Tag Archives: Taquan Mizzell

2015 ACC Football: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

2015 was a typical year for the ACC. By typical of course, I mean one team outclassing the rest and trying to remove itself as far as possible from the negative connotations that “ACC football team” brings. The ACC has long been considered the worst of the Power 5 football conferences and did little to dispel that notion this season. Clemson did its best by not only reaching the playoff, but dispatching Oklahoma and going toe-to-toe with Alabama in what may have been one of the three best title games of all time. Florida State and North Carolina each won double-digit games but I think many, myself included, would say that was more a byproduct of the conference’s weakness than the strength of those two football teams.

Today we’ll take a look at the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly for each ACC team in 2015. As far as the Atlantic Coast Conference itself? The good could really only come from the aforementioned Clemson. The bad was harder to choose if only because there were so many more options, but we’ll go with defense, something that will be a common theme throughout this piece. Ten of the conference’s fourteen teams ranked 43rd or worse in scoring defense. The ACC misery saved its best (the Ugly) for last. That would be bowl season, where ACC teams not named Clemson went 3-5. Even those wins weren’t a lot to hang their hat on. Duke defeated Indiana who had one of the worst defenses on college football. Virginia Tech beat Tulsa, giving up 52 points in the process. Then there’s Louisville, who scored a 27-21 victory over a Texas A&M team that had just seen its top two quarterbacks transfer.

This article would have been much easier if it was just “The Bad and the Ugly”. Can we find some good from the 2015 season for each team? I gave it my best shot.

Boston College Eagles

Good – I mentioned defense in the intro. Well Boston College was one of the four ACC teams not abysmal on that side of the ball. BC ranked fourth in the country, allowing just 15.3 points per game. This included giving up just 34 to Clemson, 14 to Florida State, and 19 to Notre Dame. Sure they shortened games by running the ball a ton on offense, but only three times all year did they give up more than 20 points in a game.

Bad – As stellar as the defense was, the offense was the complete opposite. After the first two games of the season against non-D1 schools, Boston College didn’t top 17 points even once the rest of the year. Spearheading this vaunted offense was a leading passer that only had 464 yards on the season.

Ugly – We’re staying with the offense here. In a time when offenses are upping the tempo and putting up 40s and 50s left and right, the Eagles would struggle to outscore the Red Sox. BC put up 76 points against Howard the second week of the season. They then proceeded to score just 73 points COMBINED in their eight conference games. The cherry on top of this offensive ineptitude sundae was an October contest where they ran the ball 54 times and didn’t even get to 200 yards, getting shut out at home by Wake Forest.

Clemson Tigers

Good – Does the whole season count? Clemson had its best season in recent memory, finding itself at the top spot every week of the playoff committee’s rankings. After losing most of the starters off college football’s top defense of 2014, the Tigers managed to have one of the best defenses again. DeShaun Watson, coming off a torn ACL, was a Heisman finalist in just his sophomore season and led the Tigers to the national title game. Though falling just short against the Alabama empire, Watson had a scintillating performance against the Tide defense that will propel him to be the Heisman favorite going into 2016.

Bad – It’s hard to find the bad for a team that started the year 14-0. In this spot we have to look at the defense, which might have to do more re-tooling for next year. Brent Venables did an incredible job in 2015 but it may take more next year. That’s because the Tigers may lose DE Shaq Lawson and CB Mackensie Alexander to the NFL draft, both of whom were stars of the Clemson defense. It always hurts to lose players early to the NFL, it hurts even worse when those players are just redshirt sophomores.

Ugly – The Tigers had every opportunity to win the championship on Monday night, but big plays allowed Alabama to stay in the game. They gave up a 50 yard touchdown run to Derrick Henry. Besides that long run, they held the Heisman winner to just 108 yards on 35 carries, barely over three yards per carry. The defense was also smothering QB Jacob Coker, but mental breakdowns allowed him to have a big second half. Blown coverages accounted for two 50+ yard touchdowns to OJ Howard, which also accounted for almost 1/3 of Coker’s passing yards. Then there was the back-breaking kickoff-return touchdown by Kenyan Drake. While Clemson’s offense consistently moved the ball on Alabama throughout the game, it felt the opposite for the Tide’s offense. Clemson shut down Alabama for longer stretches, but the coverage breakdowns allowed the Crimson Tide to not just stay in the game, but ultimately win it.

