because when you don’t, it lowers the bar for everyone else there who is trying to do the job the right way.

Which gets us back to access.

There are certainly places that aren’t going to provide real access regardless of the professionalism of the beat corps. Kentucky basketball and Alabama football are just different animals, with coaches who have a very insular view of how their programs should be covered. I disagree with that view, and I think in the longterm it can be harmful to the organization and dangerous to the general public (see Ohio State, for example) but it’s simply a reality, and that’s fine.

But there’s also a reason many other schools are restrictive, and it’s because of the professionalism (or lack thereof) of the people wanting access.

A freshman says something dumb, as is apt to happen. Does the media follow up, ask if that’s how they intended to say it, offer them a chance to clarify? Or do they rush to tweet out the best sound bite possible? If even one “reporter” does the latter, there’s good reason for coaches to think freshmen shouldn’t be talking to the media.

A coach allows media to view practice. During 11-on-11 drills, they run a trick play. If even one “reporter” tweets that info out, why would that coach ever allow media at practice again?

A female “reporter” flirts with a player. It’s all harmless until that player thinks it’s OK to flirt with every female reporter.

A fan site offers to send all their questions for a one-on-one interview to the sports information staff to review in advance. That’s fine until that becomes the expectation for every outlet wanting a one-on-one.

After practice, players are made available for interviews. They’re surrounded by a scrum of reporters. A half-dozen of those reporters have their iphones or GoPro cameras out, recording every word of it, which will then be published, largely unedited, to their Web site. What’s my incentive to ask a good question that gets a good quote if it’s already being disseminated elsewhere? Suddenly there’s no good questions being asked.

The point is, professionalism should be the foundation, the benchmark by which we’re all judged. But when that bar gets lowered again and again, the perspective shifts significantly, and suddenly access is denied, glorification is required, and tough questions go unasked or unanswered.

My pal Chip Towers wrote about the draconian response Kirby Smart had to a story about an injured player and a completely fair question about how that injury occurred. In the piece, Chip pointed out the guidelines suggested by the Football Writers Association of America for access. You’ll not be surprised to learn most are not followed at UGA, and UGA is not unique. But it’s also true that, for us to expect professional treatment, we need to all act professionally. Indeed, the entire uproar at Georgia occurred because Smart blamed professional media for disseminating information that was actually being spread via fan message boards. Problem is, Kirby — and my guess is, lots of others — don’t know the difference.

So no, in the micro sense, it isn’t the end of the world if someone wears an actual cheerleader outfit into a press conference or if any fan with a GoPro can get a credential to practice. But in the macro sense, that stuff adds up over time, and it makes it harder for professionals to do their job, harder for players and coaches to separate the good reporters from the bad, and harder for fans to know who they can really trust.

And again, none of this is a call for credentials to be revoked or Web sites to be shut down. It’s just a request for all of us to do better.

How bad was it when Taggart arrived?

Sent out a number of tweets today trying to add some perspective to what exactly Willie Taggart inherited at FSU upon arrival. This was not meant to absolve Taggart of any blame for the Seminoles’ early struggles, but to add some perspective. We should’ve seen more of this coming. Is he struggling to find answers fast enough? Perhaps. But there were major problems before he arrived.

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Week 4 ACC picks with Wes Durham

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Our Week 4 guest picker is the great Wes Durham, who is one of the great ACC play-by-play voices of all time and was a member of the Georgia Tech broadcast team for nearly 20 years from 1995 through 2013. We talked with Wes about the current state of Yellow Jackets football and their chances of pulling the upset against Clemson this week.

Q. Georgia Tech has lost its first two FBS games of the year. Is it panic time or have you seen enough to be encouraged they can right the ship?

A. They have experienced players in areas where they can change the current slide. In some ways, they were their own worst enemy last Saturday at Pitt. I think better execution is the first step to being a better team. In my mind for Georgia Tech, it’s details more than a major issue in bouncing back.

Q. Obviously Clemson is really good. Do you see any matchups here though that GT could potentially take advantage of?

A. The challenge on Saturday is that in the last two years, Clemson has stymied what the Jackets do on offense. The advantage might not lie in the 1-on-1 matchup, as much as it might if Tech executes cleanly on Saturday. A step in that direction on offense would certainly help them.

Q. Expectations there are a little different than Florida State, of course, but if Georgia Tech were to miss a bowl game for the third time in four years, how big of a deal is that?

A. Georgia Tech is playing the 2nd most difficult schedule in the ACC this season (behind FSU in pre-season analytics). A second straight bowl miss would be frustrating to everyone involved on all levels. But not bad enough to scrap the process.

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Numbers vs luck in college football

I wrote a story over the summer on the never-ending debate between coaches, who think they can teach turnovers, and numbers folks, who believe turnovers are largely a matter of luck. You can read that HERE.

For the story, I chatted with Ed Feng, a brilliant numbers guy who runs a football betting site and produces the terrific Football Analytics podcast. He was kind enough to invite me on this week to talk more about the interplay of data and college football. Check it out HERE.

Week 3 Tiered Rankings

Tiered rankings after Week 3 don’t technically reflect my personal opinion. Pretty much all of Tier 2, for me, are teams that may not be as legit as their early records show. LSU’s offense is still a mess. Notre Dame has been extremely hit or miss. Penn State has had some huge second halves that disguise some uneven performances. But all have a ton of upside, too.

Tier 1: Legit: These guys are playoff contenders until they give us reason to believe otherwise.
(5) Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma

Tier 2: Trending Up: These guys are making their move, but still have more to prove.
(6) LSU, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Penn State, UCF

Tier 3: Hanging On: These guys are in the mix, but on the periphery.
(13) Auburn, BC, Iowa, Miami, Michigan, Oregon, Stanford, TCU, USF, Virginia Tech, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Tier 4: Resume Builders: These guys represent nice wins for the opposition, but have no real shot.
(19) Arizona State, Boise State, BYU, Colorado, Duke, Fresno State, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, Memphis, NC State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Utah, Vandy