Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
It was one of the biggest “Wait ... WHAT?” moments of the year: almost overnight, Boston College had an offense. The Eagles had been waiting a while.
BC’s offense disappeared so suddenly a few years ago that we forgot it had once been good. In Steve Addazio’s first season at Chestnut Hill, big Andre Williams rushed for 2,177 yards as the Eagles surged from 2-10 to 7-6 and from 103rd to 30th in Off. S&P+. With Florida transfer Tyler Murphy and freshman running back Jon Hilliman, they held on at 50th the next year and won seven games again with an improving defense.
Then, poof. Offense gone.
They averaged just 10.6 points per game against FBS defenses in 2015 and plummeted to 125th in Off. S&P+. They allowed 20 or fewer points in nine of 12 games but managed to win only three of them (and two were against FCS teams). In 2016, they improved ... to 124th. Another good defense and a weak-ish schedule prompted a 6-6 finish and bowl win, but the offense was an albatross and remained that way halfway through 2017.
Six weeks into 2017, all was normal. The Eagles ranked 125th in Off. S&P+ and stood at 2-4 overall with wins over two MAC schools and four double-digit losses to ACC teams and Notre Dame. Then came the trip to Louisville.
BC in 2017
|Category||First 6 games||Last 7 games|
|Category||First 6 games||Last 7 games|
|Record||2 W, 4 L||5 W, 2 L|
|Avg. yards per play||Opp 5.4, BC 4.2||BC 5.9, Opp 5.4|
|Avg. percentile performance||30% (20% off, 52% def)||74% (62% off, 69% def)|
|Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj.||-2.5 PPG||+22.4 PPG|
|RB AJ Dillon||55.5 yards/gm (3.7/carry)||179.4 yards/gm (6.0/carry)|
|TE Tommy Sweeney||11 catches, 122 yards||25 catches, 390 yards, 4 TD|
Addazio and coordinator Scot Loeffler had already handed the offense over to a freshman quarterback in Anthony Brown. But midway through 2017, they officially moved another freshman to the top of the RB depth chart. And Andre Williams-sized AJ Dillon, a high-three-star 245-pounder, erupted. He carried 39 times for 272 yards in a 45-42 road upset win over Louisville. Virginia sold out to stop the run the next week, and Brown completed 19 of 24 passes in a 41-10 win. They welcomed Florida State to Alumni Stadium, forced three turnovers, and rode Dillon again (33 carries for 149 yards) to a 35-3 win.
There was a blip against NC State, when Brown was lost for the season with a knee injury, but the Eagles rebounded to stomp UConn and Syracuse. They lost to Iowa in a tight Pinstripe Bowl.
The offense was so bad early that even with the second-half rebound, it still only finished 101st in Off. S&P+. And because of that, the Eagles are projected only 82nd in Off. S&P+ this season despite Brown and Dillon (and two-year starting center Jon Baker, who missed most of the season) returning. That’s probably too low.
The defense is projected 37th. That might also be too low because it doesn’t address the injuries the Eagles’ 2017 defense was dealing with. Linebacker Connor Strachan missed the entire season, replacement Max Richardson only made it four games, and star end Harold Landry (now a Tennessee Titan) missed four games, too.
Brown and Dillon will be running behind an experienced line, and Brown gets his top three receiving targets back as well. Meanwhile, it’s still early in the cycle, but Addazio is putting together what could easily be his best recruiting class.
It is never wise to overreact to a small sample size, but it’s also really easy to do. There’s a chance that we’re looking back in a couple of years at the Louisville game as the moment Addazio’s BC build truly took root. After two and a half mostly bad seasons, BC suddenly looked like a team on the rise.
They face a brutal late stretch this fall — Miami, at Virginia Tech, Clemson, at Florida State in consecutive weeks — so there’s a chance Addazio could have his first S&P+ top-40 team but his fifth 7-6 season in six years. Still, you can suddenly see what he’s building.
The 43-year-old Loeffler is putting together one of the oddest résumés I can remember. A longtime Michigan assistant, he connected with Addazio as Florida’s quarterbacks coach in 2009, and he called plays for the best Temple offense in recent memory in Addazio’s first year as head coach there (2011).
Loeffler was successful enough that Gene Chizik called him to save his floundering offense in 2012. Auburn fell from 37th to 93rd in Off. S&P+, then rebounded to second the year after Loeffler left.
Then he moved to Blacksburg to resurrect a Virginia Tech offense that had fallen from 13th to 87th in two years. In three seasons, he averaged a ranking of 79th.
He came to BC in 2016, and his first season and a half back with Addazio was disastrous, too. And then:
A product of New London (Conn.)’s Lawrence Academy, Dillon had offers throughout the Eastern time zone. He was pursued by FSU and took a visit to Michigan, but he elected to sign with the nearby kindred spirit. His 247 profile listed him as either a running back or an inside linebacker, and, well, that’s the perfect Addazio running back.
When Dillon proved ready for a big load of carries, that’s exactly what he got. He averaged 30.1 rushes per game during BC’s 5-2 finish. He probably can’t and/or shouldn’t average that for an entire season, but with him as the center of gravity, everything else began to take shape. Brown (7.2 yards per non-sack carry) found running room on the perimeter, and tight end Tommy Sweeney became a legitimate play-action weapon.
Freshman receiver Kobay White, the default No. 1 wideout (yes, BC had a freshman leading the way at QB, RB, and WR), started finding more room downfield, too: he averaged 10.9 yards per catch during the 2-4 start and 15 per catch thereafter.