Duke Blue Devils

Good – While 2015 saw the fewest wins from the Duke football team in the last three years, it’s hard not to consider an 8-5 season a success for a basketball school. To top it off, they had the aforementioned bowl win against Indiana, a 44-41 OT thriller. It just so happened to be the first bowl win in 55 years.

Bad – The Blue Devils were riding high at one point, sitting at a stellar 6-1. Then the Miami game happened. And the last play lateral controversy happened. Duke didn’t handle the outcome of that ending well and it showed. They went on a slide that saw them lose three more games with the defense getting torched in all three.

Ugly – Duke had the unfortunate position of having to face a rival following that Miami game. Normally heading to Chapel Hill for a football game isn’t something you’d worry too much about, but this year happened to be the one wear Larry Fedora had the Tar Heels’ offense humming. The Blue Devils had their worst defensive performance in a year that was full of bad ones, giving up 66 points and over 700 yards in a game that was 38-10 at halftime.

Florida State Seminoles

Good – There are never really lowered expectations at Florida State, but after losing Jameis Winston and a plethora of defensive talent to the NFL, it’s hard not to consider the Seminole’s season a success considering the drop-off in QB play. Winning ten games in a down year tells you your program is in a good place. The brightest spot of the season had to be Dalvin Cook. Cook dazzled every time he was on the field and if not for a hamstring injury may have been a Heisman finalist.

Bad – Injuries. Cook’s injury was the biggest bummer for Seminoles fans. He only had 229 carries on the year (about 5 games for Alabama’s Derrick Henry) and basically missed two full games, robbing him of a shot at 2,000 yards. QB Sean Maguire’s injury in the bowl game was another tough one. While Maguire didn’t take over until the second half of the season and didn’t play all that great once he did, he was a reshirt junior who had waited a while for his chance. After waiting around another half of a season thanks to Everett Golson showing up, he was able to lead the Seminoles to a New Year’s Six bowl game but got hurt early on. He was able to finish the game but his play was clearly impacted by the injury.

Ugly – That bowl game. Maguire may have played injured, but that wasn’t the reason Florida State lost. Other aspects of the team were abysmal and it was clear Florida State was not nearly as amped up to be there as Houston. FSU rushed for just 16 yards and had five turnovers which were only partially to blame for giving up 38 points to an offense that had Greg Ward Jr. and not much else.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Good – Ugh..Umm. Can anybody help here? The Yellow Jackets had a dismal season from the start. One bright spot however was that Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack still resulted in the 7th most rushing yards per game in the country.

Bad – Here’s another team that more than struggled on the defensive side of the ball. The Yellow Jackets couldn’t put pressure on the quarterback (121st in sacks) or create turnovers (T-92nd in interceptions). The defense was at its worst during a five game mid-season stretch that saw them allow over 30 points in each game.

Ugly – This whole year couldn’t get over soon enough. Tech started the year in the Top 25 and after beating two doormats by a combined 134-16 to start the year it was hard to tell anything was wrong. After being ranked 14th heading into Week 3, the Yellow Jackets went 1-9 in their last ten games with their only win coming in improbable fashion, scoring a touchdown off a blocked field goal as time expired.

Louisville Cardinals

Good – The Cardinals began the year on some sleeper lists but that was quickly vanquished after starting 0-3. Though the opening season loss to Auburn isn’t exactly one to put on the resume, looking back the three-point losses to Houston and Clemson don’t look so bad. It would have been easy to fold after that start, but the Cardinals bounced back by finishing strong and winning eight of their last ten games.

Bad – You would expect teams to play worse on the road, but Louisville definitely underwhelmed away from home considering the talent level on the team. A couple of single-digit wins over NC State and Wake Forest hardly make up for getting crushed at Florida State and losing by 11 against Pitt.

Ugly – For a Bobby Petrino-led team, the offense was awfully hard to watch at times. Petrino couldn’t settle on a quarterback and it seemed like no matter if Lamar Jackson or Kyle Bolin were behind center, the offense could never find consistency. Jackson often dazzled as a runner, but was nowhere near good enough as a passer to provide the type of threat we’ve come accustomed to seeing out of Petrino passing attacks.

