2011 Season Preview: The Boston College Eagles And The Excitement Gap

Since their last losing season in 1998, Boston College has produced wins, draft picks, loyalty, human interest stories, more wins, more draft picks and a fantastic, frosted cereal. They've also fought failing attendance and some serious offensive doldrums. With a host of precocious sophomores, is 2011 the year the turn into something more than a steady, eight-game winner? Probably not.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

The Boston College Eagles have finished with a winning record for 12 straight years. They put players in the NFL. They were ranked as high as second in the country as recently as 2007. They knocked off a high-caliber Clemson team on the road to win their division in 2007, then they knocked off a high-caliber Florida State team on the road to do the same in 2008. They preach loyalty. They win games without cheating. They produce great human-interest stories, and evidently 6-foot-3 linebackers with range grow on trees outside of Alumni Stadium. They are responsible for one of college football's most indelible plays (and cereals). They're fiercely loyal. They are, in many ways, the very model of a modern, major football program. So ... who is excited for Eagles Football? Not many, evidently.

It's sad, really. Boston College does quite a bit right overall, but the deck appears stacked against them when it comes to actually generating interest. And really, the reasons are pretty obvious. Maybe not fair, but obvious.

1) They always win, but never win big. In their current streak of winning seasons, they've only won double-digit games twice and finished higher than 18th in the final polls once. They made the ACC title game twice but haven't played in a bowl of a higher profile than the Champs Sports Bowl. They have somehow managed to succeed without succeeding.

2) In recent years, they've seemingly gone through head coaches like I go through Starburst. And I love Starburst.

3) Honestly? They play a pretty boring brand of football. Sure, they win, but you don't feel good about yourself or the future of the sport watching them win. It's not fair, really, but aesthetics matter sometimes. When the country was exploding with crazy spread offenses in the 2006-08 period, B.C. just kept winning games with defense and occasional third-down conversions, even with Matt Ryan at quarterback. And in 2010, the Eagles took boring offense to a new level. In fairness, head coach Frank Spaziani brought in a new offensive coordinator this offseason, so maybe this improves a bit. Unfortunately, Reason No. 4 here won't.

4) Relatively speaking, they have no fanbase. They are a small (for BCS) school located in one of the most pro sports-obsessed cities in the country. Even to some B.C. alums, they are probably fifth in the list of priorities ... sixth if you include B.C. hockey. They are TCU without the recruiting base. They averaged just under 42,000 per game in home attendance in 2007, when they were surging to No. 2 and finishing with 11 wins; they averaged 37,000 in 2010. (Michigan State doesn't exactly play the most exciting brand of football either, and they averaged 73,000 last fall.) They don't travel well to bowls, which is a self-fulfilling concept -- don't travel to bowls, and you don't get picked by good bowls you may otherwise deserve to attend, which confirms that your disappointed fanbase won't travel well to the lesser bowl that selected you. The fans/loyalists/obsessives they do have are appropriately passionate; they just don't have enough of them.

At a time when support is waning, the Eagles enter a 2011 season that features few interesting home games and, thanks mostly to Florida State, a far less wide-open ACC Atlantic than they are used to seeing. Not exactly the recipe for generating excitement.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 7-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 48
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Weber State
38-20 W 23.5 - 26.2 L
11-Sep Kent State 26-13 W 26.9 - 18.8 W
25-Sep Virginia Tech 0-19 L 14.4 - 25.6 L
2-Oct Notre Dame 13-31 L 13.4 - 26.7 L
9-Oct at N.C. State 17-44 L 16.7 - 28.9 L
16-Oct at Florida State 19-24 L 12.7 - 23.1 L
23-Oct Maryland 21-24 L 24.4 - 14.9 W
30-Oct Clemson 16-10 W 28.1 - 23.3 W
6-Nov at Wake Forest 23-13 W 19.0 - 17.9 W
13-Nov at Duke 21-16 W 17.6 - 18.0 L
20-Nov Virginia 17-13 W 28.7 - 24.8 W
27-Nov at Syracuse 16-7 W 28.4 - 26.9 W
9-Jan vs Nevada 13-20 L 5.9 - (-3.1) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 18.5 109 19.5 19
Adj. Points Per Game 20.0 109 20.9 19

(This doesn't really qualify as a Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit™ or anything, but Boston College must have played the most perfectly average schedule ever last fall, as they managed to produce identical rankings in both PPG -- scored and allowed -- and Adj. PPG. That is about as unlikely as Paul Myerberg and I writing about the same team on the same day. Of course, that's happened twice now, so hey, anything is possible.)

Last August, as part of a Football Outsiders series for ESPN.com, my F.O. colleague Brian Fremeau wrote about Boston College's startling consistency. Our numbers love persistent success, and the Eagles entered last season with the 15th-best win percentage (in FBS games) of the last ten years. We projected them as a Top 20 team. Our reward for a somewhat offbeat pick? A 2-5 start and some of the worst offensive performances you'll see at the BCS level.

