Tag Archives: Greyson Lambert

SEC Quarterbacks Are Downright Unimpressive

Anybody who knows me at all knows that I have a special place in my heart for SEC football. I really do. But I can’t sit by and be silent about this. The SEC quarterbacks, once again, look overwhelmingly bad. At the risk of sounding cliché, watching the SEC quarterback play so far this year is like watching paint dry.

I can’t think of a single SEC quarterback who actually excites me right now. Meanwhile, I can think of four or five ACC quarterbacks that do. This is madness. How does the conference with the most ranked teams have the worst quarterbacks? I just don’t get it.

Usually, the SEC East is a mess and the SEC West is great. This year, everybody except for Alabama (and maybe Texas A&M) is a mess. Yet somehow there are still eight teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the moment. I’ll let you in on a little something, though—they definitely aren’t ranked because of their quarterbacks.

So here is where I go through every SEC team, by division and in alphabetical order, to prove a point. I’ll keep the assessment for each team brief.

The Florida Gators have been starting Luke Del Rio at quarterback. On the season so far he has 762 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, and two interceptions. But unfortunately for the Gators, he’s sidelined due to a knee injury and they’ll have to rely on Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby for now. Just when they were getting some momentum…

The Georgia Bulldogs seemed pretty well-off as far as quarterbacks go when the season started. Both Greyson Lambert (who was solid last year) and Jacob Eason (who’s a true freshman) have taken snaps for the Dawgs, with Eason taking the majority of the snaps. Eason has racked up 643 yards passing, five touchdowns, and two interceptions. Not bad…and also not fantastic.

The Kentucky Wildcats have played both Drew Barker and Stephen Johnson at quarterback, but Barker went down against New Mexico State and Kentucky has had more success with Johnson now anyways. He has 355 yards passing, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. In the second week at Florida, Drew Barker actually threw three interceptions to the Florida defense and only completed two passes to his own players. Oops!

The Missouri Tigers have mostly stuck with quarterback Drew Lock so far this season. A bright spot in the East, he has 1106 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions. But, the Tigers are still struggling, only managing to win one of their first three games this season.

The South Carolina Gamecocks haven’t had all that much luck at quarterback between Brandon McIlwain and Perry Orth. McIlwain has been slightly better than his competition, with 356 yards passing, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also added 80 yards rushing and two more touchdowns on the ground. But with Muschamp at the helm, I don’t know if they’ll ever have great quarterback play.

The Tennessee Volunteers have had pretty much the same Josh Dobbs they’ve been behind for a couple years now. So far his passing game leaves a lot to be desired with 486 passing yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. On the bright side, he has added 161 yards rushing and three touchdowns on the ground. He’s also been a great leader despite being behind a shaky offensive line.

The Vanderbilt Commodores have struggled offensively (as always) behind Kyle Shurmur so far this year. He’s had 335 yards passing for two touchdowns and one interception. If Shurmur could get it together, maybe they could actually win a couple conference games this season.

But wait…there’s more! We still have another division full of mediocre quarterbacks to go.

The Alabama Crimson Tide have had Jalen Hurts take the majority of their snaps at quarterback this year. He has 563 passing yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. He’s also added 197 rushing yards and two more touchdowns on the ground. Plus, they’re Alabama. Their quarterback play won’t make or break their season.

The Arkansas Razorbacks have stuck with Austin Allen as their quarterback so far this season. Allen has 655 yards passing, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. He’s been good so far; he just hasn’t been outstanding.

The Auburn Tigers had some fun at quarterback against Clemson to open the season, but Sean White is now taking the snaps. He has 510 passing yards, three touchdowns, and one interception so far. Meh.

The LSU Tigers started off the season behind Brandon Harris at quarterback but have since given the nod to Danny Etling. Etling has 315 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He also does have one rushing touchdown. He may not be great, but I think he’s better than Harris.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs have played both Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams at quarterback so far this year. Fitzgerald has edged out Williams with 298 passing yards, two touchdowns, and one interception to Williams’ 237 passing yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, Fitzgerald has 219 yards on the ground and Williams has 88 yards as well as a touchdown. While they seem fairly evenly matched, neither is too exciting at this point.

The Ole Miss Rebels have Chad “Swag” Kelly, who was supposed to be the best quarterback in the nation. Kelly does have 953 passing yards and ten touchdowns, but he also has four interceptions. The Rebels will live and die by Kelly this season so those mistakes are costly.

The Texas A&M Aggies have Trevor Knight at quarterback. Knight has 830 passing yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions. He also has 151 rushing yards and three more touchdowns on the ground. He’s no Lamar Jackson, but he’s better than most SEC quarterbacks.

Now that you’ve made it through that, maybe you can understand why I’m just unimpressed with the SEC quarterbacks at this point. You know things are rough when Missouri arguably has the best quarterback at the moment. Missouri…a team that has lost two of their first three games. I guess you could argue that Trevor Knight is just as good since he’s more of a dual-threat quarterback. But either way, those two are the best the SEC has to offer right now and that’s not good.

Now, I understand that just looking at these stats isn’t really fair in a lot of ways. Offensive lines not giving time to throw or space to run can be absolutely devastating for quarterbacks. Receivers dropping passes can be just as bad. And facing good secondary units can also be incredibly tough for a quarterback. But even with those things in mind, there isn’t a single quarterback in the SEC that has really impressed me or excited me the way quarterbacks in other conferences have. I didn’t expect there to be a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback from the SEC, but I also didn’t expect the performances to be this lackluster.

Fortunately for SEC fans and our quarterbacks, football isn’t just about that one player taking the snaps. In the SEC it tends to be more about running backs and defenses. That’s probably why there’s still a whopping eight SEC football teams ranked in the AP Top 25, like I mentioned before. And as much as quarterback play can be fun to watch, I prefer watching some hard-hitting SEC defense anyways. So maybe I should save my complaining for the day the defenses are weak.

