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An Unlikely Virginia Football Contrarian…

I was out of town this weekend when kickoff for the Virginia/Pitt game rolled around. The bartender was either unwilling or unable to find RSN. There was no doubt in my mind that my fellow bar patrons included few UVa fans, so I am not sure if the failure to locate the game was due to a lack of coverage in the area or by design to keep the bar filled and happy.

Frankly, I am not sure it matters. I read the articles and studied the box score. Another convincing Virginia loss. The second in a row as Virginia remains one win shy of bowl eligibility. If I was going to completely miss a game, this was probably a good one. The anatomy of the loss – the shortcomings of the offensive line, a high school caliber field goal kicking game, and squandered opportunities inside the Pitt 40 yard line are not the biggest challenges for the program right now.

I think the biggest problem for the program is that fans are perilously close to or have already thrown in the towel on the season and some on the football program at large. I got several texts during the game, while I was out for a hike in the Virginia mountains, that predicted a 5-7 season and another bowl season without Virginia as a participant. They were done, waiting for basketball season.

It is hard to blame them. Virginia has been consistently pretty bad over the past 10 years. Al Groh and Mike London each had flashes success during their tenures, but ultimately both were major players in the disintegration of the Virginia football program. Bronco’s first season at 2-10 didn’t do much to repair the damage. Fans are justified in their short fuse.

I understand the sentiments of those who have seen enough. Virginia athletics has a long and storied history of leaving its fans at the alter, especially in the “money sports” of football and basketball. While Virginia has built itself into a national player on the basketball scene, there is no doubt that recent teams had final 4 potential, yet have fallen short of basketball nirvana. Football has been a train wreck since George Welsh was prematurely pushed aside. I get it, for many it’s time to move on.

I’m not there yet. While the playing margin for error for Virginia football is razor thin and the tolerance for injuries among the starters is even thinner, I think there is another win in this team and a bowl game on the horizon. I’d love to cite a mountain of stats that back up my position, but they aren’t there. In fact, the stats clearly support the opposite position. If I were at the blackjack table in Vegas, I’d be the hated player going with his “gut” hitting a “15” while the dealer shows “6”.

I think that Quinn Blanding and Micah Kizer will rally this team for one more win this season. As it sinks in on the rest of the team that these warriors may go their entire college career without a bowl appearance, I think the rest of the team will dig deep and find a way to pull off a major upset victory.

Virginia will be the betting dog the rest of the season. The Wahoos opened as an 8.5 point dog to Georgia Tech, which will likely be the smallest spread we see the rest of the way.

In past seasons, undermanned Virginia teams have stymied the maddening triple option to upset the Jackets in Charlottesville. I think it is possible again this Saturday, but I think the options this week are polar opposites. Virginia will either eek out a close victory or get blowout by 25 points or more. If it is close, Virginia can will its way to victory. If the roof starts leaking early and Virginia struggles in the first half, it will get ugly in a hurry. The triple option is not a riddle you solve at halftime. It is a puzzle you unravel the week before the game.

Let’s hope for a good week of practice and a sharp performance on Saturday, otherwise I’m the guy that took the dealer’s bust card. You’re welcome.

Will ACC Football Continue Its Roll After Last Season?

Will ACC football do it again? I could answer this question in a couple sentences, but that wouldn’t be any fun for anyone.

ACC football was on a roll at the end of the year last year, with ACC teams winning the overwhelming majority of the bowl games in which they played. Not to mention, Clemson eventually won the National Championship Game.

With a new season less than a few weeks away, now is definitely the time to ponder whether the ACC can (and will) do it again. For me, it depends on what exactly “it” is. If the ACC must win the title and win the same number of bowl games, I just don’t see that happening again. If the ACC simply must have a playoff participant and win most of its bowl games, then maybe “it” can be done.

The playoff participant I’d expect to emerge from the ACC this season would not be the Clemson Tigers, though. If anything, I expect the Florida State Seminoles to earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs this postseason and be the ACC team mostly likely to win the title. Vegas says I’m not alone in this expectation.

Florida State may have lost running back Dalvin Cook, but it looks ready to reload and move forward this season. Cam Akers is expected to pick up where Cook left off, so Seminole fans need not worry about that loss. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois also has an entire season of experience now, which should help him better lead the Florida State offense. The Seminole defense returns countless starters and will have Derwin James back this season (if he can stay healthy). This combination of offensive and defensive power is what makes Vegas (and me) hot on Florida State this year.

On the other hand, Clemson is in for a rebuilding year after losing its dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson to the NFL. The Tigers lost multiple other starters that leave a few big holes on both sides of the ball. Two major departures that come to mind are Ben Boulware (defense) and Mike Williams (offense). Clemson fans might place their confidence in Dorian O’Daniel and Hunter Renfrow to step up to replace those two, but I don’t have that same confidence—yet.

As far as the non-conference games during the season and the bowl games during the postseason go, there are countless other ACC football teams that look ready to take on formidable opponents. I’ll be brief, but here are a few teams worth giving some attention.

Virginia Tech had a great first season under one of my favorite head coaches, Justin Fuente. If the Hokies can improve their ball security, they may even finish above that 9-3 mark from last season.

Miami had a solid season under Mark Richt as well. Hurricane fans remain confident as ever, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of this team now that quarterback Brad Kaaya is gone. He may not have been elite, but he was an important part of Richt’s offense.