Miami Hurricanes

Good – The improvement of young offensive players. The Hurricanes started an incredibly young offensive line in its bowl game. Though the team lost, the line wasn’t a disaster and bodes well heading into next season. Sophomore RB Joe Yearby quietly surpassed 1,000 yards on almost five yards per carry and should grow with the offensive line. The brightest sign however was the improvement of sophomore QB Brad Kaaya. Kaaya improved his completion percentage and threw one less interception on 11 more throws.

Bad – Head Coach Al Golden was fired. While in the long run this was probably needed for the program, it’s a definite sign that things aren’t going well if the coach is getting fired.

Ugly – Part of the reason Golden got fired? How about a 58-0 loss to Clemson. At home. I don’t care who you’re playing, if you are a Power 5 conference team you shouldn’t lose by this much, especially at home. This game was embarrassing. Almost as embarrassing was Miami giving up 59 in a 38 point loss to North Carolina. Those two games put a dark cloud over an otherwise solid 8-4 regular season.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Good – The Tar Heels had one of the best seasons in school history, going 11-3 and not losing a conference game until the ACC Championship against title runner-up Clemson. It was led by a balanced and explosive offense that finished 11th in the country in scoring at 41 points per game.

Bad – Thanks to UNC’s loss to Clemson in the conference championship game, their opening season loss to South Carolina didn’t cost them an undefeated season and shot at the playoff. But man was that a bad loss. South Carolina went on to be a dumpster fire, with Steve Spurrier quitting in the middle of the year. Somehow that high-scoring Tar Heel offense was held to just 13 points by a team that’s only other wins on the year came against UCF and Vandy.

Ugly – UNC managed to one-up its opening season loss with its bowl performance, bookending its season with an equally embarrassing loss to Baylor. As good as the offense had been all year, the defense was just as bad if not worse in the bowl game. Going up against a team that had seemingly every offensive playmakers out and wasn’t a threat to pass, the Tar Heels allowed the Bears to rush for a bowl record 645 yards.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

Good – NC State was a mediocre team, just as their 7-6 record would have you believe. But unlike other undermanned squads (ahem, Miami) the Wolfpack didn’t roll over against superior competition. NC State brought their A game when they had to, losing by a respectable 17 at Doak Campbell against Florida State, by 15 to Clemson, and just 11 to North Carolina after giving their rival a scare for much of that game.

Bad – Overall it was a disappointing year, but particularly for Jacoby Brissett. Brissett came out of high school as a somewhat highly regarded prospect and after transferring to NC State following two years at Florida, he put up 23 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions for the Wolfpack in 2014 while adding over 500 yards on the ground. Because of this, he came into 2015 with some deep sleeper Heisman buzz and high hopes for his team. It never came together for either as the senior QB saw a regression in almost every passing category.

Ugly – The kicking game. Teams like Florida have gotten more national attention for their kicking woes, but NC State was right there with them, resulting in the team attempting the 7th most 4th down conversions in the country. Nothing outside of 30 yards was a gimme, as just 6/9 field goals from 30-39 yards were converted and a grand total of zero field goals made from beyond 37 yards.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Good – The run game for the Panthers showed that it isn’t just a one-man show. Lead back James Conner went down in the first game after running for 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. With an iffy passing attack, it was fare to wonder how Pitt would score. But Qadre Ollison stepped in and was a nice surprise, leading the Panthers ground attack finishing with a more than respectable 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.3 ypc.

Bad – Pitt had a good regular season, going 8-4 and hovering around the fringe of the Top 25 for much of the year. That’s what made the team’s bowl performance so disappointing. Even with extra weeks to prepare for Navy’s triple option offense, the Panthers defense was trampled, giving up four touchdowns to Keenan Reynolds.

Ugly – As nice of a surprise as the running game was post-Conner, the passing “attack” was not a surprise. It was awful. Pitt finished 95th in passing yards per game, a number you’d expect to see from a team like Georgia Tech or Navy. Further illustrating how ineffective the passing game was, the Panthers threw for less than 200 yards in 8 of the team’s 13 games.

Syracuse Orangemen

Good – They say you need to defend home turf. Well as limited as Syracuse was talent wise, they did everything they could to give the hometown faithful something to cheer about. ‘Cuse went 4-3 at home with those three losses coming to Pittsburgh by just three, Clemson by just ten and LSU by just ten as well. That’s how you keep the Carrier Dome rockin’.