Here’s the big question for this year will SEC teams be able to compete in the postseason when these SEC quarterbacks are playing like this? If you ask me, it depends on the team. If you have a great defense, a solid offensive line, and a good back or two, then you can compete with anyone. That’s why Alabama is virtually unstoppable. But otherwise, you’ll just become another overrated SEC team. And nobody wants that.

And then there’s the other big question. Why is this such a problem for the SEC and will it continue next year? In all honesty, I still haven’t figured out why the SEC doesn’t have the same quarterback depth that the other major conferences do. But this isn’t something new by any means. And while it may get a little better next season as some of the guys mentioned above take more snaps and gain experience, I don’t expect the SEC to have phenomenal quarterback play anytime soon. I’ll leave that to the ACC for now.

You can email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @OGKristenB.

Image courtesy of Ken Lund.

Comment on this and every article by becoming a Campus Pressbox Insider. And while you’re at it, Subscribe to our podcasts.

The Fate of SEC Football is in the Hands of These Six Quarterbacks

The SEC, as always, looks strong heading into the season. In fact, there are six SEC football teams ranked in the AP preseason Top 25 poll that was released August 21. These six teams, in order of rank, are the Alabama Crimson Tide, the LSU Tigers, the Tennessee Volunteers, the Ole Miss Rebels, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Florida Gators.

These six teams are expected to lead the two divisions of the conference, with at least one team eventually going to the College Football Playoff. The fate of all these teams, and SEC football as a whole this season, is in the hands of six starting quarterbacks, two of which have yet to be named.

[Insert name here], Alabama

Yep, that’s right. The top-ranked team heading into the season has yet to choose its starting quarterback. In all fairness to Alabama, I do understand their dilemma. The Crimson Tide could start Cooper Bateman, the only quarterback with experience. Though he’s fast, his arm is not impressive. He’s their safest bet, but he also has the lowest potential to put up big numbers. There’s always redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who came in as a five-star prospect. He put on weight and gained strength during the past year but he hasn’t been impressive in practice. The last option, with the most risk, also has the highest possible reward for Alabama. They could start true freshman early enrollee Jalen Hurts. Because of his dynamic play, he was key in helping the Tide prepare for Deshaun Watson. He has a strong arm and has been impressive in practice. The biggest problem with having Hurts start immediately is the possibility of that decision causing his competition to transfer to another program. If Hurts doesn’t start immediately, I still expect him to claim the starting position within a few games.

Brandon Harris, LSU

Brandon Harris was a question mark for LSU heading into last season. They knew they would have a solid running game behind Leonard Fournette, but what about their passing game? He didn’t have a fantastic completion percentage (53.8%) and he didn’t have a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio (13:6). What Brandon Harris did get was experience. That experience gave him confidence that will be very valuable heading into another season with high expectations for the Tigers. With Harris being a big piece of the puzzle, I’m not too sure my expectations for the Tigers are quite as high as everyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, Leonard Fournette is amazing, but Brandon Harris is only a little less of a question mark than he was at this time last year. Brandon Harris is simply not an asset to their offense.

Josh Dobbs, Tennessee

Seth Merenbloom isn’t a fan of Josh Dobbs, but my dad is. And I’d actually have to side with my dad on this one. From Seth’s point-of-view, Dobbs has cost the Vols in late game situations. In mine, Butch Jones and his play calling have cost the Vols in these situations. His play calling was conservative, as he was trying to keep a lead instead of trying to win the game. Dobbs does have some things going for him, though. He may not have the arm of Chad Kelly, but he has much better legs. He finished last season with a completion percentage of 59.6% and had 15 touchdowns with five interceptions. Josh Dobbs has also shown leadership for the Volunteers both on and off the field. What he needs to improve on in order to lead Tennessee to Atlanta is his decision-making. He needs to be better at protecting the ball in critical moments of the game, even if the Vols wouldn’t be in said critical moments if it weren’t for the play calling of Butch Jones. So here it is: Butch Jones is the key to Josh Dobbs being a successful quarterback for the Vols this year.

Chad Kelly, Ole Miss

The only question I have about Chad Kelly is, “Can he put his money where his mouth is?” He may easily be the best SEC quarterback heading into the season, but that doesn’t say much this year. Kelly has gone one step further and confidently said he is the best quarterback in the entire nation. Is his confidence a veil or is he really going to perform at that high of a level? Last season he had a great cast of offensive players around him. This season, he doesn’t have the same cast. Can Chad Kelly elevate a somewhat inexperienced offense and prove he is the best quarterback in the nation? I don’t know. What I do know is that this season the Ole Miss offense lives or dies by Kelly, and that means so does its season.

[Insert name here], Georgia

Oh look, another highly-ranked team without a definite starting quarterback! While Georgia’s practice makes it seem that true freshman Jacob Eason is the front-runner, the Bulldogs do have experience in Greyson Lambert. In 2015, Lambert completed 162 out of 256 pass attempts, giving him a completion percentage of 63.3% (which is better than both Harris and Dobbs). He had 1959 yards, 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. His stats in 2014 were very similar, with the only major difference being his eleven interceptions in 2014. Jacob Eason has none of this experience that Lambert has, but his talent makes him a clear favorite to eventually start at quarterback for the Dawgs. Like Alabama, starting Eason from the beginning could lead to another quarterback option, namely Brice Ramsey, transferring out of the program. It seems as if it is not a question of if Eason will start but instead just a matter of when he will start.

Luke Del Rio, Florida

It took Luke Del Rio quite the journey to get to Florida, but after being a walk-on at Alabama and playing backup at Oregon State, he is finally here. Del Rio did have some competition for the starting position this season, but as of right now he will be their man. There really isn’t too much to judge Luke Del Rio by except for his play in camp as well as in the Orange and Blue Debut. In the spring game in the Swamp he led the first team to victory with four touchdown drives and two touchdown passes. He completed 10 of 11 pass attempts for 176 yards. These stats should be taken lightly considering they were against the second team defense, but they’re all we have. If the Gator receiving corps steps up, I expect Del Rio to have a successful season starting at quarterback. If not, I expect Florida’s offense to make me want to cry the same way it did the second half of last season. Here’s to hoping Del Rio can solve all of Florida’s offensive problems!