Louisville was flying high behind Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson early last season, but fell from grace by the end of the year. After watching that collapse, the Cardinals are another team that I really don’t know what to think about yet.

Georgia Tech had an interesting season last year, finishing 8-4 in the regular season and beating two SEC teams during that time. The Yellow Jackets beat the Vanderbilt Commodores and the in-state rival Georgia Bulldogs during the regular season. Georgia Tech also went on to beat Kentucky in its bowl game. This season, Georgia Tech gets a chance to prove itself early against another SEC foe—the Tennessee Volunteers. Let it be known right now that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yellow Jackets take down the Vols in this season opener.

The Pittsburgh Panthers, North Carolina Tar Heels, and NC State Wolfpack are a few other teams to keep on the radar in the ACC this season.

To wrap things up I’m also going to give you my prediction for the end-of-year standings in the ACC.

ACC Atlantic Division:
  1. Florida State
  2. Clemson
  3. Louisville
  4. NC State
  5. Syracuse
  6. Wake Forest
  7. Boston College
ACC Coastal Division:
  1. Virginia Tech
  2. Miami
  3. Georgia Tech
  4. Pittsburgh
  5. North Carolina
  6. Duke
  7. Virginia

With those being my standings, I would expect Florida State to beat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game and secure a spot in the College Football Playoffs.

While the ACC may not be quite as good as last year, I do still expect a championship contender from the conference and a strong record in non-conference games.

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

Featured photo courtesy of Ashley Romanosky.

2016 ACC Football: Proof That They Aren’t Just Good at Basketball

Now is when I tell you about the good and the bad from this past season of ACC football. I’ve been brainstorming for this article since the day after Clemson won it all, but I’ve still run into a problem of sorts. All in all, there was just much more good in ACC football than there was bad this season.

That isn’t to say that there was no bad in ACC football. Trust me, there was. There is even one play from one particular ACC game this season that still bothers me. I’ll get to that later, though.

What all the good did do for the conference was offer evidence that maybe these schools are capable of being among the best in the country in more than just one sport. Without further ado, I present you with the proof.

The Best of ACC Football

Clemson won the College Football Playoff National Championship game. I am sure nothing else that any conference carried out can top that. But Clemson’s victory over mighty Alabama in that game wasn’t all the good they provided for ACC football this year. The Tigers were 14-1 by the end of it all, having lost that one game by a single point. They also shut out Ohio State in their first playoff game.

Deshaun Watson, our favorite (black) dual-threat quarterback, ended up accounting for a total of 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards between passing and rushing for Clemson. Running back Wayne Gallman contributed 17 more touchdowns this season. And there was wide receiver Mike Williams who came back from injury and ended up having quite the season as well, racking up 11 touchdowns.

The Clemson defense was also nothing to scoff at, allowing an average of 314 yards per game. Clemson was very good for the ACC.

Florida State, overall, was also pretty dang good for ACC football. There was some definite bad in that 63-20 loss to Louisville early in the season, but the Seminoles still managed to bounce back and have an impressive year. Star running back Dalvin Cook was essential to Florida State’s success, with 288 carries for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns. The fact that he was not a Heisman finalist still baffles me. But aside from Dalvin Cook’s success, the team was successful as well, finishing the year at 10-3. Not to mention, Florida State beat Michigan 33-32 in its bowl game when Michigan was arguably a playoff contender at the end of the season.

There’s also Virginia Tech and coach Justin Fuente on the “good” side of things. In his first season as head coach of the Hokies, Fuente took the team to the ACC Championship Game. And, the Hokies actually gave Clemson a good game. Fuente and the Hokies finished with a record of 9-4 and an impressive comeback win over Arkansas in their bowl game. This is why Fuente, in my mind, was clearly the best coaching hire from last year.

There’s one more name I’d be crazy for not mentioning, regardless of how his season ended. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson had an incredible year. It was so incredible that he won the Heisman trophy. With 51 touchdowns throughout the season, it’s safe to say that Jackson was the key to Louisville’s success. Jackson is also only a sophomore, which means he has at least one year left with the Cardinals. That’s very good for them.

I can think of one last name I should also mention when praising the good in ACC football. Pittsburgh running back James Conner returned this season after being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. He clearly didn’t let his cancer slow him down considering he had 16 rushing touchdowns and four receiving touchdowns this year. Here’s to Conner, because he’s about as good as it gets–aside from Clemson’s championship.

The Worst of ACC Football

The few bad things I could come up with off the top of my head require much less explanation.

There are the only three teams from the ACC that did not play in bowl games: Virginia, Duke and Syracuse. Virginia and Duke both were 1-7 in conference play while Syracuse was 2-6. None of these teams won more than four games this season. When you’re a member of a Power Five conference, those kinds of records are beyond bad.

The other major “bad” that I saw in ACC football this year was Lamar Jackson’s supporting cast. Jackson did get some help from his teammates at times. But most the work rested on Jackson’s shoulders, and because of that the Cardinals had a hard time winning when their opponents could contain him.

This brings me to the one horrible play I mentioned above. The Louisville vs. Clemson game was one of the best games of the regular season. That game really did come down to the wire. And the Cardinals could’ve beaten the Tigers if it weren’t for a huge mistake James Quick made on a pass play from Jackson at the end of the game. Instead of getting the yardage necessary to get a first down, Quick went out of bounds to stop the clock only to realize he had done so on fourth down and had not gained enough to get the first down. And that was the end of the game. SO BAD!