The line is loaded. BC ranked 31st in power success rate, 60th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 16th in Adj. Sack Rate and returns not only all five of last year’s starters but also Baker and another 2016 starter, guard Elijah Johnson. So that’s seven players with a combined 138 career starts. And three aren’t seniors, so next year’s line might be experienced, too. Goodness.
It’s possible that, for large chunks of 2018, BC is running the Dillon offense and looking a lot like the BC that dominated Louisville and Virginia. The key might be what the offense looks like when Dillon is either being controlled or sitting. Hilliman transferred for his senior season, so the only other back with experience is sophomore Travis Levy (21 carries, 54 yards). Incoming freshman David Bailey is a Dillon clone (6’1, 245, without quite the same recruiting ranking), but we can’t assume similar productivity.
Luckily, Brown should be 100 percent recovered from injury and could be ready for more responsibility. He was hilariously all-or-nothing last year — in a selection of four games, he completed 65 percent of his passes with a 132.1 passer rating, and in another five (including two wins) he completed 39 percent with a 76.9 rating. He was brilliant against a good Virginia defense and bad against a lesser Louisville.
He’s no longer a freshman. If he’s able to generate consistency, BC won’t have to lean on Dillon so much. The top five members of the receiving corps return, including White, Sweeney, seniors Jeff Smith and Michael Walker, and backup tight end Chris Garrison. Plus, while Levy was unimpressive on the ground, he did catch 15 of 17 passes for 153 yards, giving him the profile of a perfect old-school third-down back.
Outside of the line, the depth isn’t amazing. Brown’s and Dillon’s backups are almost completely untested, and while there’s hope for younger receivers like redshirt freshman Noah Jordan-Williams and sophomore CJ Lewis, they haven’t done anything yet. So BC’s upside could be tamped down quickly by injury. But this starting 11 looks big, strong, and fun, at least.
After ranking second in Rushing S&P+ in 2015 and eighth in 2016, BC was downright mortal up front. The combination of losing four of 2016’s front-seven starters, then dealing with injuries to Richardson, Landry, and others, caught up to the Eagles a little bit. They fell from 19th to 78th in stuff rate and from second to 62nd in rushing success rate allowed.
Granted, the pass defense was awesome, even better than it was in 2015 under coordinator Don Brown (who left in 2016 to craft awesome defenses at Michigan and was replaced by Jim Reid).
Safeties Lukas Denis and Will Harris combined for six tackles for loss, eight interceptions, and 12 pass breakups, and both return in 2018. The Eagles do lose an awesome pair of corners in Isaac Yiadom and Kamrin Moore, but replacements Taj-Amir Torres and Hamp Cheevers both saw playing time, and Cheevers was intriguingly disruptive in a small sample (2.5 TFLs, six passes defensed, and two forced fumbles despite just 13 total tackles).
The bar is pretty high, and while 37th in Def. S&P+ is pretty good, it was also the Eagles’ worst ranking since 2013. A rebound will depend on the front seven. Strachan’s return (he had 11 TFLs in 2016) will help to account for the loss of linebacker Ty Schwab (8.5 TFLs), and everyone else, including Richardson (16.5 tackles in four games), is back. BC has become a Linebacker U, and this corps should be excellent.
There’s reason for concern up front, though, if primarily because of depth. End Zach Allen (15.5 TFLs, six sacks, four passes defensed) outperformed Landry from a havoc standpoint even accounting for the games Landry missed, and fellow seniors Ray Smith (nose tackle) and Wyatt Ray (end) are keepers. But Smith is the only tackle with experience; a youngster like sophomore TJ Rayam or 320-pound freshman Ryan Betro might have to step in and play well.
In both the front and back of the defense, it’s like the offense: the projected starters should be awesome, but depth is a massive question mark. It would only take a couple of injuries to end up with true or redshirt freshman playing key roles.
Slot receiver Michael Walker hasn’t distinguished himself on offense, but he is a tremendous return man. He powered a special teams unit that needed powering, and he’ll have to do so again this year. BC ranked only 91st in Special Teams S&P+ even with him because punting was mediocre and place-kicker Colton Lichtenberg was scattershot — he missed three PATs and was just 2-for-8 on FGs longer than 40 yards. BC will get Walker and Lichtenberg back and will be starting over at punter.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|13-Sep||at Wake Forest||34||-5.8||37%|
|6-Oct||at N.C. State||37||-5.7||37%|
|3-Nov||at Virginia Tech||21||-10.0||28%|
|17-Nov||at Florida State||18||-10.8||27%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||48|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||82 / 37|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||1.8 (60)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||68 / 66|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||5 / 2.4|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+1.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||73% (81%, 65%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||6.7 (0.3)|
If you haven’t caught on by now in these previews, the ACC’s middle class could be enormous. I previewed five league teams before BC, and all six have a projected win total between 4.9 and 6.2. There are so many tossups on the league schedule that a team that overachieves by a just a little could get to seven wins or more.
BC is a candidate. The Eagles’ offense had life for the first time in years and brings back all the reasons. Their defense will need some injuries luck — they can withstand some setbacks at LB, but not necessarily DB or DL — but has at least one layer of exciting personnel.
From a macro view, it appears Addazio has accomplished what he can at BC; he’s gone 7-6 for four of five years with a disastrous 3-9 season in between, and he’s probably never going to have another defense like Brown’s in 2016. But after a few years without, the offensive upside returned midway through 2017, and that offers an exciting path forward for 2018 and beyond.
It’s hard to stand out in the ACC’s middle class, and lord knows the Eagles are in the wrong division for a major move of sorts, but they’re going to have a chance to break that seven-win barrier in the coming years.