Email Kristen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @OGKristenB.

Featured Image courtesy of Srgragg on wikimedia.

Branding Virginia Football…

Marketing firms will tell you that it takes substantial time and effort to build a brand. A brand represents those thoughts and ideas that immediately pop to mind when viewing, consuming, or considering a particular product or service. A brand represents perception, reputation, and value. The Richmond Times Dispatch captured the UVa football brand perfectly in their headline following the loss to Pitt. The RTD cited “the Usual Blunders” as the reasons for UVa’s most recent winnable loss. I wondered if the writer had consulted with one of Richmond’s fine marketing firms to come up with that assessment because it captures the devolution of the UVa football brand perfectly.

The usual blunders. The Pitt game had them all. It was a microcosm of the Mike London era. It is easy to recount the blunders, because we know them by heart:

Special teams breakdowns

5 games into the season Virginia has had two punts blocked in their own end zone. Some programs go for consecutive seasons with zero blocked punts. UVa has two, with 7 games to play. Does anyone remember when the winnable loss to the Hokies started to unravel last year? If you said a blocked punt in the end zone, pour yourself a tall scotch. Last season Virginia led the nation in blocked punts. We are on track to repeat again this year. I suppose it’s good to be the best at something and surrendering blocked punts seems to be a UVa specialty. Blocked punts, especially in our end zone, is definitely a usual blunder.

Giving up the big play

It’s standard practice in our section of Scott Stadium, when our opponents are in a 3rd and long situation, for someone to knowingly state “they’ve got us right where they want us”. No one gives up the big play like UVa. The longer the third down distance the better. In fact, opponents might be best served taking a knee on first and second down to set up their highest probability for a successful conversion looking at 3rd and 14. Against Pitt, sometimes we chose to give up the big play prematurely, but in the first quarter, we gave up a season’s-worth of big plays, sometimes with a receiver so wide open he was alone in the camera shot. While the defense righted itself in the second half of the Pitt debacle, we surrendered enough big plays in the first quarter to doom our chances for a rare road victory. Giving up the big play, especially the crucial 3rd and long is a cornerstone in building the UVa brand of usual blunders.

Erratic Quarterback Play

Quarterback play under Mike London can best be described as consistently erratic. Against Pitt, Matt Johns missed low on a walk-in, 4-yard TD pass that a backyard QB makes 99.9% of the time. He missed high on a sure-fire fade route for a touchdown when 6-2 Canaan Severin was matched against an irrelevant 5-9 corner. Fittingly, when Matt Johns threw one of the best long balls I have seen all year, hitting TJ Thorpe in stride right in the bread basket, Thorpe dropped what would have been a certain touchdown. Erratic quarterback play has been the most dependable of our on-field blunders throughout the London era (recall Greyson Lambert’s screen pass, picked off by a UNC defensive tackle last year that was returned 40 yards deep into Cavalier territory, beginning the end of what was yet another winnable loss? I could go on…)

Who’s on First?

Seemingly the most incurable of the usual blunders have been poor sideline decisions and general confusion during any given game. These may be the most maddening of all, because the source of these blunders comes from a well-compensated staff of professionals who are paid specifically to avoid these blunders. It is standard operating procedure, coming off a timeout, for Virginia to break the huddle with either 12 men or 10 men on the field. Players regularly and randomly run on and off the field with 10 seconds or less left on the play clock. It seems to me, having the right players in right numbers on the field is the most basic of coaching responsibilities, yet Virginia commits personnel blunders on a weekly basis resulting in wasted timeouts and costly penalties. Against Pitt personnel issues wasted timeouts and forced penalties which contributed to a stalled touchdown drive and the aforementioned blocked punt. Game day confusion is a hallmark of the Virginia program is the most recognizable and most frustrating of the usual blunders.

It takes a long time to build a brand. The usual blunders are not a new phenomenon in Charlottesville. They are persistent and interminable. There are three paths the Virginia football program can take in the coming weeks. They can reinforce their current brand of blunders by simply committing more of them. They can come up with some new blunders to add to the usual blunders. Or they could stop committing these blunders and produce a string of improbable wins. Wouldn’t that be unusual?

Cavaliers Showcase Ineptitude on National Television

There are only so many ways to write this tale of woe. Different opponent, same result. Facing its third quality opponent of the month, the University of Virginia football team absolutely embarrassed itself on Friday night.  The Cavaliers’ 56-14 loss to Boise State in front of a national television audience was not the worst loss Virginia has endured under London’s leadership but it sure felt like it. It was a debacle of the sort that coaches don’t survive and I think that last weekend’s result included the knockout punch that will put an end to Mike London’s coaching career at Virginia.

Against Boise State the pressure of a completely ridiculous and fantastically overzealous schedule finally broke the Cavaliers.  In a game that Virginia absolutely had to have, the Wahoos stopped being competitive at the conclusion of the national anthem. After fourteen seconds, Virginia was down 7-0.  Boise State scored 10 more points in its first two possessions and led 17-0 before most fans had finished their hot dog.  Virginia’s first three possessions produced 2 interceptions and a three-and-out. Virginia, with a roster full of London recruits, the same recruits whose hype had likely saved his job previously, were completely, totally, and utterly non-competitive.

By every metric which can be used to assess a team’s performance Boise State destroyed Virginia.  Virginia was outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, outmuscled, outthought…outeverything.  Thomas Jones is one of Virginia’s most storied players.  He is Virginia’s all time rushing leader. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.  He had a twelve-year NFL career.  Like most Virginia fans, he tuned in to watch the nationally televised game.  As the horror unfolded, his pregame Twitter excitement turned to frustration and then embarrassment.

tjones
Virginia great Thomas Jones is uniquely qualified to comment on the pitiful state of Virginia’s football program.