Bad – Ok maybe “rockin” wasn’t the right term for Syracuse home games. Though the Orangemen kept things close against good teams, it certainly wasn’t keeping the fans awake with an exciting offense. They struggled to score points and even though they ran the ball 139 more times than they passed it, they still only finished 76th in rushing yards per game.

Ugly – They must have spent all of their energy during home games, because Syracuse road games usually weren’t close. They lost all five contests away from home by an average of 18 points.

Virginia Cavaliers

Good – There wasn’t much to cheer about for Cavaliers fans in a season that resulted in the team hiring a new coach, but Taquan Mizzell was a lone bright spot. Mizzell showed play-making abilities that at least gave fans hopes of a big play when the ball was in his hands. A running back, Mizzell actually had more yards receiving (721) than rushing (671) but scored four times each via both methods.

Bad – Like most bad teams, they can usual salvage something at the end of a bad season by beating a rival. Virginia had that opportunity in the season finale against Virginia Tech in a game they had control of in the fourth quarter. A defensive meltdown and turnovers allowed the Hokies to take it to over time and get the comeback win. On top of it, it gave Frank Beamer the opportunity to do this.

Ugly – Usually for bad Power 5 teams, the offense or defense is at least average. This was not the case for Virginia, where there was little hope no matter what side of the ball was on the field. Their scoring offense finished 93rd in the nation. Not to be outdone, the defense was 96th.

Virginia Tech Hokies

Good – Virginia Tech has slid from ACC powerhouse to mediocrity for the last few years and 2015 was no different. Considering Frank Beamer basically built the program, it was nice for the Hokies to not only get that comeback win against rival Virginia, but also send Beamer into retirement with a win, notching a 55-52 victory in their bowl game.

Bad – Even though the Hokies haven’t been relevant on the national scene in a while, folks in Blacksburg could still always rely on the defense to be nasty and make difficult for even the best of the opponents. But even that slipped in Beamer’s final year where the Hokies had just the 47th best scoring defense.

UglyBeamer dabbing, again. And I’m not just one of those people who hates what “the kids are doing these days” but I can’t stand the Dab to begin with and Beamer’s rendition frankly makes me cringe.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Good – Wake Forest was probably the toughest team to find something good for. I think QB John Wolford did enough to give Demon Deacon fans some hope for the future. Given that he was just a sophomore, he did about as reasonably well as you could expect in a five-game stretch that included games at North Carolina, home to Louisville, at Notre Dame, and at Clemson.

Bad – Believe it or not, Wake was actually 3-3 at one point with their eyes on a potential bowl bid. Their wins weren’t anything to write home about but they also played tough against Indiana and Florida State. And then reality hit and the team lost their last six, most in ugly fashion.

Ugly – 120th in scoring, as a Power 5 team, is unacceptable. Oh and 33 PLAYERS had more rushing yards than Wake Forest had as a team all season.

 

 

Featured Image courtesy of Lauren Nelson

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.

Oh Virginia

Oh Virginia.  Poor, poor Virginia. You know what Virginia football is?  It’s Rudy Ruettiger, the totally undersized kid who defied the skeptics and walked on to the Notre Dame football team in the 1970s.  He’d go to practice and get beat all to hell but he’d come back for more punishment the next day. That’s Virginia football. Overmatched, taking the beating, coming back for more. The school wants so desperately to be big time and for its football program to be as successful as the school’s other teams.  It’s not there yet and the schedule is not helping the turnaround effort. Whoever makes Virginia’s schedule has a very overinflated image of the current state of the school’s football program.

The football program is the outlier. The Cavaliers have had four losing seasons in a row.  The coach’s seat is so hot that he can’t sit down, not even for a second. So, in a season where Virginia desperately needs to post a winning record to change the losing culture and reverse the fan apathy that is taking hold in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers opened the 2015 season against two top-15 teams.  Hardly a cure.

Virginia went to UCLA two weeks ago and got a predictable result, looking overmatched in a 34-16 loss.  This past weekend the Cavaliers played host to Notre Dame. The Irish now are obligated to play five ACC teams per year as a condition of its ACC membership in all sports but football and either the league scheduling office hates Virginia or else the Hoos are just plain unlucky (more on that later) to have drawn Notre Dame in a season in which it already had games against UCLA and Boise State on the calendar.   Head coach Mike London has repeatedly said he has no input on the making of the schedule and that the schedule is what it is, but for a coach trying to hang on to his job, playing three ranked nonconference teams in the first month of the season has to have him shouting a very loud “WTF!” when he is alone.

