Random bubble thoughts and theories, 3/8

I’m going to wait a few days before writing a post-mortem on The Citadel’s hoops season.  It was a little bit of an odd year.  Part of me is disappointed in the overall record (16-16, 9-9), but another part of me remembers that in the last two years the Bulldogs have won 24 SoCon games.  In the six previous years, The Citadel had won 15.  Total.

The past brings perspective.

Sometimes the past also helps when trying to evaluate bubble teams and seeding scenarios.  The membership of the selection committee has changed over time, of course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look back and see what the committee did when presented with certain situations.

— Let’s face it, the Pac-10 is wretched this season.  California won the outright Pac-10 title.  Is that good enough to guarantee the Bears an at-large bid if they don’t win the Pac-10 tourney?

History says yes.  Exhibit A:  Air Force, 2004.  That season the Falcons were 22-5 during the regular season and won the Mountain West, but did almost nothing outside the league, managing to beat no one of consequence and losing games to UT-Pan American and Belmont.  However, Air Force was 12-2 in league play and won the MWC outright by two games.

Air Force lost in the quarterfinals of the MWC tournament to Colorado State (by 12 points).  Despite that, the Falcons still made the NCAAs.  When asked about it, selection committee chairman Bob Bowlsby noted AFA’s less-than-stellar profile, but pointed out that the Falcons had been the regular-season champion of a top-10 league — and that achievement, in the opinion of the committee, merited Air Force’s inclusion.

I can’t say I disagree with that argument.  (It’s certainly a better line of reasoning than the one Bowlsby’s successor as committee chair, Craig Littlepage, gave for the committee’s absurd decision to put Air Force in the field two years later.  I still have no idea how that was justified.)

If winning a top-10 league is good enough, then Cal is safe.  Admittedly, it’s not quite the same situation; Air Force won the MWC in 2004 by two games, while Cal edged Arizona State by just one game in the standings.  Also, 12-2 is better than 13-5.  Still, it’s a factor, as is the fact we’re talking about the Pac-10, and not one of the “mid-major” leagues (even if it isn’t as good as some of those leagues this season).  Cal better not lose in the Pac-10 quarterfinals, though.

Incidentally, the same argument would presumably work in the favor of Utah State.

— Could last-second seeding adjustments actually happen?

This season there will be four conference title games played on Selection Sunday.  The SEC, ACC, and Atlantic 10 title games will all tip at 1 pm ET, while the Big 10 final will start at 3:30 pm ET.

Let’s say that Duke and Ohio State are both in their respective conference finals. Would the committee wait until the end of the Big 10 game to finalize the seeding?

Someone asked Joe Lunardi about this in an ESPN “chat session” :

A lot of experts think that Ohio State has the best shot this side of Durham to collect the final 1-seed if they win the Big Ten tournament. Isn’t there a good chance though that they could get screwed by the schedule. The Big Ten final doesn’t start until 3:30 on Sunday and the ACC championship is at at 1:00 on Sunday. I know that the brackets take a long time to put together and the top seeds are placed first. If Duke lost in the Final and Ohio State won, is it possible that their fates would already be set before those games finish?

Joe Lunardi:  It has happened this way in the past…More recently, however, the Committee has built multiple brackets accounting for the various Sunday scenarios. I would be disappointed in this group if they bailed on the process and didn’t finish the job (and I do not expect they will).

Lunardi may be right, but I think most of those “various Sunday scenarios” have revolved around teams playing on Sunday who were “auto bid or bust” types — like Mississippi State last season, or Georgia the year before that.  I’m less than sure the committee is going to wait until the last moment (or prepare alternative brackets) for a question of one seeding line.  Besides, should one game really be the difference between a team getting a 1 or a 2?  What about the previous 30+ games?

This reminds me that in the past, there were occasionally conference tournaments still going on when the selections were announced.  The Big West did this several times (this was back when UNLV was in the league).  It invariably led to scenarios where the committee would have either/or bracket lines where a team would be in the field, unless the Big West had a surprise champ (in other words, if  Vegas didn’t win).

This finally ended after the committee basically decided to hose any at-large hopeful out of the Big West until it quit playing its tourney so late.  I recall Long Beach State being a bubble team that found out at halftime of the conference final that it had to win, or else.

Another league that at one time played its final after the pairings was the SWAC.  Now, with the SWAC there wasn’t any at-large issues; it was just a question of what team would advance.  However, it did pose a problem for the committee when trying to seed.  These days the SWAC is an easy 16 (if not play-in game) pick, but back then it wasn’t always the case.

One year the committee puzzled just about everyone by deciding the winner of the SWAC title game would get a 13 seed.  Nobody could believe the SWAC got so high a seed, especially because no one knew yet which team would be the league representative.

As it happened, Southern won the tournament final (televised immediately after the selection show), and the lucky 4 seed it drew as an opponent was ACC tournament champ Georgia Tech.  Well, maybe not so lucky.  Ben Jobe’s Jaguars shocked Bobby Cremins’ Yellow Jackets in the first round, 93-78.

— This season, there seem to be several “as long as they don’t lose to a really bad team, they should be okay” situations.  It’s all right if Virginia Tech loses to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, but if Miami upsets the Demon Deacons and then beats the Hokies, VT is in trouble.  Washington might get an at-large bid if it loses to Cal in the Pac-10 final, but can’t afford to lose to another school — and it also would hurt the Huskies if their semifinal opponent wasn’t Arizona State.

As mentioned earlier, Cal can’t afford to lose in the Pac-10 quarters.  Utah State needs to avoid losing until it plays Nevada in the WAC final, because Nevada is hosting the event, and a loss then would be more acceptable.  However, Utah State couldn’t afford to lose to another school in the final, because then it would be a neutral-site loss.  Also in the same position, perhaps, is UTEP, which could face host Tulsa in the C-USA semifinals.

Conversely, Mississippi needs to beat Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals — but it does the Rebels no good at all if the Vols are upset by LSU in the first round.  If that happened, then Mississippi would have to beat LSU and (presumably) Kentucky to get the needed big-win bounce.  Mississippi State is expected to play Florida in a “play-out” game in the SEC quarters, but if Auburn upends the Gators, then Mississippi State would have to beat the Tigers and Vanderbilt (if form holds) to reach the final — and it still would not have a strong enough at-large case.

Then there is Illinois, which is a good example of a team that would probably be better off not playing a game at all.  As it is, the Illini play Wisconsin for the second time in a week in the Big 10 quarterfinals — and for Illinois, it’s probably a win-you’re-in, lose-you’re-out situation.

— Memphis is starting to show up on some bubble watches.  I’m trying to figure out how a team that has not won a game this season against a prospective tournament team (unless Oakland wins the Summit League tourney) is a viable at-large candidate.

— If the tournament would have been expanded to 96 teams for this season, we would be discussing the bubble candidacies of North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, and St. John’s.  There is a good chance all four would have made the field of 96.

Expansion is such a dumb idea, it’s inevitable that it will happen…

Evaluating The Citadel’s basketball team after six SoCon games

The Citadel split its most recent four games, all in league play, which wasn’t so bad when you consider three of them were on the road, but it could have been much better — and it could have been much worse.  All four games were close, with two coming down to the final possession.  The Bulldogs were burned on a last-ditch three-pointer by UT-Chattanooga on Thursday, but recovered to outlast Samford on Saturday by one solitary point.