Virginia fans are fed up–and have been for some time now–by the sorry state of the football program and last weekend’s result has them demanding that someone answer for it. Head coach Mike London is the obvious choice, but there is talk that Executive Associate Athletic Director Jon Oliver’s overzealous scheduling and micromanagement has put London in an untenable position. There was a time when fans accepted the notion that Virginia’s academic standards made fielding a top-25 football team a difficult proposition.  Those same fans now point to Duke’s football resurrection and shout, loudly, “See?  If Duke can do it, why can’t we?”  Northwestern University, another academic stalwart and the not-proud owners of college football’s longest losing streak (34 games from 1979-1982) currently is 16th in the latest AP Top 25 football poll. Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford all are academically rigorous and have historically successful programs.  Even Virginia has done it before, rising from complete irrelevance to national power under George Welsh in the 1980s-90s. Virginia has everything that it needs to be successful except an exceptional coach.

London’s abysmal coaching record has been at least partially offset–in some people’s minds at least–by his recruiting successes and his good character.  However the highly touted  recruits aren’t developing under London’s tutelage and fans aren’t coming to the stadium to see the head coach showcase his good character.  Virginia fans want a coach who has good character, wins the recruiting battles AND wins games.  Winning sells tickets. Winning makes donors generous. Winning makes everybody happy.

Individually, these Cavaliers have talent.  Many of them were heralded recruits whose commitment to Virginia was viewed as confirmation of the program’s resurgence.  Collectively however, these Cavaliers are ineffectual.  Virginia’s offensive line has plenty of game experience.  It was expected to be an area of strength this year.  It’s not. The line play has been terrible. Someone–perhaps a Virginia fan–once said that all runners look the same when there is no hole.  Virginia’s tailbacks have nowhere to run and the quarterback has no time to throw. It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia regularly was sending lineman to the NFL as high draft picks. Not anymore. Is that a talent or a coaching issue?  Where does the fault lie for this ineptitude?

One need look no further than Athens, Georgia for the answer.  Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert is thriving as Georgia’s quarterback after struggling last year as UVA’s signal caller. Working behind a superior offensive line, Lambert two weekends ago set an NCAA efficiency record when he completed 24 or his 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns.  On a better team, Lambert is living up to the hype that never was evident during his time in Charlottesville. Given this, do you think that Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell wish they had signed with another school?  Lambert looks like a champ at Georgia.  London sold recruits on the promise of early playing time and parents on hands-on mentorship.  These recruiting wins in turn fostered the belief that Virginia was turning things around.  It’s not happening for the team or the players. Rushing 7 times for two yards won’t get Mizzell drafted but completing 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns will do that for Lambert. A team with no coaching won’t win any more games than a team with no talent will.

And let’s be clear. It is the coaching.  The mental mistakes that Virginia regularly commits game after game reflect a lack of mental discipline, a lack of focus, a lack of preparation. At this point Virginia’s players are so desperate to make a play, to cause a turnover, to do anything to jumpstart Virginia’s nonexistent momentum that they are taking reckless chances.  Their overpursuit leaves them vulnerable to the cutback, their desire to strip the ball causes them to miss tackles.  Virginia’s defense is among the worst in the country.

The players and coaches admit that last weekend’s loss is unacceptable.  They said the same thing about Virginia’s close win against lower-division William and Mary two weekends ago. They lamented not being able to finish against Notre Dame, when finishing–plays, drives, games–is the team’s stated mission this year. They say that, with the entire ACC schedule ahead of them, the goals of an ACC championship and a bowl berth are still in front of them.  The facts belie this, however.  Virginia has not won an ACC road game since 2012. London’s overall ACC record in five seasons is 8-24. He has never beaten primary rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I think it would be impossible for Mike London’s ice to be any thinner or his seat to be any hotter. Barring a miraculous turnaround, I don’t see how the psychological damage can be repaired by anything other than a fresh start.

Predictions, the Bragging Rights Edition

Rivalry weekend. The biggest weekend of the year. Normally there might be four teams still vying for a BCS championship spot at this time but with the inaugural playoff that number has doubled. On the flip side, you have eight opponents trying to end their rival’s championship dreams. Plus we have games today, tomorrow, and a Saturday slate with important games from the initial 11:00 am central kick all the way through midnight. It really doesn’t get better. So who’s going to stay in the race? What championship contenders will be victims of an upset? I take a stab at predicting 14 of the weekend’s biggest games and what rivals will have bragging rights for the next year.

TCU @ Texas
Texas is coming into this game with some momentum, having won three straight and becoming bowl-eligible. Those three wins have been the result of a dominating defense, but QB Tyrone Swoopes has played better as well. TCU on the other hand has been walking a tight-rope. In their three conference road games TCU has lost to Baylor, snuck by West Virginia by 1, and needed a comeback to win by 4 at Kansas. I have a feeling the Big 12 will work itself out over the last two weeks. My belief is it will work itself out via a Texas pass defense that is one of the best in the nation. One that will limit Trevone Boykin and the TCU offense, leading the Longhorns to a 30-27 upset.

LSU @ Texas A&M
Before the year started not many would have guessed that this matchup would be near the bottom ten best games of this weekend. Both teams have struggled recently for different reasons. LSU is only a 3 point favorite but they’ll win this game because they match up well with A&M. LSU’s strength on offense is running the ball, and the Aggies are 106th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game. On the flip side, Texas A&M’s offense is predicated on throwing the ball, which will be difficult against an LSU secondary that ranks 6th in the country in pass defense. Add in a true freshman QB going against those Tigers defensive backs and it sounds like a recipe for disaster. LSU 34-20

Arkansas at Missouri
Arkansas comes into this game with all the hype, playing well recently after winning its first couple conference games. However Missouri is the team playing for a chance at making the conference championship game and still feels like it isn’t being respected. Neither of these offenses wows you and both of their strengths are running the ball. But Arkansas (20th) and Missouri (23rd) both have strong rush defenses which will make this a low scoring affair. The difference here will be in the passing attacks. Missouri’s defense has 40 sacks on the year whereas Arkansas’ only has 19. This will allow Maty Mauk to make a couple plays with extra time that won’t be afforded to Razorback QB Brandon Allen. Missouri wins 17-13