Against UCLA, Virginia looked no better–and perhaps worse–than last year’s team. Virginia was unable to finish drives with touchdowns, Virginia committed silly penalties, Virginia surrendered long plays on defense. Virginia was in over its head. So it was somewhat surprising that Notre Dame came to Charlottesville as only an eleven-point favorite given that the Irish totally dominated Texas 38-3 in week one. Well, guess what?  The odds makers knew something that most fans didn’t.

In a game that could have gone a long way towards fixing Virginia’s problems, Notre Dame avoided a colossal upset when WR and All-America candidate Will Fuller got free behind the Virginia defense and hauled in a 39-yard game-winning touchdown pass from backup QB DeShone Kizer with 12 seconds left in the game. Prior to that, Virginia had put together one of its best drives in years, a 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an Albert Reid one-yard touchdown plunge. Leading by one point, Virginia tried and failed on the two-point conversion that would have at least allowed for overtime in the event of a last-minute Notre Dame field goal.  Instead, the Irish took advantage of some last-second confusion at the line of scrimmage and sent Fuller on a double move fly route that got him behind the defense and Kizer, in relief of starter Malik Zaire, delivered a perfect strike.

Hoping to post the weekend’s biggest upset, Virginia instead became internet cannon fodder. #SadVirginiafan was instantly a trending meme on Twitter.

sadvafan

The mantra for this year’s Virginia team is “finish.”  Finish plays. Finish drives with touchdowns and finish games with wins.  Finish, finish, finish.  In every media opportunity, Virginia’s players have talked about finishing. Yet for the fourth time in its last eight games Virginia lost the game when it couldn’t hold a late lead.  And for the second time in three games, it couldn’t hold a lead with under two minutes to play. A different result in those two games and Virginia’s football trajectory would be totally different. Up, not down. Hold a late lead against Virginia Tech last November and the Hoos would have been bowl-eligible and would have broken Tech’s silly stranglehold on the rivalry.  Beat Notre Dame last weekend and observers talk about Virginia perhaps being one of this year’s surprise teams despite the murderous schedule.

But Virginia didn’t win either of those games.  That’s the reality. Yes, there were plenty of positives.  QB Matt Johns was stellar, mixing pocket poise with an improvisational ability that allowed him to extend plays.  WR Canaan Severin was fantastic, hauling in 11 passes for 153 yards and consistently making contested catches. The running game was better and tailback Taquan Mizzell may be about ready to deliver on the hype that accompanied his commitment. Perhaps best of all, heavily-criticized offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild opened up the offense in a way that Virginia hasn’t seen during his tenure. The defense, which was identified as a potential weakness after the early departures of DE Eli Harold and LB Max Valles, has struggled to get off the field and will need to get better to give the Hoos a chance to recover from this 0-2 start.

It is said that good teams find a way to win.  Virginia may be a good team with talented players, but it doesn’t yet know how to win.  For the program to break through, it is going to have to find a way to win one of these close games. Run out the clock, stuff the run. Make an interception, force a fumble. Score 200 points. Sack the quarterback, break up a pass.  Hell, we don’t care.  We aren’t proud.  We’d be fine with the opposing player tripping over his own feet just short of the goal line or having the guy behind the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings turn on the sprinklers during a field goal attempt.  Whatever it takes, Virginia needs to finish a game.

Virginia Continues to Beat Itself

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Virginia has been its own worst enemy this year. Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

Turnovers have been both the boon and the bane of Virginia’s football existence this season. In fact, with better ball security I think that Virginia would be 6-4 or 7-3, not 4-6. The Cavaliers almost certainly beat themselves in losses to UCLA and UNC and probably did so again Saturday night in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that is undefeated but not invincible.  Virginia’s defense has played well enough to give the team a chance in every game this year but the offense has given the ball away at a rate that nearly matches the defense’s ability to get it back. What’s even more troubling is that Virginia’s turnovers have come not in the middle of the field but rather when Virginia is either in the red zone or in the shadow of its own goalposts. It’s hard to blame turnovers on coaching but with the staff on exceedingly thin ice, you can be sure that the boobirds are finding a way to pin Virginia’s turnover problem on embattled coach Mike London.