That Samford game, by the way, was not exactly a track meet.  The final score (51-50) reflected a game in which The Citadel had 51 possessions, while Samford had 52.  This was not a surprise, as the two teams are among the four slowest-paced outfits in Division I, both preferring an ultra-patient approach.  It’s particularly the case with Samford, which for the season is averaging just 57 possessions per game, easily the lowest number in the country.  The Citadel, at barely 60 possessions per contest, is fourth-lowest.

The slower pace definitely helps The Citadel, which is much more competitive in games in which it can control the tempo.  The importance of each possession in these types of games is something to which the Bulldogs have become accustomed, and is something not all opponents have grasped.  This has sometimes given The Citadel an advantage when playing teams that are perhaps more athletic but not as disciplined.

I know what some people are wondering about, though.  Right now The Citadel is 9-9 overall, 3-3 in the league.  This is after last season’s 20-win campaign (which included 15 SoCon victories).  What is not going right this year that went right last year?

Well, first it should be noted that the Bulldogs are almost exactly where they were last year at this time in terms of record.  Last season after 18 games The Citadel was 8-10, 3-4 in the league, coming off a loss at Wofford.  The Bulldogs then proceeded to win 11 games in a row.

I’m going to make a not-so-bold prediction now, which is that The Citadel is not about to embark on a 11-game winning streak.  Not this year, anyway.  That isn’t to say the team can’t put together a good midseason run, but there are issues that may not be easily solvable.

When looking at the team statistics, the first thing that jumps out at you is the three-point shooting, both offensively and defensively.  At first I was concerned with the defensive stats, but upon further review (stealing an NFL term) they aren’t all that bad.  Offensive output from beyond the arc, though, is another story.  The Citadel is struggling shooting the three-pointer, and I think a lot of that has to do with…interior play.

Last season in conference play, the Bulldogs only allowed opponents to shoot 28.9% from three-point land, which led the league.  This season that number has risen significantly, to 36.8%.  However, almost all of that increase  is attributable to one game, Davidson’s flukish (well, I think it was flukish) 15-27 night from beyond the arc.  If you take that game out of the equation, in five other SoCon matchups The Citadel’s defensive 3FG% is 31.1%, still a little higher than last season but acceptable.

Then there are the offensive numbers from behind the three-point line.  Last season The Citadel shot 36.7% from three-land in SoCon play; this year after six games that number is 28.5%, which is next-to-last in the league.  That includes a 10-22 shooting performance against Georgia Southern, which is the poorest team in the conference at defending the three.   The Bulldogs were solid from beyond the arc against Appalachian State (9-22) but otherwise have been mostly dreadful from deep, including 3-18 against the College of Charleston and 5-34 against UTC.

Almost as disturbing as the number of misses against the Mocs were the number of attempts, which points up another curious statistic.  The Citadel is actually averaging more points scored per game via three-pointers this season (38.7% of total points scored) than it did last year (31.1%) despite not shooting as well from outside.

Last year the Bulldogs only had four conference games (out of 20) in which they shot worse than 31% from three-point land.  This year they’ve been below that mark three times in six games.  Despite the lack of success, the Bulldogs are averaging 3 more three-point attempts per game this season than last.  So why is the three-point scoring more prominent?

The answer, I would suggest, lies in the Bulldogs’ lack of productivity inside.  The easiest way to illustrate this is The Citadel’s below-average 47.5% shooting from inside the arc (last year in league play that number was over 50%).  However, I think the real issue is the lack of made free throws.  This is where the Bulldogs really miss Demetrius Nelson.

Last season 21.2% of The Citadel’s points came at the charity stripe, which was excellent (the national average is 18%).  This year, though, the Bulldogs are only getting 13.94% of their points from the line.  That’s a big difference, especially for a team that has a limited number of possessions per game.

The Citadel averages 60.4 points per game.  13.94% of 60.4 is 8.4, so the Bulldogs are picking up a little over 8 points per game from the foul line.  Now, let’s say they were getting 21.2% of their points from free throw shooting.  That would be about 13 points per game.  Those extra 5 points make a big difference.  Last season The Citadel was 6-3 in games decided by 5 points or less.  Three of those games came during the 11-game win streak.

This year the Bulldogs are 1-2 in such games, and that doesn’t count the six-point loss to the CofC.  In that game, The Citadel shot only 8 total free throws.  In the Bulldogs’ two victories over the Cougars last season, the Citadel shot a combined 40 free throws.

The problem is that I don’t know if The Citadel can increase its free throw productivity.  Nelson averaged over 5 made free throws per game last season, which was more than every other player on the roster combined, save Cameron Wells.  This season Wells is averaging almost exactly the same number of made FTs per game as he did last year (3.3), but no one else is drawing fouls and shooting free throws.

The two primary inside players for The Citadel, Joe Wolfinger and Bryan Streeter, each are averaging one made free throw per game.  When compared to Nelson, that’s a big differential to overcome.  The essential dilemma for The Citadel is that unlike Nelson, neither is a true post threat.

Wolfinger has the size but not the strength or intuitiveness for the role.  Streeter has strength and verve, but lacks size and is not the most offensively skilled of players; he is also a poor free throw shooter.  He has made some strides this season in FT%, though, and has also improved his turnover rate by over 50%.

I’ve mentioned before that I have been impressed with Mike Groselle in his brief appearances for The Citadel, and he may be the future in the paint.  However, his development has been affected by an ankle injury, and at any rate it is probably a bit much to ask a true freshman to play major minutes in the post.

My guess is that as the season goes along Ed Conroy and his coaching staff will try to devise more ways to get players to the foul line.  Whether that means Cameron Wells (or another guard/swingman type) posting up more, I have no idea.

Without the “free” points, The Citadel is going to have to just be that much better at everything else it does offensively.  So far the Bulldogs have done a good job avoiding turnovers (the turnover rate is actually better right now than it was last season), and the rebounding, while not great, hasn’t been a major problem.  The Citadel has to continue to improve on the offensive boards, especially if it continues to struggle from outside.

There will be more missed shots, and thus more chances to grab offensive boards.  Those chances need to be taken; as I noted earlier, every possession is important.  Someone who is providing value in that respect is Harrison DuPont, who has 11 offensive rebounds in his last three games, which is outstanding.

The lack of offensive game on the interior is probably a factor in the less-than-stellar outside shooting.  Without the threat on the inside, opponents can concentrate on stopping the Bulldogs’ marksmen.

Zach Urbanus is currently in a bit of a slump from outside, shooting only 9-39 in his last seven games, including 3-19 in a two-game stretch against the CofC and UTC.  He was 1-2 against Samford, though, so perhaps becoming more selective (which is his general mode anyway) will get him back in the groove.

I’m hoping that both Urbanus and Cosmo Morabbi start shooting better from beyond the arc.  Morabbi went four straight games without a made three-pointer before hitting one against Samford.  The Bulldogs really need him to start making that 3-ball from the corner.  Conversely, Austin Dahn appears to be back on track from outside.  Dahn needs to improve his decision-making on offense just a bit, though, as of late he has been a touch turnover-prone.

