Generally speaking, numbers are rather conservative creatures. And when you use them to project college football performance, they are even more so. The numbers used for the projections in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 are based on precedent. They take a five-year view of a program (because that tends to be more predictive than simply looking at last year), and if a team happens to see the bottom fall out in a given year after a decent run of success, the numbers will assume that at least a marginal recovery is forthcoming.
This actually works quite well in the other direction. If a given team improves too much, too quickly, then regression to the mean is likely. But when things fall apart, progression to the mean is a bit more difficult. (This makes sense: it is much, much easier to get worse than to get better, at least if you believe every football coach, ever.)
This is a long way of saying that I knew the FOA 2012 would end up projecting Boston College a lot higher than my own eyes and brain would. The Eagles were so consistent, for so long, that it wouldn't make sense for last year's collapse to 4-8 and 69th in the F/+ rankings would be the new reality. But if you watched Boston College play last year, you might struggle with that. This was not a good football team. In fact, it's hard to disagree with much of Paul Myerberg's assessment at Pre-Snap Read:
Just a bad, bad team. [Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani's] ties to [athletic director Gene] DeFillipo have cemented Spaziani’s job security, but he has done nothing to deserve the amount of confidence the university has in his ability to turn this thing around.
In 2011, the B.C. offense improved for the first time in years (from a horrendous 114th in Off. F/+ to a simply bad 88th), but it did not offset a collapse by the defense (from eighth in Def. F/+ to 48th). Overall, the Eagles regressed for the sixth consecutive year -- they were 14th in F/+ in 2005, 15th in 2006, 18th in 2007, 22nd in 2008, 41st in 2009, 49th in 2010 and 69th in 2011. And considering Spaziani has been in charge for the significant drops of the last three years, it is difficult to assume things will get better. Great defensive coordinators often turn out to be poor head coaches; through three years, Spaziani has pretty clearly failed to prove himself in the top spot.
That said, there are more reasons for optimism at Alumni Stadium than you might think.
1. Boston College's collapse coincided with some awful injuries luck. They lost the second-most starts in the country to injury last year -- 24 on offense, 31 on defense.
2. Last year's injuries are this year's depth. B.C. returns two quarterbacks with extensive starting experience, two running backs who carried at least 124 times last year, their top six overall receiving targets, six offensive linemen with starting experience, six of last year's top nine defensive linemen (including a seventh, who started before getting hurt early on), four of last year's top five linebackers, and nine of last year's top 11 defensive backs. Obviously some of these players have to improve for this to matter, but you'd rather have this level of experience than not have it, right?
3. The Eagles suffered some poor turnovers luck as well. They only recovered 28 percent of all fumbles (they were the anti-Michigan), and they were hurt by about 1.7 points of injury luck per game. Considering they lost one game by a single point (Duke 20, B.C. 19) and another by two (Notre Dame 16, B.C. 14, albeit with a last-second, mostly useless B.C. touchdown), a little luck in this category could have gone a long way.
4. B.C. improved late. We might overestimate bowl performance when it comes to predicting success the next year, but November performance does mean something (especially when combined with a significant number of returnees), and B.C. was a much, much better team in November than it was in September and October.
5. Recruiting is picking up, if slightly. Spaziani's first recruiting class was a bit of a waste -- Rivals ranked it 70th, and the Eagles averaged just a 2.47 star rating per player -- but the last three classes have averaged 2.86, 2.74 and 2.75 stars, respectively. So far, 2013's class averages 2.90. This is far from spectacular, of course, but if B.C. is becoming more experienced and more talented at the same time, that can't be a bad thing.
6. Frank Spaziani has an odd amount of job security. This is equally a reason for optimism and pessimism considering how poorly Spaziani has done so far, but coaches on the hot seat, making desperation moves, don't usually save their jobs. If Spaziani is capable of turning things around for B.C., he will get the time to pull it off, though it could still be telling that he almost completely overhauled his offensive staff in the offseason. That's typically Chapter One of the Desperation Handbook.
(By the way, it is an odd time to be writing a B.C. preview at all considering Spaziani may be positioned to pull in some Penn State transfers in the coming days or weeks. Their statistical profile will be updated accordingly, of course, as news comes in.)