One last fact worth mentioning when speaking of the bad in ACC football this season has to do with the North Carolina Tar Heels. They were actually a pretty good team this season with a top 20 defense. But somehow the Tar Heels managed to only grab one interception (as a team) during the entire season. For most of the season, it looked like they might make history and not end up with any interceptions at all. That one interception came against The Citadel, too, so it wasn’t even all that impressive. What gives, Tar Heels?

 

Even with these bad things I just mentioned, it stays clear that this was a mostly good season for ACC football. Only three teams in the entire conference weren’t bowl eligible. Then, the ACC won eight of its eleven bowl games, not including the National Championship Game. Dabo Swinney took down Nick Saban in that one. I’d say that’s good—especially for a basketball conference.

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

Photo from Flickr user Jason A G.

Bowl Season’s Biggest Winner: ACC Football

If you’ve read my articles here before, then you know I am admittedly a huge SEC homer. I was raised on SEC football and would not feel the way I do about the sport of football as a whole if it weren’t for the SEC.

Last year, the SEC did pretty well overall in bowl play. I would’ve given them props for that. In fact, I probably did. This year, it was a mixed bag for the conference I love.

But, there was a conference that really did shine in the most unimportant games of the season. That conference, to most people’s surprise, was the ACC.

Earlier this year I wrote an article trying to tell people to show ACC football some respect. After all, you don’t have to like the ACC to respect it. And now those of you that did read that article back then will see that sometimes I’m right. (I’m also wrong sometimes, too.)

But instead of just bragging about being right about that call, I will walk you through exactly how the ACC proved that I was right this bowl season. As I said above, bowl games are largely unimportant. That being said, they do come with bragging rights for the teams and conferences that fare well.

So, here’s to the ACC. Enjoy your bragging rights for the next eight months, and we’ll see what happens next year.

The ACC did take 3 L’s in bowl play. One of those really wasn’t that bad, in my opinion. But Louisville’s (vs. LSU) loss and Pittsburgh’s (vs. Northwestern) loss were both inexcusable. In a somewhat comical manner, I did manage to call the outcome of that LSU game on Twitter though. #SorryNotSorry

Let’s face it: Lamar Jackson had to carry Louisville this season, and if he was shut down then the team was hopeless. LSU shut him down and the Cardinals were hopeless.

And as for Pitt, I really didn’t see that loss coming. I guess that’s what happens when you cough up the ball four times. Northwestern wasn’t bad this year, but it also wasn’t good. Even with four turnovers, I’m still surprised Pitt dropped this game.

The other ACC bowl loss, the one that I don’t think was all that bad, was North Carolina’s loss to Stanford. North Carolina had some great moments this season, including victories over both Miami and Florida State. The Stanford Cardinal had a more solid season overall so I wouldn’t have expected a win from North Carolina in this one. Keeping the game as close as the Tar Heels did was actually pretty impressive. Here’s to moral victories!

Now, let’s discuss the ACC’s wins. And as I write this, there are eight of them. There could potentially be nine after the College Football Championship game. But I won’t get into that. My SEC bias might start showing again.

Boston College beat Maryland. But who really cares? Maryland is only recognizable in the college football world because of its hideous uniforms. Not to mention, Maryland left the ACC. The joke’s on them now.

Going into the bowl game with Wake Forest, Temple had actually put together a pretty good season. The Owls finished out the season with a convincing win over Navy, which was actually doing pretty well this year. The Demon Deacons jumped out to an early lead over the Owls and managed to hold onto that lead for the remainder of the game. They also had cool shiny helmets, so that’s a win too.

I never thought I would say beating Kentucky in football is a good win, but I’m saying it now. Georgia Tech’s win over Kentucky may not be as impressive as the win over Georgia during rivalry week. But now the Yellow Jackets are on a roll against the SEC East, having won their last three games against teams in the division. As we all know, the SEC East is not exactly full of formidable opponents. It’ll be interesting to see how the Yellow Jackets fare against one of the SEC East’s better teams, the Tennessee Volunteers.

Speaking of SEC East opponents that aren’t formidable, N.C. State dominated Vanderbilt in a game that was never close. N.C. State wasn’t exactly impressive during regular season play either but it did finish the season on a high note with a big rivalry win over North Carolina on the road. With that win and this dominant performance against Vanderbilt, it seems that the Wolfpack may be gaining momentum.

Arkansas may not be in the SEC East, but the ACC did notch another win over the SEC as a whole when Virginia Tech topped Arkansas in comeback fashion. Arkansas has always been confusing under Bret Bielema, and you never know what to expect from the team. Virginia Tech under Justin Fuente has been incredibly impressive, and the win over Arkansas just solidified that.

I don’t like West Virginia and I never have, but watching Miami get a relatively easy victory over the Mountaineers wasn’t any fun for me as a Gator fan. Mark Richt has done pretty well in his first season with the Hurricanes, and topping that off with a bowl win over a ranked opponent was a great sign for Miami fans. Maybe they’ll finally be able to forget the dark days of Al Golden.