Also getting time in the rotation is Daniel Eykyn, who seems to be a “glue guy” of sorts for Conroy; passes the ball, plays defense, hustles, lets other players rest, etc.  He averages one turnover every 35 minutes of play, best on the team for players with over 100 total minutes played (also taking care of the ball in limited time:  Groselle and Ben Cherry, who has no turnovers in 66 minutes of action).

As for Wells, he continues his impressive campaign, which looks a lot like last year’s impressive campaign.  He’s currently averaging almost 18 points per game, to go along with about 5 rebounds and 4 assists per contest.  He’s on the floor for 34+ minutes per game (just behind Urbanus for the team lead; both are among the national leaders in minutes played) and has close to a 2-1 assist/turnover ratio.

Wells has pilfered almost two steals per game and even leads the team in blocked shots (albeit with only five; The Citadel is tied for last in the country in blocked shots per game, sharing that less-than-ideal distinction with Nicholls State).

Next up for the Bulldogs are two home games, one on Thursday against Wofford and the second on Saturday against Furman.  After those two contests, The Citadel will have played every one of its divisional opponents at home, so the stretch run will include a lot of tough road games.  Holding serve at home is important, particularly in what I believe to be an improved Southern Conference.  The Citadel has already lost two home SoCon games and can’t afford to drop many more at McAlister Field House.

It’s not going to be easy.  First up on Thursday, as mentioned, is Wofford.  I believe Wofford may be the best team in the league, although the Terriers started 0-2 in conference play.  The loss at Western Carolina was understandable, but Wofford followed that up by losing at home to Appalachian State.  Since then, though, the Terriers have reeled off four straight SoCon victories, the most impressive of which probably being a 68-62 home win over Davidson.

It’s out of conference where Wofford has made its best impression.  The Terriers have wins over Georgia and South Carolina, not to mention a 3-point loss at Pittsburgh which looks better ever day.

The Terriers are a deep team (10 players get 10+ minutes per game; 7 of them get 17+ mpg) led by 6’6″ junior Noah Dahlman, one of the league’s best players.  Dahlman is averaging 17.7 points per game (the only Terrier averaging double figures in scoring), and shoots better than 60% from the field.  He had 20 against Pitt and 19 against South Carolina.

He’s not the only guy to watch, though, as evidenced by the win over Georgia.  Dahlman had 11 points (in only 21 minutes) in that game, but three other Terriers chipped in 10+ points to enable the Terriers to win, led by 6’8″ senior Corey Godzinski, who had 13.

Godzinski scored 12 points in last year’s game at McAlister, one of two games Wofford won over The Citadel last season (Dahlman had 17 in both contests).  The Terriers proved to be a tough matchup for the Bulldogs in 2008-09.  I suspect the same will be true this year.

Wofford isn’t a big three-point shooting team, although it is an efficient squad from closer range.  Wofford is a good passing team, leading the conference in assists per game.  The Terriers do a good job defending the outside shot, and also force more than their fair share of turnovers.  Wofford does turn the ball over itself a bit more than the norm.  The Terriers average 71.3 possessions per game in league play.

Furman looks to be much more competitive this season; after only winning 4 of 20 league games last year, the Paladins are 3-3 in the conference play entering this week’s play.  Like The Citadel, Furman has a road win against Appalachian State and a home victory over Georgia Southern.  The Paladins also have a win at Elon.

Furman is a junior-dominated team with two double-figure scorers, Amu Saaka (16.7 ppg) and Jordan Miller (15.2 ppg).  The 6’6″ Saaka, who started his career at South Florida, scored 34 points in a loss to Davidson and is also averaging 6.8 rebounds per contest.  Miller is a 6’2″ guard who had 15 points and 6 assists in the Paladins’ recent win over Georgia Southern.

Furman has been good defending the three-point shot in league play, which might trouble The Citadel.  On the other hand, the Paladins are both turnover-prone and not particularly adept at creating turnovers.  Furman averages 72+ possessions per game, so the battle to control tempo will be key.

One more thing:  at halftime of the Furman game on Saturday, The Citadel will honor the jersey of Regan Truesdale, two-time Southern Conference player of the year and the school’s all-time leading scorer.  The Citadel honored Art Musselman in similar fashion last year.  This is part of Ed Conroy’s  long-range plan for developing a hoops tradition at The Citadel, and I think it’s a really good idea.  Congratulations to Regan Truesdale, who absolutely deserves the honor.

Highlights from five games at McAlister

I’m going to discuss the actual basketball played by The Citadel over the past week and a half, including some statistics.  Before I do that, though, I’m going to mention some other statistics…about officials.

On Monday night The Citadel hosted Michigan State at McAlister Field House.  It was good of Tom Izzo to honor a commitment to play the game in Charleston (West Virginia decided to buy its way out of a trip), but I’m guessing he did ask for some big-time officials to work the game, just to make sure that the lead referee wasn’t General Rosa’s brother or something.  That’s fine, and as a result the game was officiated by Karl Hess, Jamie Luckie, and Mike Wood.

If you follow college basketball at all, you probably recognize those names, because they are on television all the time, working games from coast to coast.  They’re certainly on TV more than The Citadel (the MSU game will be the only nationally televised game this season to feature the Bulldogs). 

Mike Wood has actually worked five games in Charleston so far this season, a bit of an oddity.  He called three games at the Charleston Classic, and then worked the Thursday night game between Davidson and The Citadel.  Wood has called two games involving Davidson and two involving Penn State, and all four games were played in Charleston.  He probably did a lot of Christmas shopping on King Street, but he didn’t do any the weekend between the Davidson and MSU games. 

No, on the Saturday after the Davidson game Wood worked the Arkansas Pine Bluff-Michigan game in Ann Arbor; he then flew to Tallahassee to call the Florida International-Florida State game on Sunday before venturing back to Charleston.  The game between the Spartans and Bulldogs was Wood’s 19th of the season.

Wood actually hasn’t worked as many games as either of his Monday night colleagues.  Both Karl Hess and Jamie Luckie were working their 21st game of the season that night.  Hess had been in Washington, DC, on Sunday, calling Villanova-Maryland; the game in Charleston was his fourth in four days and his seventh in eight days.  However, Luckie had actually been a touch busier, as he was calling his tenth game in eleven days.  Luckie had been in Blacksburg on Sunday to call Georgia-Virginia Tech.

In terms of number of games officiated, the contrast between those three officials and the trio who worked the game on Saturday between Georgia Southern and The Citadel is stark.  Bill Cheek, John Corio, and Robert Robinson combined have worked only eleven games, just more than half of the total worked by Luckie (and Hess) alone.

This leads me to mention the difference in officiating in lower-echelon conferences between games played on weekdays and those on weekends.  During the week, there aren’t as many games played every night, because there are five days in which most schools will play just once.  However, on weekends there are obviously just two days, and most schools play on either Saturday or Sunday.  

The big-time officials follow the money, naturally, and the BCS leagues have the most money, so guys like Hess and Wood will work ACC or Big East games during the weekend, leaving lower-profile officials for leagues like the SoCon or the Big South.  On weeknights, it’s different; you might see one of those guys or some other TV-star ref working in the smaller conferences, because there aren’t as many games in the larger conferences on that particular night.

The quality of officiating in leagues like the Southern Conference is thus wildly variable, depending on what day a game is played.  I think this is a problem.  I don’t believe it’s a good idea for some of these guys to work so many games, either, although I can’t really fault them for doing so — they’re independent contractors, trying to make a living. 