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The Cavaliers’ 24 takeaways places the team 10th nationally in turnovers created. However, its 22 turnovers places the team 116th out of 125 teams in a ranking of ball security. Overall, Virginia’s +2 turnover margin is good for just 51st. As I wrote last week, only Appalachian State among FBS teams has more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five. When you couple that with Virginia’s propensity for turning red zone chances into field goals rather than touchdowns it is obvious that Virginia has let slip way too many scoring chances. As a result, Virginia’s promising 4-2 start has become a 4-6 spiral. The Hoos have an bye week to try to get the offensive line healthy before taking on Miami at home and Virginia Tech on the road in an attempt to break Tech’s ten-year stranglehold on the rivalry. The Tech game, for many reasons, will likely decide London’s fate. Beat Miami and Tech and London and the Cavs will be bowl eligible and he will finally have beaten Virginia Tech. That’s measurable progress. The Cavaliers undoubtedly are an improved team this year but the statistical improvement is not translating into wins.  If Virginia beats Tech and loses to Miami, the case for London’s retention becomes more questionable. With five wins–Virginia Tech being one of them–a case might be made that the incremental progress plus London’s recruiting ability should be enough to give him another year. But has London’s recruiting actually matched his reputation as a recruiter?

Mike London’s supporters have—in the absence of on-field success—pointed out that Virginia has made great recruiting progress with him at the helm. Virginia is a state that produces an outsized share of high major talent and the Tidewater area of the commonwealth is a hunting ground for every major program in the country. London’s predecessor, Al Groh, famously alienated many coaches at the state’s top high schools, with the result being that Virginia Tech and out-of-state programs became the destinations of choice for the state’s top talent.  Every recruiting analyst will tell you that state schools must be able to retain in-state talent. Under Al Groh Virginia had lost that ability. In-state schools—for a variety of reasons—should have an advantage over other schools when recruiting local talent.

Mike London must be given credit for repairing the damage Groh caused.  His message of ‘faith, family, and football” has resonated with recruits and their parents, who often are anxious about having their children away from home and are looking for a coach who will look after their children both on and off the field.  In Al Groh’s last recruiting class only one of the state’s top 30 players, Henry Coley, signed with Virginia.  Last year Virginia signed four of the state’s top 30, but two of them–Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown–were rated among the top recruits in the nation. Virginia has taken commitments from 91 players under Mike London.  Sixty-seven of those 91 recruits have been accorded three stars or less by ESPN.  Predicting college success for high schools players is a notoriously inexact science.  Two three-star members of Virginia’s 2012 recruiting class, Max Valles and Canaan Severin, now star for the Cavaliers while the top signee in Virginia’s 2013 class, Taquan Mizzell, has yet to become the star that his ranking would suggest.   London’s reputation as a recruiter seems to have been bolstered by a few high-profile in-state signings because the majority of his recruits are only of average ability per the ESPN rankings.   To London’s credit, his recruits appear to be good citizens.  His demand for personal accountability is a very real component of the recruiting process and has tended to weed out problem players.   Would Mizzell already  be a star at another scho0l like Alabama?  As a 5-star recruit he certainly could have gone anywhere he wanted to play football. Has Virginia’s weakness along the offensive line hampered Mizzell’s playmaking abilities? A recruiting class that is top heavy with a few stars but weak on the back end won’t fix Virginia’s problems.

London’s pitch to recruits has been the possibility of early playing time and the chance to help turn the program around.  That message works until recruits realize that the program is not in fact improving.  Playing in a losing program is a mentally taxing and hurts a player’s chances for a professional career.  When the coach’s job security becomes an issue, recruits go elsewhere and the coach’s recruiting reputation suffers.  London isn’t a bad recruiter and his connections to the state have allowed Virginia to get back into the mix with the state’s best players, but I don’t think that his recruiting record is such that Virginia will retain him if the Cavaliers post another losing record.