Arizona State at Arizona
These are rivals who are two fairly similar teams statistically this year. Both have good offenses but mediocre defenses. While a Pac-12 championship berth may evaporate with a UCLA win, the winner of this game will have a decent shot at a major bowl berth. I’m more impressed with Arizona’s resume and they are the home team, but Anu Solomon’s health is a major factor. If he were healthy I’d go with the Wildcats, but he may not even play so I’ll take the Sun Devils 33-24

Virginia at Virginia Tech
Why would anyone outside of the state of Virginia want to watch this game? Because it could be the first time in history a team goes to overtime in back to back weeks with the score 0-0. I don’t actually know if that’s never happened, I’m just assuming so. But this game could be the same kind of ugly last week’s VA Tech-Wake Forest “contest” was. Virginia and Virginia Tech are 83rd and 103rd respectively in total offense. Their defenses on the other hand rank 26th and 22nd. Maybe the media should be pumping this game up as a classic defensive battle that could rival Alabama-LSU. Ok maybe not. The only excitement from this game is the winning team being bowl-eligible, if you can call that exciting. Virginia QB Greyson Lambert has thrown at least one interception in every game except versus Richmond. Hokies QB Michael Brewer hasn’t exactly lit up the ACC but he has only thrown two interceptions in the last five games. That will be the difference. Virginia Tech 16-13

Michigan at Ohio State
This won’t be one of the classic Wolverines-Buckeyes games you’ll tell to your kids. Michigan and Ohio State are relatively equal in defensive efficiency but the Buckeyes are light years ahead on offense. Ohio State also knows they need to pour on the points and impress voters to ensure a chance at rising in the playoff rankings. Buckeyes cruise, 41-17

South Carolina at Clemson
This game has been a nightmare for the Tigers in recent years. Will this year be any different? If it is, it will likely be because of defense. Clemson’s defense is #1 in the country while South Carolina’s comes in at 89. Since the Gamecock’s 3-1 start they are 3-4 with wins against Furman, South Alabama, and a Florida team they probably should’ve lost to. Clemson’s offense has struggled lately, but their defense will lock down South Carolina. I’d feel better if I knew DeShaun Watson was playing, but I’ll still take Clemson to end their losing streak in the series, 27-17

Georgia Tech at Georgia
Both teams come into this game at 9-2, but could the Yellow Jackets be looking ahead to their game with FSU next week? Georgia still has an outside shot at a playoff spot if Missouri loses Friday, so I think they’ll be focused on this game either way. In the back of my mind I can see Georgia Tech running all over the Bulldogs’ 54th ranked rush defense the way Florida did. But GA Tech doesn’t exactly have the defense the Gators do. The Yellow Jackets are 71st in rushing yards allowed per game and 110th in sacks. With that I still give the edge to Georgia and in the end I’ll take the 9-2 SEC team over the 9-2 ACC team, especially one at home. Georgia wins 31-24

Mississippi State at Ole Miss
This game has lost more than a little luster in the last month, but it’s still one of the biggest Egg Bowls in recent memory. Both teams have good defenses with the one weakness being Mississippi State’s pass defense. However I don’t think Bo Wallace will be able to take advantage of that. I normally don’t take teams’ motivation into account, but Mississippi State still has a really good shot at making the playoff, and Ole Miss seems deflated in the last few weeks. Bulldogs take it 17-13

Florida at Florida State
Will Florida State finally stop playing close games? Is this the week they finally lose? Florida has the defense to keep them in the game, ranking in the Top 15 versus the run and the pass. They also have Vernon Hargreaves III, one of the best corners in the country who can limit Seminoles wideout Rashad Greene. When Florida is on offense, they’ll have to rely on the run the way they did against Georgia and hope they can wear down a Seminoles rush defense that is only 43rd in the nation. When (if?) Florida does pass, Treon Harris shouldn’t be pressured often since Florida State is 102nd in sacks. Jameis Winston and the Seminoles offense have struggled this year against far worse defenses and the Gators basically had a bye week last week to prepare for this game. Before the year started, I picked Florida State to go 12-1 with this game being their only loss. I see no reason to change that now. Florida wins 23-20

Minnesota at Wisconsin
Minnesota comes in having had unexpected success this year, culminating to this point with a win at Nebraska last week. But there’s plenty going against them this Saturday. They are 53rd against the run, not exactly helpful when facing Melvin Gordon. On the flip side, the Badgers should be able to limit the Gophers on offense with their defense which is second nationally. Wisconsin is 31-3 in the last five years (including this year) at home and Minnesota hasn’t won there since 1994. I don’t see that changing. Badgers keep the axe, 41-20

Notre Dame at USC
I don’t know what a Jeweled Shillelagh is, but it’s got one of the coolest names for a rivalry trophy. It’ll be on the line Saturday in what should be a high scoring affair. Both teams can put up points and neither team is very good at stopping opposing offenses from doing the same. USC will be able to run a little more on the Irish D than vice versa. That and turnovers will be the difference. Cody Kessler has only thrown four interceptions on the year as opposed to the 13 Everett Golson has tossed. Assuming my trusty sources are correct (aka the internet) the Shillelagh, some kind of Irish club, and not the fun dancing kind, will go to the Trojans. USC 38-33

Auburn at Alabama
I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to top the Iron Bowl from last year. Basically for eternity. But this game still has conference and national title implications. Auburn hasn’t had the same magic as last year. Their offense isn’t quite the same but it’s still one that tends to give Alabama trouble and though the Tigers have had a disappointing year, they can still save their season by ending Alabama’s for a second year in a row. It’s not going to happen. Alabama is about 50 spots better in total defense (5-53) and Auburn doesn’t get pressure on the QB this year (90th in sacks). Additionally, you know Nick Saban has been waiting a year to avenge last year’s loss when he could’ve just taken the game to overtime. Alabama’s average margin of victory at home this year is 33.3 and it isn’t just inflated versus FCS opponents. Their three conference home games have resulted in victories of 42-21 against Florida, 59-0 against Texas A&M, and 25-21 against previously #1 Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide march on to the SEC Championship 37-23

Oregon at Oregon State
The Civil War. Can Oregon avoid that one loss that has knocked them from championship consideration in past years? They’ll be threatened by a Beaver passing attack that should have success, led by Sean Mannion, against the Ducks 117th ranked pass defense. Some of that is surely the result of being up big most games, but they shouldn’t be that bad. Unfortunately for Oregon State, their defense is a sieve as well and is 91st in points allowed. I don’t know how they beat Arizona State because their only other conference win is against Colorado. The Beavers will keep it close for a half, but Oregon overpowers them on their way to a rematch with UCLA. Ducks 47, Beavers 27

Virginia Football, Almost There…

I promise not to make songs on my playlist a regular part of these columns, but after the Virginia game against FSU and the state of the program 10 games into the 2014 season, the song “Almost” by Bowling for Soup off their Album “A Hangover You Don’t Deserve” seemed more than just a little appropriate as the thematic musical score for Virginia’s Football season.