What I would like to see is a system where a league like the SoCon can count on at least one quality veteran ref for all of its games.  This would probably mean the NCAA would have to get involved, which I realize wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, but ultimately I think there needs to be an adjustment made in the way officials are assigned to contests. 

The first game in the recent five-game homestand for The Citadel was a 69-37 pummeling of UVA-Wise, an NAIA school that was no match for the Bulldogs.  The game didn’t really do much for The Citadel, although it’s a win, and every win counts.  The defense was excellent throughout; the offense was okay but not great.  Not much else to say about that game, really.

The next night, The Citadel defeated Central Connecticut State 67-53, pulling away late in the contest.  This was a slowly-paced game (CCSU had only 53 possessions) in which the Blue Devils played zone and dared the Bulldogs to beat them from outside.  CCSU actually led at halftime, but the strategy couldn’t hold up for 40 minutes. 

Zach Urbanus was 7-13 from beyond the arc, and Cosmo Morabbi added four three-pointers of his own.  Cameron Wells had nine assists against only one turnover.  Statistically, the defense for the Bulldogs was average; perhaps playing the second game of a back-to-backer was an issue.  The Citadel also got lucky (or rather, CCSU was unlucky) in that Devil starting guard Shemik Thompson was injured and unable to play.

On Saturday, The Citadel got blitzed by a barrage of three-pointers by Davidson and lost, 74-61.  The Wildcats scored 74 points in only 61 possessions, which isn’t easy to do, but then again converting 15 three-pointers during a game isn’t easy to do either.  Six of those shots from beyond the arc came from William Archambault, who two nights later against the College of Charleston would go 0-5 from three-point land.  Against The Citadel, Davidson shot 56% from outside the line; against the Cougars the Wildcats were 4-24. 

I thought The Citadel didn’t defend that badly along the perimeter, but Davidson made its shots anyway.  That kind of thing happens sometimes, and you just hope that if it happens to your team, that the squad is good enough to hang on against the onslaught and survive.  Michigan State faced something similar in the early going against the Bulldogs (when five different players hit three-pointers before the first TV timeout), but MSU’s clear physical superiority eventually won out.  The Citadel doesn’t have the luxury of a margin for error, though.

Georgia Southern is rebuilding under new coach Charlton Young, and he’s got a bit of a job to do.  GSU has little size (at least, among its regulars in the rotation) and doesn’t shoot well from outside.  Thus, Young and the Eagles try to scramble the game.  However, against The Citadel all that scrambling resulted in only eight turnovers by the Bulldogs.  The Citadel ran its offense well, got plenty of open looks from outside and was 10-22 from three-land.  The Eagles, on the other hand, committed twenty turnovers and made only three shots from beyond the arc.

None of those made three-pointers for The Citadel came from Joe Wolfinger, as the 7-footer seemed out of place in the game and only played eleven minutes.  Another interesting move in the game was to bring Austin Dahn and Bryan Streeter off the bench.  This decision seemed to work, particularly for Dahn, who played fewer minutes than his norm but was more effective offensively.  Both players against came off the bench against Michigan State, too (with Cosmo Morabbi and Matt Clark starting).

As a starter, Dahn is 5-32 from 3-point land.  In two games as a sub, he is 4-9.  Sample size and all that, but if Dahn comes out of long shooting slump, The Citadel is a much better team, one that will be very hard for SoCon opponents to handle from an offensive perspective.

The final game of the homestand (not counting the exhibition game against Allen on Dec. 16) was the much-anticipated clash with Michigan State, live and in color on ESPNU (and in HD, unless you have DirecTV).  I was glad to see the crowd in full voice for the game, with a healthy contingent of the corps present and creating havoc.  I think most of the MSU players got a kick out of the atmosphere (Izzo certainly did).  The TV announcers seemed to enjoy working the game, too (Mark Gottfried referred to people “hanging from the rafters” at least three times).

Tangent:  I wish that type of atmosphere was the norm, or at least close to the norm, at McAlister.  The key to it being so, of course, is the corps of cadets.  There is always a hardy group of cadets at home games, often patrolling one of the baselines, but there aren’t enough of them.  As someone who regularly attended basketball games while a cadet, I find this somewhat frustrating. 

When I was in school, the cadets usually at the games were either A) football/baseball players, B) all-around sports fans (not many of those at The Citadel), and C) native New Yorkers.   Okay, that last one is a semi-exaggeration, but there were several guys from points north who had grown up on college basketball (rooting for the likes of Iona or Seton Hall) and enjoyed getting a “fix” at McAlister.  They were world-class hecklers, too.  No opponent was ever safe at a shootaround, that’s for sure.

One cool thing that happened at the Davidson game was that one of the trainers gave away some old warmups to the cadets assembled along the baseline.  I thought that was a nice gesture. 

I would like for someone (administration, leadership within the corps, whoever) to come up with a way to ensure that at least one-fourth of the cadets attend every home game.  Really, it should be more than that, but I’ll settle for one-fourth right now.

The Citadel got off to the aforementioned hot start against the Spartans and finished 12-20 from beyond the arc.  Unfortunately, the Bulldogs were only 7-29 inside the arc, which tells you which team dominated the paint (and the glass; MSU outrebounded The Citadel 35-16).  The Spartans also took 19 more free throws than the Bulldogs (two of those were by Derrick Nix, who went 0-2 and is now an almost impossible 1-19 from the free throw line for the season).

A few odds and ends, observations, etc.:

— Number of possessions for the five games, in order:  67, 55, 66, 61, 57.  Considering that the UVA-Wise game (67 possessions) was a blowout, and that the Davidson game (66) was one in which The Citadel had to increase the number of possessions because it was trailing, I think the team’s pace of play is just about where it needs to be.  Fewer than ten teams nationally play at a slower tempo. 

— After 11 games, The Citadel is 6-5.  After 11 games last season, The Citadel was 5-6.  Incidentally, Michigan State was the eleventh game in both seasons.

— I think it’s fairly clear after eleven games that Joe Wolfinger isn’t going to be a “like for like” substitute for Demetrius Nelson.  Just some raw stats from the first nine games against Division I opponents:  Wolfinger has 84 shot attempts, with 33 coming from beyond the arc, and 18 free throw attempts, while Nelson had 62 shot attempts, none of them from 3-land, and 33 free throw attempts.  Wolfinger has 52 rebounds (15 offensive) and 13 turnovers, while Nelson had 42 rebounds (16 offensive) and 19 turnovers.

Nelson got better as the season progressed (and also started taking more shots), and Wolfinger certainly has the potential to do so as well.  I think the above stats show that he needs to do a slightly better job grabbing offensive boards, and part of that has to do with shot selection — namely, his. 

When Wolfinger is shooting the three, The Citadel’s tallest player isn’t under the basket to grab an offensive rebound.  He’s obviously an excellent shooter for his size, but he probably needs to be a bit more judicious about when to shoot.  He also is going to have lots of chances to pass out of the post and pick up assists as the season goes on; he only has two assists so far. 

There is definitely something to be said, however, about having a big man who is capable of having a big night from three-land.  It’s disorienting (and sometimes disheartening) for an opponent when he converts those jumpers, and also opens up a lot of things for the other offensive players. 