Floridians can be proud of the college teams in their state because Florida State also managed to get an impressive win over Michigan. Michigan was supposedly a playoff contender but after an embarrassing first half in this game, Florida State made the Wolverines look like pretenders. As much as I may dislike both teams, I have to admit that this was a great win for the Seminoles and for the ACC.

Last but not least, there’s Clemson’s College Football Playoff beatdown of Ohio State. This was a glorious moment for me as an Ohio State/Urban Meyer hater. The one team from the Big Ten that did make it to the Playoff wasn’t even able to score a single point against Clemson. Talk about pretenders! I truly have a huge smile on my face as I write this. Clemson absolutely destroyed Ohio State, just showing the rest of us how overrated the Buckeyes (and the Big Ten teams) were this season.

Here it is: Yes, the ACC had a couple bad losses and one loss that was a moral victory so to speak. Still, the ACC had numerous good wins and a few great wins this bowl season. Like I said before, maybe it’s time to finally give credit where credit is due.

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

Photo courtesy of Ken Lund.

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Encouraged, Concerned, and Puzzled – Virginia Lets One Slip Away Against Pitt

I listened to the post game show on this ride home from Charlottesville on Saturday. Virginia had just produced a disappointing loss to a solid but beatable Pitt team. I heard the same comment several times. “This game was a tale of two halves”. On paper it was that simple. Sitting in the stands it wasn’t.

Virginia’s loss to Pitt this weekend was really a tale of three plays. A kickoff return for a touchdown after an impressive Virginia drive, a pick-six to end the first half and a second kick return to the Virginia 20 yard line. Absent those plays, Virginia likely pulls off an unlikely win.

I am concerned, encouraged, and puzzled by Saturday’s game. I am concerned that on the 3 aforementioned plays that cost Virginia the game, Virginia players looked like they were waiting for someone else to make a play. Over the last 3-and-half games, Virginia has played with an increased sense of urgency and commitment.  On these three plays, they were not with the program. They were not making plays, but rather observing the action.

While concerning, it was actually more puzzling. It was puzzling given all we have heard about the culture Bronco is building at Virginia. 100% every practice, every conditioning session, every play of every game. Yet there we were, watching along with our players on the field as Pitt scored two touchdowns and set up a third with their offense standing on the sidelines.

Part of me thinks that the rebuild of the Virginia program is bigger than anyone imagined. Building a culture takes time. Recruiting, developing, and slotting talent to fit systems takes time. Changing the hearts and minds of Virginia fans is a big task. I imagine that changing the expectations and attitudes of players who have been through the wringer with their popular but terribly ineffective prior coaching staff is a herculean task.

As I watch Virginia play, in what is clearly a rebuilding year, I see kids with obvious and exceptional talent. I can’t help but wonder what we would see from Quinn Blanding, Micah Kizer, Andrew Brown, and Smoke Mizzell had they spent the previous 3 years with Bronco versus the past 6 months. If I could wish anything for Virginia football, other than a full stadium, it would be the fully entrenched culture of Bronco Mendenhall in NFL-caliber players whose eligibility is winding down this year or next.

Ironically, I was encouraged by one of the plays that turned this game from an unlikely win into a disappointing loss. The pick-6 to end the first half was part of strategy to try to put more points on the board with 44 seconds left in the half. The safe call would have been to run the ball twice and take a 28-28 tie into the locker room. However, as we have seen across 6 games with Bronco at the helm, he plays to win. He and his staff call the game as though all the pieces are in place to execute their strategy. I am encouraged that Bronco’s decision making is unchanged by evolving and transient conditions in the program. Virginia is going to win, and we are going to win the Bronco way.

I am also encouraged with the streaks of execution we have seen from this team. These kids can score points against good defenses. They can contain All-American talent in opposing offenses. However, Virginia has to do it every time out and to get there they have to believe that they can do it every time out. There still seems to be a lingering fatalism in the program. Like the guy who wins the lottery and expects to be run over by a bus walking home with his check, I am not sure the Virginia team thinks they have earned the right to win. Not yet, anyway.

The players, staff, and fans all want the Virginia program to succeed. It is my expectation that it will succeed. The only question we have, is how long we will have to wait. Is Christmas just around the corner or are we making a Christmas list in July? I am encouraged enough to think it might be the former, but I was also that kid who had his Christmas list finished before the first leaf turned.

On a side note, what a privilege it was to watch James Conner play football. He is warrior, a champion, an All- American. Virginia’s defense did better than most keeping Connor in check even though he still managed 90 yards on 20 carries and scored 2 touchdowns. Considering just 12 months ago he was in the midst of chemo treatments, his performance and courage is an inspiration to us all. James Connor – American Bad Ass.

 

E-mail David at [email protected].

Photo: David Rayner

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Coastal Division Is Worse for ACC Football than East Is for SEC Football

One thing I always seem to hear from those who don’t support the SEC the way I do is “Well, the East is garbage.” Garbage? With two teams still in the top 25, I wouldn’t call the SEC East garbage. The SEC West may be better, but the SEC East isn’t that bad. If you want to know about garbage, look no further than the Coastal Division of ACC football. Not only is the Coastal Division worse than the Atlantic, it also isn’t much good compared with any other division out there.

I wrote an article earlier this season about ACC football finally deserving some respect. Now, I want to amend my statement. The ACC Atlantic Division still deserves respect, but the Coastal Division has quickly fallen from grace.