As a 22 point dog in Tallahassee, Virginia almost got the game to a one-score differential midway through the fourth quarter. While it is hard to say that UVa was in a position to win the game against the Seminoles, they were in a position to make a statement and push the Seminoles to the edge. The Cavalier defense held the ‘Noles to their second lowest yardage total of the season. The Cavaliers were very competitive with the undefeated,  #2 ranked team in the country. Then, in a “Play it again Sam” moment, things went awry as they have all season. On the most important drive of the game Virginia stalled on the Florida State 5-yard line yielding zero points and crushing any chance Virginia had to win the game. Inexplicable play-calling and poor execution delivered another “almost” for Cavalier fans and “Ain’t that a Shame” was the chorus running through my head as Virginia almost made FSU sweat for their 10th victory of the season.

 

chopchat.com
chopchat.com

The burning question for Virginia fans is why is Virginia almost a good team versus actually being a good team? One answer is self-inflicted implosions through poor execution and/or mental mistakes. A pick-6 against UCLA, a fumble on the first offensive play from scrimmage against Florida State, the worst screen pass of the decade against UNC have resulted in almost-wins, otherwise known as painful losses. The coaching staff has made its share of gaffes to turn UVa into the ACC’s “almost” team. Terrible clock management against Georgia Tech, David Watford in the wildcat behind a patchwork offensive line in the red zone against FSU, too many screen passes & too few vertical passes are among the coaching miscues that have Virginia on the cusp of almost missing a bowl game for the third year in a row.

However, it is also hard to argue that breaks just have not gone Virginia’s way this year. A fluke “pop-up” fumble against UCLA turned into a game-winning scoop & score. A similar fumble by Florida State’s Dalvin Cook this weekend bounced harmlessly back into FSU hands. A 4th down conversion by Greyson Lambert against BYU turned into turnover when BYU stripped Lambert well after forward progress had stopped. The review almost went Virginia’s way…but didn’t and BYU scored a critical touchdown in what was essentially a 14 point swing.  UNC punter Tommy Hibbard punted three consecutive times trying to pin UVa deep in their own zone. Three times Hibbard’s punts almost made it to the end zone for touchbacks, but instead each was downed inside the 5-yardline. These things don’t seem to happen to other programs. They seem to happen every week to UVa.

Probably the toughest part of this weekend for Virginia fans was that the Florida State game seemed like the UNC game, which seemed a lot like the Duke game, which put us in mind of the UCLA game. Each of these games was to varying degrees “winnable” to “in-the-bag” yet Virginia lost them all. It is hard to dispute that the 2014 edition of Virginia football is almost a good team. They have almost overcome some incredibly bad luck this season.

Virginia almost won the UNC and UCLA games. If the gods had been with the ‘Hoos the Virginia fan base might almost be willing to give Mike London and the staff another year. Scott Stadium might almost be filled to capacity against Miami on the 22nd. The problem with athletics and college football in particular is that “almost” doesn’t get it done. It doesn’t score touchdowns, it doesn’t win games, and it doesn’t put fans in the seats. Many absentee Virginia fans are delighted by the fact that Basketball season is almost here.

In a year of “almosts” this week’s game in Tallahassee was clearly a hangover we didn’t need or deserve. Unfortunately it might be just one more reason that Mike London and his staff are almost out of a job.

 

Virginia Not Making Meaningful Progress

Virginia made all manner of mistakes in losing 35-10 to Georgia Tech on November 1.
Virginia made all manner of mistakes in losing 35-10 to Georgia Tech on November 1. Photo: Mike Stewart

Oh boy. Virginia fans knew that the team’s 2014 football schedule presented opportunities early and that the team would need to seize those opportunities if it were going to make meaningful progress after last year’s 2-10 disaster. When pre-season favorite North Carolina and its porous defense was exposed early, that home matchup became the opportunity for the all-important sixth win that everyone looking at the schedule was trying to find. “Meaningful progress” is the standard that head coach Mike London supposedly is being held to this year and that term is just nebulous enough to invite debate. Some have insisted that six wins and a bowl game are the minimum standards for meaningful progress. Others believe that merely being competitive is the threshold following a season in which Virginia’s average margin of defeat was three touchdowns. Still others maintain that as long as Virginia defeats Virginia Tech this year then the record shouldn’t matter and that Mike London should be given more time. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage is tightlipped as to what constitutes his standard of meaningful progress, but what is clear following yesterday’s game at Georgia Tech is that this Virginia team no longer is meeting the standards that anyone has for it—not the players, not Mike London and his coaches, and certainly not the fans. Virginia, having let its two best chances for wins five and six slip away against Duke and UNC, now faces a November schedule that offers no handholds for a team trying to avoid falling headlong into the abyss.

I was among Mike London’s supporters at the beginning of the year. For a number of reasons I felt that this team would be markedly better than last year’s. It would have more upperclass leadership and more talent after the addition of an impressive recruiting class that included several players who were expected to contribute right away. The players would be more comfortable with the new offensive and defensive schemes that were installed last year and they would have the extra motivation of playing for a coach they love and whose job security depended on their play. Early on, I looked pretty smart. Even in losses to nationally-ranked UCLA and BYU, Virginia was game. As the team’s confidence grew, so did my belief that we could win almost any game on our schedule. The importance of confidence to on-field performance cannot be overstated and as Virginia stood up to its nationally-ranked opponents, I could sense that this team was vastly improved and comfortably within the parameters I personally had established for meaningful progress.