— Twelve different players have seen significant time in at least one game this season.  Bo Holston followed up a DNP against Davidson with 20+ minute performances against both Georgia Southern and Michigan State.  Mike Groselle has looked very good in spot duty, but is currently struggling with a bad ankle, which just means he could play quarterback for The Citadel.  Ben Cherry and Daniel Eykyn have both had their moments, as has the Midwest City Masked Man, Harrison Dupont.

Basically, if you’re in uniform, be ready for action, because you never know when Ed Conroy is going to wave you into the game.  I guess there is a reason the Bulldogs have so many players on the roster…

— The Citadel is shooting 37.9% from 3-point land, currently second-best in the conference and in the top 70 nationally.  The Bulldogs average only 10.8 turnovers per game, 11th-best in the country, although part of that is due to a lack of possessions.  However, The Citadel’s turnover rate is still solid, as is its assist-to-turnover ratio and assist-to-made-basket ratio (top 75 overall in all three statistics). 

The Citadel commits just 14.4 fouls per game, which is in the top 10 nationally (and was even better before being called for 18 fouls against Michigan State; in that game Cosmo Morabbi was a very unlucky foul magnet).

What are things that need improvement?  Three point defense, for one.  Davidson wasn’t the only team to make more than its fair share of three-pointers against the Bulldogs; at 39.5% against, The Citadel is in the bottom 50 nationally in that category.  The Bulldogs also need to improve their rebounding (particularly on the offensive glass) and force a few more turnovers, as opponents are averaging only 12.1 per game (although part of that, again, is a function of tempo).

Now it’s time for the players to win the game called Exam Week.

Football, Game 10: The Citadel vs. UT-Chattanooga

Note:  it can be difficult to figure out what to call the athletic teams of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  Recently the school began using a ‘C’ mark, for “Chattanooga”.  The university’s teams have variously been referred to over the years as “UT-Chattanooga”, “Tennessee-Chattanooga”, “UTC”, and “Chattanooga”.

The nickname/mascot history is even more tangled.  A “moccasin” used to be a snake, then a shoe, then a cartoon Cherokee Indian called ‘Chief Moccanooga’, and now a mockingbird train conductor (and “moccasin” has morphed into “moc”, for mockingbird).

There is an explanatory page on the school’s website.  The page includes a quotation from Jimmy Fallon.  As you may have guessed, the quote is not very funny.

In the post that follows, I will call the school either “UT-Chattanooga”, or “UTC”, because that’s what I’ve always called it, and I see no particular reason to change.

Around this time last year The Citadel played UT-Chattanooga in Charleston.  It was Homecoming for the Bulldogs, and everyone expected a big win, since the Mocs were 1-9 (and would eventually finish 1-11).  At that time I wrote about how UTC had collapsed as a program after consistently challenging for league honors in its first 10-15 years in the Southern Conference.

Well, The Citadel did win that day, but barely, letting a team playing out the string with a lame-duck coach hang around and nearly steal the victory.  The Bulldogs survived thanks to Andre Roberts’ last-minute punt return TD, but despite winning the game, it was almost as poor a showing as The Citadel had for this year’s Homecoming.

UT-Chattanooga replaced Rodney Allison with Russ Huesman, who basically has the ideal background for a UTC head coach.  Huesman played high school football at famed Moeller High School in Cincinnati for Gerry Faust, who was destined to become a much-maligned coach for Notre Dame (albeit one who never lost to Navy).  Huesman then played college football for the Mocs, with his first two years under Joe Morrison and his last two under Bill “Brother” Oliver.

Huesman was a longtime assistant at William & Mary, where he coached the secondary (Huesman was a DB himself at UTC) and was later the defensive coordinator.  Players he coached while with the Tribe include longtime NFL interception magnet Darren Sharper, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.  That’s not a bad list of guys to have as references.

He then moved to Memphis for several seasons, including a stretch as recruiting coordinator for the Tigers, before spending five seasons as the defensive coordinator for Richmond, the defending FCS champions.

That’s a nice resume for any prospective head coach at the FCS level; being an alum is an even bigger bonus.  Huesman seems to have given the program some much-needed enthusiasm.  Home attendance has increased significantly, with three of the ten biggest crowds in Finley Stadium history so far this season.  There was even a bonfire on Wednesday night.

Another thing Huesman did was bring in a transfer from Tennessee to play quarterback.  B.J. Coleman has had a solid season for the Mocs, nothing flashy stats-wise but generally getting the job done.

Coleman has thrown fourteen touchdowns against six interceptions, although he did throw three picks last week against Appalachian State.  Five of his six interceptions for the season, in fact, have come in the last three games.  Coleman is a sophomore who will have two more years of eligibility after this season.

The Vols transfer has spread the ball around, although his favorite target is definitely Blue Cooper, who has 68 receptions and could conceivably make the All-SoCon squad ahead of Andre Roberts (Elon’s Terrell Hudgins is a lock for the other first-team spot at wide receiver).

UTC suffered a blow when running back Bryan Fitzgerald was injured and lost for the season.  Freshman Chris Awuah is the leading rusher for the Mocs, but he is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.  UTC is last in the league in rushing offense.

UTC has respectable, if not eye-popping, defensive statistics across the board, generally ranking in the upper half of the SoCon in most categories for conference-only games.  The Mocs have struggled, however, in defending 3rd-down conversions; the Mocs D is 7th in the league (The Citadel is 8th in the league, ahead of only Furman).  Another sore spot for the defense is red zone conversion rate; UTC is last in the SoCon, and has allowed 17 touchdowns in 25 opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

The Mocs are tied for the lead in interceptions in conference play with eight; free safety Jordan Tippet has five of his own.

One defensive stat that is very impressive for UTC:  sacks.  The Mocs have 24 sacks on the season; their 16 sacks in league play in second-best in the conference.  The primary sack-master is right defensive end Josh Beard, who has 10.5 of them so far this year.  His partner in crime on the other side of the line, freshman DE Joshua Williams, has 6.

Despite the mediocre 3rd-down defense numbers and lack of a rushing game, UTC leads the league in time of possession.  The Mocs don’t hurt themselves with penalties (second in the SoCon).  UTC is next-to-last in net punting, but features an outstanding placekicker in Craig Camay, who is 13-16 converting field goals this year, with a long of 52.  Camay is also a weapon for onside kicks; the Mocs have recovered four of five onside kick attempts in league action.

A few other odds and ends:

— I was surprised to find out that The Citadel is UT-Chattanooga’s most common opponent.  Saturday’s game will be the 43rd meeting between the two schools.  The school in second place on the Mocs most-played list?  Tennessee, which has faced UTC on 41 occasions.  The Vols are 37-2-2 in those games.

— UTC is 5-4, but if it has dreams of a winning season, it probably needs to beat The Citadel.  Next week, the Mocs play Alabama.  Yikes.

Tangent:  what is with the SEC and these late-season matchups against FCS schools?  Last week, there were four such games:  Tennessee Tech-Georgia, Furman-Auburn, Northern Arizona-Mississippi, and Eastern Kentucky-Kentucky.

Last year, of course, The Citadel closed out its season by playing Florida.  Why aren’t these games being played in the first couple of weeks of the season? I hope all of them were Homecoming games.