Of course, the three main teams that have been carrying ACC football this season are Clemson, Louisville and, at times,  Florida State. But you know what those three teams have in common? They’re all part of the Atlantic Division.

You see, the Atlantic Division is home to the number #4 Tigers, the #7 Cardinals and the number #13 Seminoles. The Coastal Division’s highest-ranked team, on the other hand, is the #22 Tar Heels.

While the Miami Hurricanes and the Virginia Tech Hokies may have looked good a few weeks ago, neither team is impressing anyone now. So when I say that the Coastal Division is garbage, I mean it. Yes, they’re closer to garbage than the SEC East is. If I were the Atlantic Division of ACC Football, I would definitely want to disown them.

North Carolina, the best part of the division, is 5-2 so far this season. One of those losses was to the Georgia Bulldogs and one was to division opponent Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels did manage to get a win at Florida State, though, and this is likely why they’re still in the top 25. How long the Tar Heels will remain in the top 25 depends on the rest of the country’s teams. At this point there are no more impressive opponents left on the schedule for the Tar Heels, so anything but wins will not be acceptable.

As I said, one of North Carolina’s losses was to the Virginia Tech Hokies, who were briefly in the top 25. After a two-touchdown loss to Syracuse, the Hokies are no longer part of that club. The most difficult teams remaining on the Hokies’ schedule are the Miami Hurricanes and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the Fighting Irish have proven to not have all that much fight in them this season. The Miami Hurricanes may be better than they were last year, but “The U” is still not back.

Let’s talk about those Hurricanes, though. In their first season under Mark Richt, the Hurricanes got off to a 4-0 start. Since then, the Hurricanes have lost two games. While the loss to Florida State is somewhat excusable, the loss to North Carolina is not quite the same. The Florida State loss came on a missed extra point during what was otherwise a pretty close game. The North Carolina loss wasn’t quite the same, with the Canes losing to a lower-ranked team in their own less powerful half of the conference. Not to mention, they didn’t lose by one point; they lost by one touchdown.

The Coastal Division of ACC football also includes the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-2, 2-1), the Virginia Cavaliers (2-4, 1-1), the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (4-3, 1-3) and the Duke Blue Devils (3-4, 0-3).

Just for laughs, let me go ahead and end this article by equating each ACC Coastal team to their SEC East counterpart. North Carolina is like Tennessee, near (or at) the top of the division, with the hardest games already behind it. Virginia Tech is like Florida, near (or at) the top of the division, with a top ten defense. Miami is like Georgia (and not just because of the Mark Richt factor). Pittsburgh is like Kentucky. Virginia is like Vanderbilt. Georgia Tech is like South Carolina. Duke is like Missouri. Poor Duke…

I’m sorry, ACC Coastal fans. Well, not really. It’s about time somebody makes the SEC East look okay. But hey, look on the bright side! At least basketball season is well on its way.

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

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Brian Allen.

It’s Getting Hot in Happy Valley

Last Saturday, just under 70,000 fans gathered at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to see the hometown Panthers beat in-state rival Penn State 42-39. It was the first game between the two programs in 16 years, a rivalry that dates back to 1893. Leading up to the contest, Penn State and head coach James Franklin nonchalantly downplayed the game’s significance.

While there wasn’t a national championship or Top 10 ranking on the line like in the 70’s and 80’s, the game was a perfect opportunity for the Nittany Lions to make a statement and Franklin to cool the fire that had been growing underneath his seat.

However, Penn State simply wasn’t ready to play and unless they somehow upset one of the conferences contenders later this season, which I don’t see happening, this was their opportunity to excite the fans and boosters that the program is ready to rise up from the ashes. Instead, they faltered, never recovering from a 21-point first-half deficit despite a late-game comeback and were steamrolled for 341 rushing yards.

Expectations, whether fair or unfair, have always been high for Penn State and while Franklin’s first two years weren’t awful at 7-6 each, they certainly weren’t great either. At this point in time, fans are getting restless and patience is running thin.

In college football, someone is always to blame and that person is usually the coach. Even if he’s winning, if expectations aren’t met, he will get canned. Remember Bo Pelini at Nebraska?

There are those who argue Franklin isn’t even winning the games he should despite having talent and his track record isn’t very impressive either. He’s only won six conference matches against subpar opponents (Rutgers twice, Indiana twice, Illinois, Maryland) and the only game that came close to a signature victory was a 31-24 loss in double overtime to ranked Ohio State in 2014. They also point to his success at Vanderbilt and say if he was successful in the SEC, he should be at Penn State in the Big Ten regardless who’s in it.

Now, is it fair to exclusively blame Franklin given the fact that he took over a program that had gut-wrenching NCAA sanctions levied against it? I certainly don’t think so. At times I feel he should get the benefit of the doubt because it’s only been two games this season and fans shouldn’t be quick to rush to judgement when they knew it was going to be a long, tough road.

He has made two bowl games and I think fans need to give him and new quarterback Trace McSorley, who’s made only two starts, more time. Furthermore, as Franklin himself stated, this should be considered the first year of his tenure since it’s the first year being back to the allotted 85 scholarships and it’s still a very raw and inexperienced roster, as only 12 players have senior eligibility.

Those who follow Penn State know the Nittany Lions must replace nine starters, including three on the defensive line, and that the offensive line barely gave the offense a chance to succeed as it ranked 124th and 113th in sacks allowed the past two seasons.