Neither of two sophomore quarterbacks -- Dave Shinskie or Mike Marscovetra -- got the job done early on. Shinskie went a combined 18-for-49 passing against Virginia Tech and N.C. State, while Marscovetra completed more passes (22-for-37) that went nowhere (5.2 per pass with two interceptions). So Spaziani and offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill went young; they handed the reins to star(ish) freshman Chase Rettig and let him take some lumps (he went 9-for-24 for 95 yards against Florida State). Later in the season, this eventually began to pay off.

B.C. Offense, First Six Games: 17.9 Adj. PPG
B.C. Offense, Next Seven Games: 21.7 Adj. PPG (24.4 without the abominable bowl performance)

Before the bowl game, the Eagles had improved by about a touchdown over the last half of the season. Granted, even 24.4 Adj. PPG is quite a bit below average, but improvement is improvement. The defense went through something similar, and it probably wasn't entirely unrelated to the offensive struggles.

B.C. Defense, First Six Games: 24.8 Adj. PPG Allowed
B.C. Defense, Next Seven Games: 17.5 Adj. PPG Allowed

Boston College won five consecutive games to clinch yet another winning season, then lost a tough bowl to Nevada out west. They made just enough progress for 2010 to qualify as much as stagnation as regression.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 100 106 97
RUSHING 95 86 102 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 97 113 86 74
Standard Downs 94 102 86 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 108 107 111 87
Redzone 118 113 118
Q1 Rk 89 1st Down Rk 77
Q2 Rk 77 2nd Down Rk 110
Q3 Rk 107 3rd Down Rk 109
Q4 Rk 107

It is difficult to imagine a less quarterback-friendly offense than the one Boston College implemented in 2010. They managed to be both terribly predictable and highly variable. If it was a standard down, they were running. If it was a passing down, they were passing. If they were winning, they were running. If they were losing, they were passing. And in the end, Boston College quarterbacks were only passing when opponents knew they would be passing. The result: some horrid passing lines:

Chase Rettig: 1,238 yards (6.3 per pass, 51% completion), 6 TD, 9 INT (4.6% INT rate)
Dave Shinskie: 618 yards (6.4 per pass, 48% completion), 5 TD, 6 INT (6.3% INT rate)
Mike Marscovetra: 369 yards (6.4 per pass, 59% completion), 2 TD, 4 INT (6.9% INT rate)

Other than the fact that Rettig was more likely to throw the ball away than throw a pick, and Marscovetra was more likely to throw a one-yard completion, the three quarterbacks' performances were both similar and discouraging.

The good news: all three were underclassmen. The better news: they've now got a much more quarterback-friendly offensive coordinator in charge. Kevin Rogers served as quarterbacks coach for Syracuse, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and, most recently, the Minnesota Vikings; that he has coached both Marcus Vick and Brett Favre and still wants to be a football coach shows both dedication to his craft and a frightening masochistic streak. He takes his talents to Chestnut Hill, and the goal is simple: shake things up a bit. Run on 2nd-and-9. Pass on 2nd-and-1. Do something opponents don't see coming a mile away. Keep opponents from feasting on your signal caller. There is certainly quite a bit to like about Rettig, who seems to have quite a bit of size and skill. Now cultivate it.

Another goal for Rogers: get Montel Harris rolling again. The senior got his yards last year (1,243 of them with eight touchdowns, raising his career total to an even 3,600 yards with 27 scores), but at an incredibly ineffective rate. His Adj. POE of minus-13.8 was absolutely brutal, especially in comparison to his plus-6.7 production of 2009. The Adj. POE measure is intended to account for line play and most specifically measure the running back's own skill and ability, but it is easy to figure that a decent portion of his 2010 regression might have been due to defenses stacking the box, knowing he was going to be getting the ball. Harris missed the last two games to injury, and true freshman Andre Williams (461 yards, 4.9 per carry, -2.8 Adj. POE, 2 TD) was decent in his absence, carrying 42 times for 185 yards in a win over Syracuse.

Other tidbits:

  • Quarterback wasn't the only position that saw a youth movement in 2010. As Rettig was getting his bearings, so was true freshman Bobby Swigert (504 yards, 12.9 per catch, 63% catch rate). His season numbers were solid, though they came in up-and-down fashion (seven for 137 against Notre Dame, seven for 37 combined against Virginia, Syracuse and Nevada). He and every other target return, including tight end Chris Pantale (338 yards, 10.9 per catch, 66% catch rate) and all-or-nothing threat Ifeanyi Momah (296 yards, 15.6 per catch, 44% catch rate). Perhaps the most intriguing returning receiver, however, is sophomore Alex Amidon. While also fighting ups and downs (he caught more than one pass in just five games), five of his 16 receptions went for 35 yards or more, and his explosiveness-and-efficiency combination (21.1 yards per catch + 55% catch rate = a robust 11.7 yards per target) was, in a word rarely used with B.C.'s offense, exciting. If you are a B.C. fan looking for optimism, thinking about three more years of Rettig throwing to Swigert and Amidon is a good place to start.
  • Like the rest of the offense, the line was not done any favors by the predictability of the play-calling, and despite first-round draft pick Anthony Castonzo, they produced very mediocre overall numbers. Castonzo is obviously gone, but B.C. does return five players with starting experience, three of whom (guard Nathan Richmond, tackle Emmett Cleary and center Mark Spinney) have started at least 11 games. The line might not be an incredible strength in 2011, but it at least won't be a weakness.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 12 35 4
RUSHING 2 6 1 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 36 75 18 2
Standard Downs 11 37 2 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 21 25 19 111
Redzone 11 14 8
Q1 Rk 46 1st Down Rk 10
Q2 Rk 19 2nd Down Rk 26
Q3 Rk 9 3rd Down Rk 24
Q4 Rk 8