— UTC’s game notes reference The Citadel’s football stadium (on the same page) as “Haggod Stadium” , “Johnson Hagood Stadium”, and “Sansom Field”.

— The Citadel has never won four straight games against UT-Chattanooga.  The Bulldogs currently enjoy a three-game winning streak versus the Mocs.

It’s hard to say what The Citadel’s chances on Saturday are, since it’s hard to determine which Bulldog team will show up — the one that played Appalachian State and Furman, or the one that played Elon, Western Carolina, and Wofford?

It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback.  If I had to guess (and it’s only a guess), I would say that Miguel Starks, even if just “85%”, will get the nod.  Just the thought of a gimpy Bart Blanchard sitting in the pocket as the two sack-happy UTC defensive ends converge on him is cringe-inducing…

I certainly hope that the Bulldogs are more competitive than they were last week.  This is a big game for UTC, which has a chance for a winning season.  Given that the Mocs won a total of six games in the previous three years, that would be a major accomplishment.  UT-Chattanooga will be ready to play on Saturday.  The Bulldogs better be ready as well.

Urban Meyer’s easy decision

You may have heard that Tim Tebow suffered a concussion against Kentucky on Saturday.  (If you hadn’t heard it, it’s probably because you suffered a concussion yourself.)  There has been a lot of debate in the media about whether Tebow should play at LSU on October 10 (the Gators don’t play this Saturday).

The discussion is likely to be amplified after the NFL released a report suggesting that:

Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

Even if that doesn’t have anything to do with Tebow’s case, a connection will be made in some (if not many) quarters.

At any rate, everyone has an opinion, from professional contrarian Gregg Doyel to Orson Swindle at Every Day Should Be Saturday.  Josh Levin at Slate also opines on the matter (lots of good links in that piece).  I have a slightly different take on the Tebow situation, or at least I hope it’s a little different.

The Gators are 4-0, with wins over Charleston Southern, Troy, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Florida’s next three games are:

  • at LSU, October 10
  • Arkansas, October 17 (Homecoming in Gainesville)
  • at Mississippi State, October 24

The goal for Florida, obviously, is to win the BCS title.  To do that, Florida has to finish #1 or #2 in the BCS standings after the conclusion of the regular season.

Let’s say Tebow doesn’t play against LSU and the Gators lose.  Does that end UF’s chances of winning the BCS title?  Of course not.  After all, last season Florida was 3-0 before losing (at home, no less) to unranked Mississippi.  After that loss, the Gators fell from #4 in both major polls to #12 (AP Poll) and #13 (USA Today Coaches’ Poll).  Florida still managed to advance to the championship game anyway.

Florida is currently ranked #1 in both polls, and would be unlikely to fall further than #5 if it lost to LSU (which is currently ranked #4) in a game played in Baton Rouge, and a game in which its All-World quarterback did not play.  There would be plenty of time for the Gators to make their way back up the rankings, particularly since two of the teams that would be above them (Alabama and LSU) play each other, and Florida would then presumably get to play the winner of that contest in the SEC Championship game.

A one-loss Florida team (with the one loss coming without Tebow) would almost certainly get the BCS title game nod over an undefeated Boise State squad or any other one-loss team from a major conference (like Southern California, Ohio State, Penn State, Virginia Tech, or Oklahoma).

Undefeated BCS teams would be a trickier proposition, but other than Texas (which is already #2 and wouldn’t have to move past the Gators in the rankings anyway), I don’t see any other team that would jump over Florida in the polls/computer rankings.  That would include teams like Iowa, Michigan, and Cincinnati.

If Tebow actually suffered a “severe concussion”, which seems possible, as he reportedly lost consciousness for about two minutes after getting hit, then he is probably better off not returning for three or four weeks.  That would mean in addition to not playing against LSU,  he could miss the Arkansas game and the Mississippi State game.  After traveling to Starkville, the Gators then play Georgia in Jacksonville.

Assuming a one-loss Florida team would play for the BCS title, it stands to reason that if the Gators can handle at least two of their next three opponents without Tebow, then there is no urgency for his return to the field, at least not until the game against UGA.  The question becomes, can Florida win those games without its talismanic quarterback?

Of course it can.  Tebow’s replacement would be backup QB John Brantley, a redshirt sophomore who was a major high school star.  Brantley originally committed to Texas before changing his mind and signing with the Gators.  His father was a quarterback at UF, and his uncle was an All-American linebacker there as well, so he has something of a pedigree.

In limited time last season, Brantley averaged over eight yards per pass attempt and threw three TDs.  Obviously almost all of that came in mop-up duty, but he definitely has potential.  Basically, there is a better than even chance that Brantley is a college quarterback stud-in-waiting.

Not only that, but I suspect a few of Florida’s players would like to prove that there is a little more to the team than just Tim Tebow.  Urban Meyer could use an extended Tebow absence to challenge his squad.

Florida without Tebow should be good enough to beat Arkansas in Gainesville, and a trip the following week to Starkville will hold no terrors, other than the incessant ringing of cowbells.  LSU in Baton Rouge is a different story, but I’m not sure how good the Bayou Bengals really are, particularly after watching them escape Mississippi State last week.  LSU will probably have its hands full with Georgia on Saturday.

(Note:  LSU may or may not be that good, but Chad Jones is that good, and at apparently just about anything, from playing the outfield to pitching to roaming the secondary to returning punts.  With or without Tebow, the Gators better keep a close watch on Mr. Jones.)

The only danger to UF in holding out Tebow that long is if the Gators A) lose two of the three games (or all three of them), or B) lose one of the three games, and then lose again later in the season.  However, even if Florida were undefeated after that stretch, losing late in the season may cost the Gators a shot at the BCS title game regardless.  A late-season loss to Vanderbilt or South Carolina (to say nothing of Florida International) would be costly no matter if UF had one loss or no losses, and losing to Florida State (in the regular-season finale) or in the SEC title game would almost certainly rule the Gators out of championship consideration.

Semi-tangent:  Another potential issue is the effect missing multiple games would have on Tebow’s Heisman candidacy.  To be honest, I think he’s playing from behind this season already as far as that award is concerned.  I get the sense that it’s Colt McCoy’s “turn” this year.

Of course, Urban Meyer technically isn’t the one making the call on Tebow’s availability; that would be the Florida medical staff (and Tebow himself).  However, he could make a statement by telling Tebow to relax for a few weeks and wait until he’s completely ready (another factor in all this is that Tebow was apparently struggling with flu-like symptoms before he suffered the concussion).  Meyer would get major kudos from just about everyone in the media for putting Tebow’s health above Florida’s title considerations, without actually risking much in the way of those considerations.

I don’t think Meyer really cares about those types of plaudits.  Meyer cares about winning; his job is to win games.  That’s fine, but I think he has an opportunity here to look good with no real downside.  Also, parents of potential recruits would probably look favorably on the decision (as in “he’ll do what’s right for my kid”), although Florida certainly has few worries when it comes to recruiting anyway.  My guess is the university’s administration would also appreciate the school being cast in a “non-troglodyte” light.

What do I think will happen?  I believe Tebow will start in Baton Rouge on October 10.  I think he’ll play well, and Florida will win, whether or not it really needs Tebow to win the game.

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.