To me, if Franklin ends up with a 4-8 record, then he might be in boiling hot water, but if they can finish right in the middle again, he deserves another year. If Purdue’s Darrell Hazell was able to get another year despite a 6-30 record entering this season, then there’s no question Franklin should be the coach.

Yet, as aforementioned, fair doesn’t always exist in college football and even as much as I feel patience should be given in regards to Franklin’s tenure, the temperature is rising in Happy Valley, particularly after this loss.

Now, should he lose to Temple this Saturday, then I believe he’ll be in big trouble but as of now, he’s still hanging on, just barely.

E-mail Mike at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

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Ranking the Power 5 Conferences for 2016

The SEC has been running college football for about a decade now. When will it end? 2020? 2030? Never? It certainly doesn’t look to be anytime soon. Though the SEC went on a two-year championship drought, it still felt like it was the best conference overall. With Alabama winning it all in 2015, it stamped another year of SEC supremacy.

Even if no conference challenges the Southeastern Conference for the top spot in 2016, it is important to look at the perceived strength of the remaining conferences since it always gets talked about once the playoff rankings roll around.

2016 could be an interesting year because of the relative strengths of the Power 5 conferences. The past two years it was somewhat easy to have four conference champs in the playoff while leaving the fifth conference champ out. Looking forward to 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the first year in the era of the college football playoff that we see two teams from the same conference make the four-team field. So with that, here is my ranking of the Power 5 conferences heading into 2016.

5. Big 12

The Big 12 is used to being picked on when it comes to conference rankings. Being the only Power 5 conference with just 10 teams and without a conference championship game certainly hasn’t helped matters. This offseason hasn’t exactly seen a lot go right for it either. The conference seemingly can’t decide whether it should expand or not, and in the end will probably have to do what Oklahoma and Texas want it to do anyway.

The conference’s on-field prospects don’t exactly look great heading into this fall either. Oklahoma will be ranked highly to start the year with Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield returning under center after leading the Sooners to the playoff a year ago. Looming however is Oklahoma’s history of falling apart whenever it starts the year ranked highly. If it happens again this season, the conference may not have another team to fall back on to lead its charge.

Baylor looked to be the other contender for the conference, but with the recent off-field turmoil and dismissal of coach Art Briles it is difficult to expect much from the Bears. I wasn’t sure Baylor would make a run at a playoff spot to begin with and replacing the head coach three months before the season starts has only added to those doubts.

There are nothing but question marks among the rest of the teams. Oklahoma State had a nice season in 2015 on its way to a surprising ten wins but got blasted in its final two games against good competition. TCU has to replace Trevone Boykin at quarterback and WR Josh Doctson, who was picked in the first round. Then there’s Texas, who is in the vast group of former powerhouse programs that have to show something before we buy in again.

Being a top conference is largely based on the contenders at the top. I don’t see the Big 12 having that strength at the top or the depth to make up for it.

4. Pac-12

It certainly looks like the Pac-12’s opportunity has passed it by. A couple years ago the conference had gained enough steam where an argument could be made that it was the nation’s best. The past year and a half has seen a swift fall that culminated in the Pac-12 being left out of the college football playoff in 2015. It’s going to be tough for the conference to claw its way back up the conference rankings, at least in 2016.

There’s a decent chance the Pac-12 will be the only Power 5 conference to not have a team ranked in the pre-season Top 10. Stanford has to replace Kevin Hogan who, while not the most dynamic quarterback, has the most wins in Cardinal history. It is also hard to expect Christian McCaffrey to duplicate his historical 2015 season. They may be the favorite again, but they aren’t nearly in the same class as the Alabama/Michigan/Clemson’s of the world heading into this season.

The Cardinal’s main competition in the Pac-12 recently, the Oregon Ducks, will be trying to bounce back from their first season of under ten wins since 2007. They’ll have to do it with just five starters returning on defense and relying on another FCS transfer at quarterback.

Elsewhere in the conference you have USC which hasn’t been able to get back to national prominence, UCLA who has folded under the weight of pre-season expectations multiple times recently, and a group of average teams that were a disaster on defense a year ago (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State).

The two teams that battle for the Apple Cup, Washington and Washington State, give the conference some hope in providing quality depth. The Huskies will be a popular sleeper pick to be the conference champion, and the Cougars Mike Leach-led offense will have a field day against Pac-12 defenses after ranking first nationally in passing a year ago.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12 and a lot of that comes down to the unknowns behind center. The conference has just six returning starters at quarterback (all other Power 5 conferences have at least nine). The Pac-12 may not have elite level teams, but it still has some quality depth throughout the conference which is why I rank it ahead of the Big 12.

3. Big Ten

There isn’t nearly as much uncertainty in the Big Ten where Ohio State and Michigan may both be ranked in the top 10 to start the year, two teams that didn’t even play for the conference title in 2015. Michigan should challenge for a playoff spot and even with just six starters returning, anything less than double-digit wins would be a disappointment in Columbus.

Then we get to Michigan State and Iowa, the two teams that did play for the Big Ten Championship a year ago. Regardless of who they lost, the Spartans can’t be counted out after what they’ve done under Mark Dantonio. Aside from 2012, Sparty has notched at least 11 wins every year this decade. The Hawkeyes will be doubted again after being treated to much of the same throughout their surprise 2015 campaign, but I don’t think they should be. They should have one of the best defenses in the country led by future first-round cornerback Desmond King. That defense, along with a returning signal-caller and a solid running game, will keep them in each contest.