And then came the bye week. Virginia’s seemed to come at a good time. Starting QB Greyson Lambert was nursing an ankle sprain and the team needed to address some deficiencies while preparing for a very important road contest against a Duke team that has owned Virginia under Mike London. Well, what looked like good timing for a bye week in hindsight wasn’t. For Virginia, the bye week broke the team’s rhythm. Post bye-week Virginia has looked very much like the fumbling, bumbling, stumbling 2013 Virginia team and nothing like the 2014 team that started 4-2. What the hell happened?

Virginia’s offense is going backwards. The Cavaliers haven’t scored a second-half touchdown in four games and have only 6 points total in those eight second-half quarters. I believe that the offense’s shortcomings were masked early by the help it was getting from the defense. Virginia scored 190 points in its first five games, but 72 of those points (38%) came after the defense either forced a turnover and scored or presented the offense with a short field or an unsettled situation. Virginia’s defense has been far less helpful during this three-game losing streak, generating just two turnovers that the offense has turned into exactly three points. Without the defense’s help, the offense has been exposed. Two of Virginia’s first five opponents were inferior and the Hoos took advantage, inflating its offensive stats by posting 45 points against both Richmond and Kent State. The offensive line, thought to be a weakness, has yielded but 8 sacks this season, giving the impression that it is better than it is. Virginia, however, wants to run the ball and it has gotten an uneven effort from the line in that regard. Virginia’s quarterbacks, lacking game experience, are having to learn on the job and are continuing the struggles Virginia has had at that position since since Matt Schaub graduated in 2003. Among FBS teams only Appalachian State has committed more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five this year. Clearly, the offense has struggled when tasked with producing points on its own.

When a team is confident and playing well, the game’s breaks fall its way. Conversely, stumbling teams can’t seem to get out of their own way or catch a break. There was abundant evidence of this in Atlanta yesterday. When a team (Georgia Tech) is playing well, it gets a favorable spot on a 4th down play in the red zone. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it can’t convert an interception deep in its opponent’s territory into a touchdown because a wide open receiver inexplicably drops the pass. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it commits an illegal shift penalty that negates a first down throw early in the 4th quarter when the game is not yet entirely out of reach. The resultant punt into the wind travels 23 yards, giving the opponent a short field from which it did put game away. When a team (Virginia) isn’t playing well, it compounds its misery by going four straight second-halves without a touchdown. Virginia, quite simply, is doing this to itself.

Virginia and Duke were once the laughingstocks of college football. The schools made fortuitous hires in George Welsh and David Cutcliffe and everything changed. Virginia seems to have in place everything it needs to be successful except the right head coach. Mike London was not untested at this level but he was unproven when Virginia hired him. His ties to the state and his established recruiting contacts were valuable assets to a Virginia team that was whiffing on in-state recruits under former coach Al Groh, but now Virginia needs a leader who can change the losing culture. For all of his admirable qualities Mike London doesn’t seem to be the man for that job. Virginia’s early-season meaningful progress has evaporated and with it has gone London’s job security. Never will a school more reluctantly part ways with a coach whose only shortcoming is that he doesn’t win.  And unfortunately that’s the bottom line. 

Inept versus Inept

I read a headline about the UVa/UNC game that said “Cavaliers Self-Destruct in Painful Loss”. I fully agree with the Cavalier self-destruction, but I might add to the description of the loss as also “ridiculous” or “farcical”. Just when Virginia fans think they have seen everything in there is to see in creative losing, the Virginia football program gives a new demonstration.
A day after the fact, it is still hard to fathom how Virginia lost to North Carolina. As has been noted, while Marquise Williams might be the best offensive player in the ACC, the UNC defense is the worst in the ACC with one of the most pervious secondaries in the nation. Yet, the Virginia coaching staff seemed confounded by the UNC defense. Add in a poor offensive scheme and equally poor quarterback play and the Cavalier’s hopes of a win were doomed, along with it possibly the 2014 season, and likely Mike London’s career in Charlottesville.

keepingitheel.com
keepingitheel.com

Virginia offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is committed to the short passing game, no matter how ineffective. Like a gambler thinking that some day he is going to bluff the table holding a pair of deuces, Fairchild opens with the short passing game and doubles down as defenses align to stop it. Saturday was no exception. When Virginia threw the ball down field against the inept Carolina secondary they frequently moved the ball. However, when the game was on the line and Virginia needed to convert a key third down to get into game-closing field goal range, Fairchild dialed up a screen pass that Virginia fans have seen a hundred times. Apparently Carolina defensive lineman Nazair Jones had seen it too, because he made an effortless interception and set up the winning UNC touchdown with an impressive run after catch. This is the second critical interception Virginia has given up to a defensive front seven this year. The first was returned by Eric Kendricks for a UCLA touchdown in a game where the Virginia offense surrendered three touchdowns. I suspect the Georgia Tech front seven is giddy with anticipation as Fairchild brings his “dink and donk” passing game to Atlanta next Saturday.
The Virginia loss on Saturday was replete with the mistakes that have marked the London era. Virginia continued its 2014 regression by committing too many penalties, none more glaring than an illegal substitution penalty, after a Virginia timeout, that sealed an improbable UNC victory. However, the mistakes that cost Virginia the game were two unsightly interceptions thrown by Greyson Lambert. The first, deep in UNC territory cost Virginia points when Lambert threw behind receiver Doni Dowling in double coverage. Checking down or throwing the ball out of the endzone preserves the UVa drive and likely wins the game for Virginia. The second, more egregious gaffe was the aforementioned interception by defensive lineman Nazair Jones. The ineptitude of this play call was only exceeded by its execution. As noted early in the pre-season, Virginia can have a winning season if quarterback play improves from bad to average. Bad quarterback play combined with an ill-conceived offensive scheme almost guarantees a Virginia loss.
I suspect that Virginia fans are most frustrated by the fact that the Cavalier defense played well enough to win. The Virginia defense held a potent UNC offense to 28 points and 374 yards of total offense. The Virginia defense held UNC to 7 points in the second half despite four UNC drives that started on the Carolina 46 yard line or better. The Virginia defense is good enough to put Virginia in a position to win every game. However it is not so dominant that it can win games covering for the listless Virginia offense.
If the Mike London era in Charlottesville comes to a close at the end of the season, we can look at the loss to UNC as the point at which we started to write the final chapter. That Virginia lost to UNC was not a complete shock. UNC has an offense that has improved throughout the year and hung some big numbers on some good defenses. If I were voting for ACC offensive player of the year right now, I’d have a hard time not voting for Marquise Williams. No, the simple fact that Virginia lost to a very beatable North Carolina team was not as distasteful as the way Virginia lost. Excessive penalties, poor offensive execution, and special teams breakdowns have been the hallmarks of the Virginia program under Mike London and were the reasons for the unfortunate loss to North Carolina.
A long time friend of mine who played football at the University of Richmond and is still close to the program told me soon after he was hired that when Virginia fires Mike London Virginia would have the best kids, with the best graduation rates, and fewest disciplinary problems in Virginia history. He said Mike London was a great leader and a great mentor, but he just wasn’t a very good head coach. Unfortunately, I think we saw his prophetic words in action on Saturday and may see them again at the end of the season unless Coach London can win at least 2 of the next 4 contests, each of which presents a special challenge.