Thinking big can be small-minded

Georgia Southern University recently published a commissioned report entitled “Football Reclassification Analysis” (although dated June 12, 2009, it wasn’t released to the public until July 30).  You can download the full report and appendices here.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the specific issue of reclassification from FCS to FBS, there is still a lot of interesting information in the report.  (The report, incidentally, is 113 pages long.)

I’m going to make a few observations and comments based on some of the issues raised in this report and in other places, but first I’m going to give a brief history of Georgia Southern football, trying to show at least in part why reclassification is such a burning issue for that school.   I’m also going to do some comparing and contrasting with other schools, including The Citadel, but also larger FBS institutions from the ACC and SEC.

Georgia Southern was a sleepy little teacher’s college for most of its history (the school was founded in 1907).  Its football program had been established as a varsity sport in 1924, but was suspended during World War II.  By the early 1980s, the school had increased in size and there was a groundswell of local and institutional support for reinstating football.  To re-start the program, the school hired longtime Georgia assistant coach Erk Russell.  He was, to say the least, a great hire.

Russell took the football program from club status to I-AA, fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1, with three national titles, the last of which came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0.  Those numbers, while very impressive, don’t begin to describe his impact on the school.  Stories abound about him (how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful is my personal favorite).  He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests.  Tony Barnhart put it best when he wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”

Tangent:  amazingly and unjustifiably, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and that organization requires a minimum of ten years for eligibility.  What makes his absence worse is that just this year, former Marshall coach Jim Donnan was inducted into the Hall.

Donnan only coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools.  I’m not going to rip Donnan; he also was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the late 1980s, and deserves credit for that, but he isn’t close to being in Russell’s league as a coach, either on or off the field.  The Hall really needs to make an exception in Russell’s case, not as much for the benefit of his memory, but for its own relevance.

The program that Russell built had staying power, too, despite a revolving door of coaches since his retirement.  GSU has won three additional titles post-Erk, including two under the leadership of the estimable Paul Johnson, the only one of the succeeding coaches to measure up to Russell in the eyes of the Eagle faithful.

Now, 20 years after Russell retired and almost 30 years after he christened a drainage ditch “Beautiful Eagle Creek”, which would become the symbol of the program’s rise, there is a significant group of fans/boosters at the school who want to leave FCS and go “bigtime”, with all the risks involved in that jump.  It’s not like the pot of gold at the end of the FBS rainbow is full, either.  Appendix 1 of the study is a report on reclassification published by the NCAA in 2007.  Included in the report is the following paragraph summing up the benefit of “moving up the ladder” in college football:

Though [there is] evidence of some increase in enrollment diversity, it is far from overwhelming. We conclude that the primary benefit of reclassifying is an unquantifiable perceived increase in prestige.

There you have it.   Prestige.  Moving up is unlikely to provide a monetary benefit (it’s much, much more likely to result in just the opposite).  Increased enrollment, or a change in the type of student enrolling, could result from the move, but there are many different (and better) ways to skin that cat, if you want to skin it.  No, moving up to the FBS ranks is about something else, something almost primal.

I should add that while the push to move to FBS has come with more urgency from some quarters in recent years, the possibility was always in the back of the minds of at least a few individuals from the beginning of the program’s resurrection. Part 6 of the report, a study of facilities, references that the current football stadium (in use since the 1984 season) could eventually be enlarged to seat 75,000 spectators.  That didn’t surprise me, because in 1993 a GSU administrator told me that Paulson Stadium had been designed with that potential level of expansion in mind.

However, the desire of a certain number of supporters to move the program to FBS status has grown in recent years, and it’s not too hard to figure out why.  There are three schools in particular that Eagle fans would probably like the program to emulate — South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall.

The University of South Florida has only existed since 1956, and its football program didn’t start until 1997.  In its first game, USF defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 before a home crowd of 49,212.  I guess the folks in Tampa were really ready to watch some local college football.  The following week USF played its first road game and suffered its first loss, falling 10-7 to none other than The Citadel.  (The Bulldogs would lose to the Bulls in Tampa the next season, 45-6.)  USF would spend four years at the I-AA level before moving up to I-A, joining Conference USA in 2003 and then the Big East in 2005.  In eight years the program went from non-existent to membership in a BCS conference.

Boise State University was a junior college until 1968, with a very successful football program at that level.  It joined the Big Sky Conference in 1970 and competed in that league until 1996, winning the I-AA national title in 1980.  In 1996 the Broncos moved up to I-A and joined the Big West Conference.  Since 2001, Boise State has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).  Of course, the Broncos are best known for their undefeated (13-0) 2006 season, which included a famous overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

In contrast to South Florida and Boise State, Marshall University has actually fielded football teams since the 19th century.  In 1953, the school joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC), only to be later be suspended from that league in 1969 following allegations of 144 recruiting violations in football and basketball.  Then, in 1970, tragedy struck in the form of an airplane crash that killed 75 people, including 45 football players and coaches.

The program began anew, struggling (understandably) even after joining the Southern Conference in 1976.  However, Marshall football began a long stretch of on-field success in the mid-1980s, culminating in two I-AA national titles in the 1990s before moving back to I-A in 1997, where it continued to win consistently for some time (initially as a member of the MAC; it later joined Conference USA), participating in eight bowl games.

You can see why each of these schools might make Georgia Southern fans envious.  South Florida didn’t even have a team until 1997, and it’s in a BCS league!  Boise State moved to I-A in 1996, and it’s on TV all the time, playing home games on that crazy smurf turf, and played (and beat) Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl!  Marshall was in the Southern Conference, just like Georgia Southern, and went big time and won!  Given all that (plus the fact GSU is located in an area rich with football talent, unlike Boise State and Marshall), why can’t Georgia Southern be like those schools?

The short answer is that it can’t be like those schools because, well, it just isn’t quite enough like them — at least in some critical facets needed for success in moving up to I-A.  Let’s look at some of the things discussed in the report:

— Student enrollment at Georgia Southern (undergraduate and graduate) is listed at 17,764.  This would be on the lower end in the FBS ranks, although not overly so.  In the Sun Belt Conference (the league the report uses most often for program comparisons), Georgia Southern’s enrollment would rank 7th out of 10 schools.

Around the region, the schools in the state of Florida lead the way in student enrollment.  The University of Florida has 51,913 students.  Central Florida has 50,254, while South Florida, Florida State, and Florida International all have 38,000+.  No other school in the southeast has as many students.

— Georgia Southern’s alumni base would be a potential problem.  While second in the Southern Conference, with an estimated 75,000 living alumni, GSU would rank at or near the bottom of almost every FBS conference in this aspect.  This is important because alums are where most of your donors come from, and it is exacerbated in GSU’s case because of the school’s history of being primarily a teacher’s college until the last 25 years or so.  Basically, a lot of those 75,000 alums don’t have that much money.  Another thing Georgia Southern doesn’t have going for it in this regard is a law school or medical school that would presumably put out some well-heeled grads.

Maryland has an estimated 480,000 living alumni, easily the most among the schools in the conferences evaluated in the report.  Florida, with 330,000, is second, ahead of Florida State (285,551).  Three other schools (North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina) are in the 250,000-265,000 range, almost 50,000 ahead of the school with the next largest alumni base.