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.
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.[…]
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. [...]
The first two months of B.C.'s 2011 season were an absolute trainwreck. The Eagles started 1-6, with home losses to Northwestern and Duke, blowout road losses to Central Florida and Clemson, and only a win versus still-FCS UMass blotting out a winless campaign. To their credit, however, they rebounded late.
First Seven Games: Opponents 29.7 Adj. Points per game, Boston College 23.6 (minus-6.1)
Last Five Games: Boston College 26.0 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.8 (plus-0.2)
Late in the season, the Eagles' offense grew at least somewhat competent, and the defense started to play at an above-average level. And they maintained that level for long enough that, combined with a strong number of returnees, they might actually be able to maintain that level in 2012. Still, the Eagles were only average (or slightly above) late, so we're not exactly talking about an incredible ceiling.
I've long believed that coaches would probably be best served by catering to the local talent as much as possible when it comes to building an offense. If you are based in a talent-rich state like Florida, Texas or California, then, you can do whatever you want. But if you are in a more football-remote area of the country -- like, say, New England -- your options may be less plentiful. Since 2002, the Rivals.com "Atlantic East" region of the country (which appears to span from New England down to about North Carolina) has produced almost as many four-star prep running backs (72) as receivers (81); if you dial in to just Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, you get one four-star quarterback, two running backs, one receiver, and five tight ends.
If you are Boston College, then, you might want to keep that in mind. And B.C. typically does. The Eagles have not exactly been known for a spread-'n-shred style in the past, and even with Matt Ryan at quarterback passing as frequently as almost anybody in the country, he wasn't exactly doing so out of five-wide sets.
It will be interesting, then, to see what new offensive coordinator Doug Martin will attempt when he moves the Eagles to, if not a true spread, at least more of a spread look than B.C. is used to seeing.
"It's more spread than it's been," [tackle Emmett] Cleary said. "Last year you saw a lot of double tight ends. This year it will be a little more open. That said, we still run a lot of the same things. We just run them from different formations. The greatest difference will be that we're going to push. We're going to force you to defend everything. We have guys at every spot who can make plays. If you're sitting in the box, we're going over the top. If you're too wide we'll go up the gut. If will look a little different, but the main difference will be that we have the personnel to make it work a lot better."
Boston College's offense in 2011 was one of continuous contradiction. The Eagles were run-heavy on standard downs but couldn't actually run the ball. They lined up two tight ends but rarely threw to either. They attempted to spread the field a bit more but had no big-play ability to stretch it. Of course, this might explain why they're on their fourth offensive coordinator in two years. The bar is set low for Martin. We'll see what he comes up with in 2012. (And perhaps as importantly, we'll see what the conservative Spaziani lets him try.)
Martin certainly has some experienced pieces on the depth chart, which is something. Junior quarterback Chase Rettig returns after a sour 2011 season; he had the completion rate (54 percent) and sack rate (seven percent) of a deep ball thrower, but he only averaged 11.5 yards per completion because he didn't actually have any deep threats. Running backs Rolandan Finch (junior), Andre Williams (junior) and Tahj Kimble (sophomore) return after combining for 1,378 yards last year (albeit at just 4.3 yards per carry with a combined minus-19.2 Adj. POE). Last year's top four wideouts all return; led by Bobby Swigert and Colin Larmond Jr., they combined for 103 catches for 1,305 yards (6.9 per catch, 54 percent catch rate). Tight end Chris Pantale (236 yards, 7.9 per catch, 70 percent catch rate) could see more exposure this year as well, and that might not be a bad thing. And Cleary, a two-year starting tackle, leads an experienced line that has 64 career starts.
Now … is there actually any talent or explosiveness there? We'll see. Finch had a great spring game (27 carries, 196 yards), but it is hard to simply develop big-play ability in an offseason; you typically either have it or you don't, and nobody had it last year. If you're looking for new blood to make a difference, you might want to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Brian Miller, a four-star tight end recruit and big, lanky target (6'4, 232 pounds), and awesomely-named sophomore Spiffy Evans, B.C.'s kick returns man last year.