They may have had some damning weaknesses (one in particular), but Boston College's defense was still damn stout in 2010. They ruthlessly took away one full aspect of opponents' offenses (the run game), allowing fewer big plays on the ground than anybody in the country (hence their defensive success against Nevada). Opponents were forced to pass on the Eagles, and unfortunately for B.C. it worked more often than it had in previous years.

As good as the defensive line may have been at standing up to the run, they were terribly ineffective at getting to the quarterback. Their sacks leader (end Max Holloway) had all of four, and only seven players registered even one. This was a conservative unit, and while that often worked for them, the complete and total lack of a pass rush allowed opponents to move the ball with short passes.

It is unclear how this specific weakness will improve, as three of B.C.'s top five linemen are gone. Tackle Damik Scafe (25.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) was great, and ends Alex Albright (24.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks in eight games) and Brad Newman (21.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) were solid if one-dimensional. That leaves Holloway (30.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF), tackle Kaleb Ramsey (31.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks) and some newbies. There is hope that sophomore Kasim Edebali (10.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) might be ready for a star turn; if he or perhaps incoming four-star freshman end Connor Wujciak were to develop at an accelerated rate, that would help out a ton.

Other tidbits:

  • The weakness might still be a weakness in 2011, but the strength should also still be a strength. That strength's name: Luke Kuechly. His stat line -- 146.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 3 FR, 3 PBU -- is just absurd. Boston College relies on leverage, filtering plays back toward the middle of the field where the linebacker can make the tackle; we'll just say that Kuechly played his role rather well. No matter who ends up replacing Mark Herzlich (57.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 2 FF, 2 PBU) on the strongside, Kuechly and weakside 'backer Kevin Pierre-Louis (76.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU as a true freshman) alone make B.C.'s one of the best linebacking units in the country.
  • The secondary was put in a tough place by the lack of a pass rush; four of the top six defensive backs return, and the unit as a whole should be more capable of playing aggressively and effectively even if the pass rush doesn't improve. Opponents' complete inability to make big plays speaks well of not just Kuechly, but also (in theory) the safeties, and two of the top three safeties return: Okechukwu Okoroha (22.0 tackles) and Dominick LeGrande (21.0 tackles, 3 FR). But the real optimism for this unit lies at cornerback, where blue-chip freshman Albert Louis-Jean could make for a fearsome threesome with Donnie Fletcher (49.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 PBU) and lanky Jim Noel (6-foot-4, 186 pounds; 31.5 tackles, 4 INT).

Boston College's 2010 Season Set to Music

We'll go with three Marah songs. A solid northeastern band seems to fit for a solid northeastern program.

1. "Coughing Up Blood" (the story of the B.C. offense)
2. "The Hustle" (the story of the B.C. defense)
3. "Angels On A Passing Train" (because it's a great song)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here. B.C.'s tumble in recent years has knocked them out of the non-ruling class's ruling class.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 33
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 47
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +8 / +3.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.4

B.C. needed quite a bit of fumbles luck to produce a good turnover margin, and ... really, this just wasn't a very good team last year. In terms of Def. F/+, the Boston College defense has improved, at least slightly, in each of the last three years. Unfortunately, the offense has regressed at a steeper rate than the defense has progressed. It is easy to see the steady fall as a sign that Frank Spaziani fits into the "A great assistant coach who, when promoted to head coach, proved himself to be a great assistant coach" model, and who knows, you might not be wrong. We'll begin to find out this year, with a new hand leading the offense. If Kevin Rogers can breathe some life into a dying offense, then things could rather quickly turn around. The offense doesn't have to be good; it just has to be average for B.C. to succeed.

If B.C. is to come up with yet another winning season and/or threaten for a surprise division crown, a fast start is mandatory. They face a tricky trip to Central Florida in the second week of the season, but four extremely winnable home games (Northwestern, Duke, UMass, Wake Forest) should supplement, at worst, a 4-1 start. Anything less, and six wins becomes an awfully difficult task. The Eagles have a three-game road trip to Clemson, Virginia Tech and Maryland (ouch) in October, host Florida State and N.C. State, then finish at Notre Dame and at Miami. That's brutal.

One way or another, this is going to be a telling season in Chestnut Hill. The offense should be better, the defense should be good, and the schedule gives Chase Rettig, Bobby Swigert, Alex Amidon, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Kasim Edebali and the other precocious sophomores a chance to get their bearings early on. The future may be bright (or, as bright as Boston College's future can be), but Spaziani needs to have a good season to keep the vultures from swirling.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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