The difference when it comes to the Big Ten is that I believe the bottom of the conference is more of a disaster than the ACC, which is why I could only put it at three.

2. ACC

The ACC can thank Clemson for getting it out of the conference-rankings basement in recent years. The conference needed a team to step up to challenge Florida State on a yearly basis and the Tigers have done more than that. Clemson has reached SEC-level respect nationwide under Dabo Swinney as they are expected to be a contender every year no matter who they lose to the NFL.

This year they’ll have a tougher path in an Atlantic Coast Conference that may be as good as it has been in recent memory. The Seminoles have the look of a top 5 team with athletes all over the defense and every single starter returning on offense.

A large number of returning starters is a common theme among ACC teams in 2016. Eight of the conference’s 14 teams return at least 15 starters, and 11/14 have their starting quarterback returning (a nation high). While this doesn’t mean all of those teams will necessarily be good, it does mean a lot of those teams should be improved, increasing competition in the middle and bottom off the conference. Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest were at the bottom of the conference a year ago, but with 15+ starters back including the quarterback, should be less of a pushover than they were in 2015.

There’s also hope for the ACC in the tier below Florida State and Clemson. Louisville has eight starters back on a defense that was 18th in the country last year. If they can get consistency from an offense with 10 starters returning, they’ll be a dark horse in the conference.

The Coastal division should be a three-team race between UNC, Pitt, and Miami. The Tar Heels will be the favorite, but it’s hard to expect them to run away with it again if they repeat a defensive performance that left them 97th in the country in 2015. The Panthers return eight starters on each side of the ball after going 6-2 in conference play a year ago. Then there’s Miami, which could see improvement with new head coach Mark Richt and a quarterback that could be taken very highly in the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. SEC

Was there any doubt? As much as I’d like to see another conference take over the top spot, it’s hard to make that argument for 2016. After last year, it’s time for anyone (myself included) who doubted Alabama to stop expecting less than an SEC championship for the Tide. It’s better to just be surprised if it doesn’t happen.

LSU could be the team to overtake them this year. After a couple of disappointing seasons, the Tigers have the look of a championship contender once again. Everyone will point to the needed improvement at quarterback, which is surely necessary. Really though, it’s the defense that needs to get back to playing the way it used to. The Tigers’ run defense imploded last year during the team’s losses, but should revert to form with nine starters back and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda on board.

Tennessee was looked at as a bit of a disappointment last year, but still went 9-4. This year they bring 17 starters back from that team, including a dynamic backfield in Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. Along with Tennessee, Ole Miss could help give the SEC four pre-season Top 10 teams. Say what you want about pre-season polls, but they are generally about the most talented teams, and the SEC has more talent than anyone.

The talent discrepancy shows up among the second-tier of the SEC, where teams like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss had dominating bowl wins over other Power 5 teams. Other conferences may have a couple teams as good as the SEC’s top teams, but it’s the quality of that middle tier that keeps the SEC on top.

Feature image courtesy Ken Lund

ACC Links: The Weakest Link Edition

Boston College’s ACC Struggles

The Boston College Eagles have had a history of success in their athletic program, especially in football. This past season they managed to lose every single conference game they played. To make matters worse, the Boston College basketball team also lost every single one of its conference games. The Eagles have seemed to slowly decline since they joined the ACC in 2005. As in previous years, the ACC was clearly trying to become more of a “football conference.” And, as in previous years, the program that they chose to add only became worse after becoming a part of the conference. This raises all sorts of questions about what happens to a team when they start playing ACC football, or any ACC sport, for that matter. So is it time to vote Boston College off the ACC Island? Well, I’m just going to go ahead and vote for everybody and say yes. Boston College, you are the weakest link. Goodbye.

Heisman Potential in ACC Football

The ACC had outstanding offensive talent scattered throughout the conference last season. Much of that talent is returning this year, leaving a pretty decent list of the conference’s top five Heisman Trophy candidates. This list obviously includes Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who I discussed in last week’s ACC football links. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was also clearly included in the list after being an integral part of the Seminole offensive attack last season. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya was also included, as he had a solid season last year and is expected to grow even more under Mark Richt. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is on this list despite having a quiet season last year since he shared reps. Finishing out the list is North Carolina running back Elijah Hood, who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. With players like these playing huge roles in each team’s offensive attack, I would not be surprised to see a Heisman winner from an ACC football program this year. I guess you could say that these guys are definitely not the weakest links.

Jimbo Fisher’s Toughest Schedule

Much has been said about Florida State’s strength of schedule in previous seasons. This year, the Seminoles are playing what is arguably their most difficult schedule since Jimbo Fisher took over the team in 2010. Florida State opens the season against Ole Miss and also plays Louisville, North Carolina, Miami, Clemson, and Florida. The teams on their schedule actually posted a combined record of 96-61 during last season, which puts them at a win percentage of over 61 percent. If Florida State can navigate their way through this schedule and win the ACC, there should be no argument about whether or not they deserve to be included in this year’s College Football Playoff. To continue with the theme of weakest links, clearly Florida State’s competition does not fit that bill.