"Vintage B.C. defenses – those that occurred under Spaziani’s watch, by and large – resembled brick walls: not overly flexible, not overly dynamic, but steadfast and true. This defense is a plastic bag: it may stop something, but usually by accident."
That once again comes from the venerable Paul Myerberg, and while it made me chuckle, I feel the need to make a couple of clarifications. First, B.C. wasn't bad at everything. Against significant odds, the Eagles still fielded a solid pass defense, ranking 28th in Passing S&P+ and 30th in Passing Downs S&P+. Obviously pass defense is half of the game, so that alone suggests that the Eagles' defense could have been much, much worse.
That said … this was the worst B.C. defensive line in a very long time. The trademarked Boston College defense was devastating in its front seven, using a stout line to leverage ball-carriers to certain areas of the field (if they even got out of the backfield) and waiting for tackling-machine linebackers like Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly to sweep things up. Kuechly still made an absurd number of tackles in 2011 -- he made 22.2 percent of the Eagles' tackles, and I'm pretty sure that is by far the most I have seen since I began to pull 2011 data together -- but they came further downfield than normal. Boston College's line ranked 80th in Adj. Line Yards and 119th in Adj. Sack Rate, which is just appalling. That B.C. ranked a mediocre (and not atrocious) 65th in Rushing S&P+ despite the line tells you quite a bit about just how good Kuechly and, to a somewhat lesser extent, linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis (55.5 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss) were in 2011.
Well, Kuechly's gone in 2012. Yikes. Sophomore Sean Duggan takes over as resident tackling machine, and while he will almost inevitably rack up the tackles, he will be hard-pressed to match Kuechly's playmaking and pass coverage abilities. Still, Duggan, Pierre-Louis and junior Steele Divitto should make for another solid linebacking corps. And with the return of tackle Kaleb Ramsey, who missed 2011 with injury (and was incredibly missed), it is safe to say that there at least won't be a major dropoff in the front seven.
But will there be improvement? The front seven combined for a devastatingly low nine sacks last season; even if you are in read-and-react mode and aren't sending seven pass rushers on every passing down, you should still stumble into more sacks than that. Can some combination of tackles Ramsey (2.5 sacks in 2010) and Dominic Appiah (2.0 in 2011), ends Kasim Edebali and Brian Mihalik (combined: 1.0 sacks) and redshirt freshmen Connor Wujciak (four-star tackle) and Kieran Borcich (three-star end) make the requisite improvement up front?
Any help the secondary can get would be much appreciated. With help from Kuechly and linebackers that clearly rarely blitzed (in part, perhaps, because of the youth in the secondary), Boston College's defensive backs did about as much as could be asked of them in 2011. Two starters are gone, including disruptive corner Donnie Fletcher (two interceptions, five passes broken up), but in sophomores Manny Asprilla and Al Louis-Jean, who both saw more action in 2011 than they perhaps anticipated, B.C. still has one of the more exciting sets of corners in the ACC, even if there are some growing pains in 2012. When you throw in sophomore safeties Spenser Rositano and Sean Sylvia, you see that the future is bright with the B.C. secondary. It's just that it will only be so bright if the front seven doesn't raise its game.
You just saw a streak of 12 straight bowl seasons end. The bar for 2012 is pretty easy to set, then: get back to the postseason by any means necessary.
I do think Boston College will improve this year. The offense should be better simply because of experience, the secondary should be exciting, and the front seven of the defense at least will not be worse (faint praise, to say the least). B.C. could be pretty mediocre in 2012 and still have technically improved, but when you've slipped, at least slightly, for six consecutive years, the rebound has to start somewhere.
There is indeed some logic in the optimistic Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projections, even if they seem off-putting at first. If luck turns, and if experience counts for anything, the Eagles should once again at least crack the Top 50. The problem, of course, is that the schedule is not conducive to a huge win total. Even when projected 44th, B.C. is only slated to go 6-6 in 2012. If they only improve to the 50s range, then you might not see any sort of improvement in the win column. And it will be very interesting to see if, despite extreme support from the athletic director, that finally gets Frank Spaziani on the hot seat. If Spaziani has a rebound in him, however, it starts in 2012.
For more on Eagles football, visit Boston College blog BC Interruption.
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