Virginia Needs Touchdowns

fieldgoal
UVA needs more touchdowns and fewer field goals.

Struggling programs don’t get well overnight. Progress is never a straight line. No one predicted that Virginia would win the ACC’s Coastal division after a winless conference campaign last year. In fact, Virginia already has exceeded the very modest expectations that most had for this year’s team. Virgina had a chance at Duke last Saturday to run its division record to 3-0 and seize control of the chaotic Coastal Division. That didn’t happen, proving once again that progress comes in fits and starts. Virginia lost 20-13 to a Duke team that seemingly now has mind control over the Cavaliers.
Despite Duke’s status as defending Coastal division champions and winner of five of the last six meeting between the two teams, Virginia had some swagger coming into this game. Duke’s turnaround under coach David Cutcliffe has been nothing short of remarkable but you have to wonder if the league’s players and football-watching public still views Duke football as…well Duke football. Perceptions can be difficult to change but Duke is a winner and demands winner’s respect. Given UVA’s futility in recent years and the importance of this game, I have to believe that Duke had Virginia’s full attention, especially given that the Hoos had two weeks to prepare.
For whatever reason, it didn’t happen for Hoos. The common theme in Virginia’s three losses this year is that the Cavaliers have won the statistical battle but lost the game. Against UCLA in the season-opener, Virginia eked out more yards and one more first down but did lose the turnover war. In the BYU game at Provo, UVA racked up a whopping (relatively speaking) 519 yards of offense and notched 35 first downs to 332/16 for the Cougars. Last weekend at Duke, Virginia went for 465 and 23 to Duke’s 334/19. Virginia’s problem is that these statistical triumphs have not translated into touchdowns. Virginia has made 29 trips into the red zone this year and has come away with points 25 times. That conversion rate is good for 47th nationally. Unfortunately, the touchdown percentage stands at just 51.72%. Virginia has scored just 15 touchdowns on those 29 trips. The Cavaliers stand 68th nationally in total offense at 407.3 yards per game and 70th in points at 29.0. These are marked improvements from recent years but if Virginia is to become a contender it needs to turn these statistical gains into points or, more specifically, touchdowns.
Having let the Duke opportunity slip from its grasp, Virginia now needs to hold serve at home this weekend against a mercurial UNC team that will present Virginia with a serious challenge. On paper, the Tarheels are Virginia’s evil twin. Virginia plays stout defense. UNC seemingly plays no defense. UNC scores in bunches. Virginia struggles to ring the bell. Virginia’s defense will be hard-pressed to keep UNC off the board, meaning that the offense is going to have to cash in on its red zone trips on Saturday.
Perhaps part of Virginia’s problem is the once-again unsettled situation at quarterback. Greyson Lambert came out of spring practice solidly entrenched as the starter. In a testament to his leadership, he was named a team captain despite being only a sophomore. His backup, Matt Johns, performed admirably in relief of Lambert early in the season and stepped into the starter’s role when Lambert sprained his ankle against BYU. Coach Mike London has stated that his policy is that no starter loses his job to injury so it was somewhat surprising when Johns got the nod last weekend after Lambert practiced all week. Either Lambert’s injury is more serious than previously thought or London has waffled. Lambert clearly proved himself in the spring but his development has been hampered by the ankle injury. Johns, despite throwing for 300 yards last weekend, lacked touch on the deep ball. He overthrew receivers on plays that would have resulted in easy touchdowns had the balls been catchable. Virginia desperately needs some continuity at quarterback. Johns has been a godsend but critics have noted that his mechanics and game management still need work. This perhaps is why Lambert was named the starter early in spring practice.
UVA fans are a downtrodden lot and the collective mindset of the fan base after last weekend’s loss is that the Duke game was an unclaimed golden ticket. The team’s execution was reminiscent of the effort put forth in the two previous seasons when Virginia won a total of six games and Mike London’s coaching skills were called into question. In a make-or-break season for London, the Cavaliers do not have much of an error margin. The UNC contest this weekend is UVA’s next-to-last home game. For Virginia to gain bowl eligibility it needs to beat UNC this weekend and Miami on November 22. That would get the team to six wins, a bowl game, and give Mike London another year at the helm. Supposedly.
Progress is not a straight line endeavor. Virginia stumbled last weekend in a game in which it was not favored but believed it could win anyway. The press noted that the players were irate in postgame interviews, no doubt frustrated by the fact that effort, desire, and preparation do not always produce the desired result. For the program to take the next step, Virginia has got to ramp up the offensive efficiency. Virginia will need better execution this weekend. Virginia needs touchdowns.