Pittsburgh’s James Conner is Cancer-Free

Last December, Pittsburgh running back James Conner announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma. Conner was nursing a knee injury last year after having a great sophomore season in 2014. During that season alone, he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. His fighting spirit has been an inspiration to Pittsburgh fans as well as many others throughout the country. Conner recently made an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show, only to be surprised by another football player who fought Hodgkin lymphoma, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Just a few days ago, he announced that his body is clean of cancer. Here’s to hoping he pulls an Eric Berry, coming back even stronger than he was before his battle with cancer. That would be scary for the rest of the ACC football teams. And James Conner, you are ACC football’s strongest link.

Image courtesy of wikimedia user Ayzmo.

Eight Noteworthy Non-Conference Games for ACC Football

One of my favorite things to do when looking ahead at a football season is to pick out big non-conference matchups and take a closer look at them. In this case, I’m only going to go through eight games, which will include just over half of the conference. But these eight games could all go a long way in convincing the rest of the country that the ACC as a whole isn’t only good at basketball. It may be early, but it’s definitely not too early to get a quick look at the games you should make your schedule around this fall if you’re an ACC football fan.

North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Georgia Bulldogs

September 3rd at 5:30 PM EST

North Carolina was ranked at number 15 in last season’s final AP poll. While Georgia was not ranked, they finished last season at 10-2 and beat the Penn State Nittany Lions in their bowl game. The Tar Heels had an even better season last year, only losing to the South Carolina Gamecocks during their opening game. With a healthy Nick Chubb and coach Kirby Smart leading the Bulldogs, the Tar Heels may drop another season opener if they don’t come ready to play.

Clemson Tigers @ Auburn Tigers

September 3rd at 9:00 PM EST

Clemson finished second in last season’s final AP poll, with only the Alabama Crimson Tide ahead of them. Clemson had an impressive undefeated season, won the ACC Championship, and fell just short in the National Championship game. Auburn admittedly had a down season last year, but they could be a dangerous team for Clemson to overlook. With Clemson returning many key players from last year’s team, I expect them to be able to handle Auburn with ease.

Florida State Seminoles vs. Ole Miss Rebels

September 5th at 8:00 PM EST

The Florida State Seminoles finished at number 14 last season and Ole Miss finished ranked tenth. The Seminoles may have lost one heck of a kicker, but they’ll be returning plenty of talent this season. Ole Miss lost their star receiver, a key offensive tackle, and a strong defensive tackle. Although the Rebels will have quarterback Chad Kelly, the Seminoles should be able to overpower their defense.

Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Tennessee Volunteers

September 10th, time TBA

The Tennessee Volunteers finished at number 22 last season, while the Viginia Tech Hokies were unranked. These two teams look like a lop-sided matchup from the start, but this game has a huge unknown factor that may play a role in its outcome. This is the game that will be played at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of about 150,000 fans. The layout will be different, the crowd will be ridiculous, and the hype is already out of control. With most of their important players returning, the Vols should beat Virginia Tech relatively easily, but the Hokies may not go down without a fight in this exhilarating environment.

Duke Blue Devils @ Northwestern Wildcats

September 17th at 8:00 PM EST

The Northwestern Wildcats finished ranked at number 23 last season after losing in embarrassing fashion to the Tennessee Volunteers during their bowl game. The Duke Blue Devils, on the other hand, won their bowl game. But the Blue Devils had a little less impressive of a season than the Wildcats did. This looks to be a good matchup for the Blue Devils and a great opportunity to get a quality win over a Big Ten opponent early in the season.

Pittsburgh Panthers @ Oklahoma State Cowboys

September 17th, time TBA

The Oklahoma State Cowboys finished last season at number 20, but the Pittsburgh Panthers were unranked. Although Pittsburgh lost their bowl game and had a quiet season last year, they did post a good conference record. Oklahoma State ended regular season play with two devastating losses and went on to lose to the Ole Miss Rebels in their bowl game. When you hear this matchup, you might be inclined to pick the Cowboys but the Panthers shouldn’t be overlooked this year.

Miami Hurricanes @ Notre Dame Fighting Irish

October 29th at 3:30 PM EST

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish finished ranked eleventh and the Miami Hurricanes were nowhere near being ranked. Notre Dame is nearly always a formidable opponent in recent years, but Miami is definitely not out of this game, by any means. The Hurricanes return a good amount of talent and will be playing under a very experienced coach in Mark Richt. The biggest key for the Hurricanes in this game will be taking advantage of Notre Dame’s defensive weaknesses that came to light at the end of the 2015 season. If Mark Richt can do that, they could have a very impressive non-conference win in his first season as head coach.

Louisville Cardinals @ Houston Cougars

November 17th, time TBA

The Houston Cougars finished surprisingly high last season, ranked eighth in the final AP poll and the Louisville Cardinals were unranked. The two played during the second weekend of the season last year, with Louisville just barely edging out Houston. Houston finished out the season with a somewhat surprising bowl victory over the Florida State Seminoles. While the Cardinals clearly have a chance to win this game, they need to play with urgency from the beginning, knowing that the Cougars are formidable opponents.

There are, of course, other noteworthy non-conference games in ACC football this season. But wins in these games would be key in gaining some respect for the conference as a whole when it comes to football. They would also give ACC teams quality wins that could help when it comes time for bowl games and even the playoffs.

Photo of Kenan Memorial Stadium courtesy of Yeungb.