 

 

 

Blue Horseshoe Loves UVa Football

If Virginia football was a stock, a week before the season opens or “trading” starts, would you buy, sell, hold, or avoid at all costs? There is one thing for certain about potentially investing in UVa Football, Inc., the shares are going to be cheap. Beaten down from the historical highs of the late 1980’s and 1990s, UVa football might even be a penny stock as we start the 2014 trading season.
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Like any company battling to win back customer and investor confidence, the 2014 Virginia football season is all about execution.  The ‘Hoos must improve in every phase of the game. There are 14 teams in the ACC. At the end of the 2013 season, in almost every statistical team category, Virginia’s ranking was a double-digit number. Let’s look at the basics. How did Virginia rank in putting points on the board and keeping opponents out of the end zone? This would be like looking at a balance sheet and income statement. Virginia was second to last in the ACC in scoring offense and last in scoring defense. Oddly enough, we were 10th and 11th respectively in passing and rushing yards which suggests that Virginia moved the ball, but then self destructed. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Virginia ranked in the bottom quartile of the NCAA for most penalties per game. Virginia did lead the ACC in one category in 2013…punting yardage. Thanks to Alec Vozenilek who did an outstanding job punting last year combined with the fact that no one in the ACC punted more often than Virginia, the Cavs led the league in the one category where it’s okay to finish last. Are you ready to sink your 401K into UVA Football, Inc yet?
 
When a company doesn’t have the best results to report to the street, investors always look to management for a track record of success and for assets that can drive profitable revenue in the future. Virginia has mixed news here as well. A leadership shakeup just before the 2013 season set the program back 3 years as new schemes were introduced on both offense and defense with predictable results. This is analogous to taking a very large charge against earnings. However, the new leadership has a track record of success. Specifically Tom O’Brien has led major turn around successes at Boston College and NC State as head coach and at UVa working on the staff of Jack…I mean George Welsh. The current staff knows how to win at this level and has the track record to prove it. Additionally, the UVa roster has talent across the board with offensive and defensive playmakers that could play for many of the best national programs. The offensive line is the biggest question mark heading into the UCLA opener on Saturday. It is talented, but young and for the most part untested.  The O-Line sustained two untimely preseason injuries to Jay Whitmire and Sadiq Olanrewaju – both projected starters. If the Offensive line can create a few seams for Kevin Parks and Taquan Mizzell and give Greyson Lambert a little time to find his playmakers, this offense will be vastly improved from 2013. Still not ready to buy?
 
Before you decide whether to invest in UVa football or a different ACC program, remember that many investors lose their shirts chasing last year’s winner. I am not saying that Florida State isn’t going to be very good and potentially repeat as national champion, but the program is flying high, trading at a hefty premium. Clemson is coming off a very productive year and should open the season trading at a premium as well based on recruiting classes that have ranked in the top 15 nationally each of the past 4 years. Other teams like UNC and Miami are going to jump on preseason hype and the promise of improved results over 2013. If I were shorting any program it would be Duke. As wonderful as the turn around story was for Duke football in 2013, the upside to improve on last year’s performance is limited at best. Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel, not Duke Football.
 
If Virginia football was a stock, I’d be buying, but I wouldn’t bet the farm. The best returns are found in under valued stocks that can double or triple over time versus buying the $ 100 stock that goes up five bucks over the same period. There is no program with greater upside than Virginia and many of the pieces in place to deliver on its potential. There is a leadership team in place that has turned around other troubled programs. The talent, based on recruiting rankings is as good or better than many programs in the ACC. The key is execution, making first downs, finishing drives, avoiding stupid penalties, and converting turnovers into points. Virginia didn’t do any of these things well last year and has the stats to prove it. Virginia has the talent and leadership that should produce much improved results in 2014. If Billy Ray Valentine and Louis Winthorpe III can get rich while sending Mortimer and Randolph Duke to the poor house, then Virginia can win 6 games this year and deliver big returns for all of us who believe.

UVA: Recruiting Wins Cause for Optimism?

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Mike London needs to convert recruiting wins into actual wins in 2014.

For modern-day Virginia football fans, the George Welsh-era casts a light of hopeful illumination over a program that last year endured its worst-season since 1982.  Lauded as one of the greatest turnaround artists in college football history, Welsh took the University of Virginia (and the Naval Academy before that) to heights not scaled since his retirement in 2000.  His UVA record of 134-86-3 included 14 consecutive years with at least seven wins and proved conclusively that UVA could win despite its reputation for academic rigor. If it was done once it can be done again, Virginia fans insist. They are still waiting.
Welsh’s successors have proved unable to maintain the momentum he established and UVA since then could be characterized as a program in a steadily decaying orbit. Following Welsh’s (some say forced) retirement UVA turned to Al Groh and under his direction the program had several memorable years. Fans had hope. The 2002 team won 9 games. The 2004 squad started 5-0 and reached #6 in the national polls. The 2007 team won 9 games, with an NCAA record five of those wins coming by two points or less.
Groh was winning at an acceptable rate but cracks began to appear in the program.  While UVA had seemingly settled into a “seven wins and a bowl game” mindset, rival Virginia Tech was coming on fast.  UVA fans vociferously objected when Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, sensing that ACC affiliation was all that stood between Virginia Tech and state football supremacy. They were right. Virginia has not beaten Tech since.  Tech’s on-field success and ACC status made the school dominant in recruiting in-state talent.  Virginia produces football talent at a level just below powerhouse states Texas, Florida, and California and keeping that talent at home is a priority for the state’s Division 1 coaches. Groh wasn’t doing that.  There were reports that Groh had strained relations with coaches at some of the state’s top high school programs, especially those in the talent-rich Tidewater area.  Eventually, Groh’s inability to recruit in-state talent, his surliness with fans and the media, his record against Tech, his willingness to burn red-shirts to no real advantage, and UVA fans’ abandonment of the program cost Groh his job. He was let go at the end of the 2009 season.
The Cavaliers turned then to Mike London, a former Groh assistant and a coach who had guided the Richmond Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) National Championship in 2008.  UVA fans hoping for a big name to make a recruiting splash perceived this as a questionable hire. UVA, however, was sensitive to criticism it received for having to buy out the remainder of Groh’s contract during a time of dwindling state financial support and resultant budgetary cuts.  With already good in-state recruiting ties, London was, financially at least, a lower risk.
Like Groh before him, London delivered a season early on that gave UVA fans reason for optimism.  His 2011 team won 8 games before getting steamrolled by Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.   Virginia stumbled in 2012, losing 8 of its last 10 to finish 4-8. Fan nervousness was offset partially by the fact that London appeared to be a players’ coach and was once again bringing top-level in-state and national talent to Charlottesville.  UVA fans logically believed that London’s recruiting wins were a precursor to gridiron success.  The one-sided nature of the Virginia Tech rivalry remained an issue, however. The 17-14 loss in 2012 was as close as UVA had gotten since a loss by the same score in 2008.
Last year, the program crashed. Hard. A season that began with a somewhat surprising and frankly miraculous win over BYU was followed the next week by a 59-10 home loss to #2 Oregon that gave UVA fans a very clear picture of where the program stood in its quest for national relevance.  After cruising past an overmatched VMI team that UVA had no business playing, nine consecutive opponents bested Virginia and exposed all of the team’s flaws.  The losing streak was attributed to new offensive and defensive schemes, new coordinators, a largely untested QB, a shaky offensive line, bad game management, and lack of upper class depth.  A program that had struggled for a decade to stay afloat lost all buoyancy, posting an oh’fer in the ACC and dropping to the bottom quartile of many national statistical rankings.
All struggling programs sell optimism when wins are scarce and UVA is doing some hard selling this year. Despite its 2-10 record UVA had a very good recruiting year, garnering commitments from twin Tidewater 5-stars DL Andrew Brown and S Quin Blanding and several other highly-touted in-state and national recruits.  With Brown, Blanding and last year’s 5-star addition, RB Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, in uniform this year, UVA likely will have more talent than at any time since the Welsh era.   Last year’s very young team is a year older and returns 9 starters on a defense led by senior All-American safety Anthony Harris.  Highly recruited Greyson Lambert has supplanted the popular-but-ineffective David Watford at QB. Lambert will have the luxury of handing off to Mizzell and Kevin Parks, the ACC’s only returning 1000-yard rusher. The transfer of senior TE Jake McGee to Florida no doubt hurts the passing game but sophomore Keeon Johnson flashed big play potential last year and Lambert will have ample receiving talent at his disposal.
This team certainly does not lack for talent and London’s recruiting ability has gained him another year to try to turn this program around.  Virginia was one of only 8 teams to sign more than one 5-star recruit last year and the only one with a losing record. With more game experience this team should show better execution on both sides of the ball.  There is no guarantee that this additional depth and experience will show up in the win column because every one of UVA’s 2014 FBS opponents was bowl eligible last year.
Most pundits predict that UVA will need to gain bowl eligibility this year for London to keep his job. London has proven his prowess as a recruiter but ultimately recruiting wins are not as important as actual wins. It is time to turn this impressive collection of individual talent into a winning team. If UVA flounders around at the bottom of the Coastal Division again no number of recruiting wins will save his job.