Tangent:  in part to check the accuracy of the report, I asked The Citadel’s External Affairs Office for its best estimate of the military college’s number of living alumni.  As of July 30, the number was 32,961.  GSU’s report had The Citadel listed as having 32,000 living alums, good enough.  The representative from External Affairs pointed out to me that “wiggle room” was needed with these types of estimates, since it is hard to keep track of all alumni, living and dead.

She was quite correct about that, as the latest edition of The Citadel’s Alumni News magazine demonstrated.  Each edition lists the oldest living alums of the school, but the spring publication noted that the two oldest living alumni, as listed in the previous issue, were actually both deceased — one of them having died in 1988.  The actual oldest living alumnus of The Citadel is a doctor in Augusta who reportedly still practices medicine at the age of 99, having delivered over 15,000 babies during his career.  Yowza.  Okay, back to football.

— Georgia Southern’s budget for athletics in FY2008 was just over $9 million, and was actually one of the smallest budgets in the Southern Conference.  Furman had the largest budget in the league, at $15 million (just ahead of Appalachian State).  The Citadel actually had a larger budget than GSU.  Obviously a move to FBS would require a significant increase.  According to the report, to achieve a budget that would be average in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern would have to increase its budget by $5.1 million per year (56%).  Those figures rise to an additional $15.2 million (167%) for an average C-USA budget.

There were seven schools in the SEC with FY2008 budgets in excess of $70 million, led by Florida ($106 million).  No ACC school had an athletic budget that large; Duke (at just under $68 million) came closest.  The only FBS school in the region with a smaller athletic budget than Georgia Southern is Louisiana-Monroe, a school with an identity crisis if there ever was one, having in recent times changed its school name (from Northeast Louisiana to Louisiana-Monroe) and nickname (from Indians to Warhawks).  ULM, with an athletic budget of under $8 million, has never had a winning season at the FBS level since moving up in 1994, which made its 21-14 victory in 2007 over Alabama that much more embarassing for the Crimson Tide.

— To increase its budget, GSU is going to need to expand its base of athletic donors.  We’ve already seen that’s a problem due in part to its relatively small alumni base.  Georgia Southern had 2,110 members of its booster club, and raised around $1 million, in FY2008.  How does that compare to other schools?

Well, on the bright side, GSU has more booster club members than any school in the Sun Belt.  That doesn’t say much for the Sun Belt, though, because GSU would rank last in the ACC and SEC, and close to last in C-USA.  There are two schools in the SoCon with more donors.  Appalachian State is one of them, and the other is…The Citadel.  As of 2008 there were approximately 3,000 members of The Citadel Brigadier Foundation.  Wofford and Elon have almost as many boosters as GSU.  If you combined the total number of living alumni from The Citadel, Wofford, and Elon, that number would still not equal the total living alumni from Georgia Southern.  You see the problem.

The number of athletic donors by school varies widely across the region, even at the ACC/SEC level, in part because some schools require joining a booster club as a prerequisite to buying season tickets.  That said, Clemson’s 23,000+ strong donor list is very impressive.  North Carolina State (20,256) also has a sizeable booster club.  On the SEC side of things, only the Mississippi schools and Vanderbilt have fewer than 10,000 booster club members.  None of the non-BCS schools in the region can compare, with the exception of East Carolina (13,483).  Florida Atlantic has 500 athletic donors.

— The report compared home attendance for the 2007 season, which I found puzzling (it should have been a five-year average or something of that nature).  Also, I am referring to these figures as 2007 attendance numbers because that is what they are, not from 2008 as stated in the report.  The review of attendance figures is one of the weakest sections in the document.

Based on these 2007 numbers, however, GSU would have work to do, ranking in the middle of a listing that includes Sun Belt schools and behind every institution in the ACC, SEC, and C-USA (even Duke and UAB).  It’s actually worse than that, though.

From the report:  “It is important to note that reported attendance is not paid attendance…average paid admission for Georgia Southern home football games was approximately 9,500…”

Um, wow.  Students don’t have to pay to attend GSU football games, and so when you take them out of the mix, along with gameday personnel and comps, basically only half of the people at Paulson on a given Saturday actually paid to go to the game.

— The population base around Statesboro is not a natural for revenue generation, for several reasons.  One is that there simply isn’t that big a base.  GSU has fewer people living within a 50-mile radius of its campus than any school in the Southern Conference, and would rank near the bottom of most other leagues.  That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, though.  Many of the SEC schools, for example, are located in less-dense population areas.

A bigger problem, however, is that GSU’s market is demonstrably younger than most areas.  According to the report, the median age of the area around Georgia Southern is 31.7, which is the lowest such figure among every school surveyed for the report except UT-El Paso.  The Citadel has the second-youngest demographic area in the SoCon, but that market’s median age is 36.5, markedly higher than GSU’s.  This age differential has a lot to do with another comparison outlined in the report, Household Effective Buying Income.  Georgia Southern’s market ranks last in the SoCon in HEBI (at $32,272), and would be near the bottom of FBS conferences in the region.

In looking at the figures for this category, I noticed that the schools in the regions with the highest median age (in other words, those that skewed older) were either located in Florida or were within 50 miles of at least part of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Marshall, and Clemson).

— The corporate base around Georgia Southern is also small, ranking last in the SoCon (488 corporations within a 50-mile radius).  The Citadel, somewhat surprisingly, ranks next-to-last in the league (747) despite its Charleston location.  GSU would rank near the bottom of FBS in this category.  The lack of corporate entities hinders GSU’s (and The Citadel’s, for that matter) ability to sell advertising, sponsorships, PSLs and suites, naming rights, etc.

— Earlier I mentioned that Georgia Southern would have to increase its athletic budget if it moved to FBS.  One of the considerations there is that to comply with Title IX, GSU would have to add women’s scholarships to match the extra 22 scholarships allocated to football (as FCS squads can only have 63 schollies, not the 85-scholarship limit of FBS schools).  So whatever monies are spent for football essentially would have to be doubled for gender equity purposes (Georgia Southern is not in a position to cut another men’s sport).  GSU would add a women’s golf team, and increase expenditures for women’s sports across the board (presumably including the women’s swim team, which just eyeballing the numbers appears woefully underfunded).

The report concluded that the minimum yearly operating costs for Georgia Southern to operate an FBS program would be a little over $14 million, about a 40% increase over the current budget, but that’s not even taking into account the necessary capital improvements that would have to be made.  From the executive summary:

…a total capital expenditure of $84,374,391 is estimated, and, if all bonded, would represent an annual facilities cost of $5,484,154 plus $812,500 in additional annual maintenance costs.

That’s a whole lot of money that would need to be raised by a school with a relatively undersized booster club and a small alumni base, located in a region without a lot of people (and where the people that are there don’t have on average a great deal of disposable income), and with few corporations around to provide a quick influx of serious cash.

Let’s go back to South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall, and compare them to Georgia Southern.

— South Florida has a student enrollment of 42,785, and an alumni base of 180,000.  Over 40,000 people showed up to watch the football team play its first game ever (its 2007 average attendance:  53,170).  It doesn’t have that big a booster club (3,260 donors), but has a significant corporate base (3,896).  USF could probably sell most of its sponsor packages even if it were limited to the local strip clubs in Tampa.  The Bulls had an FY2008 athletic budget of over $32 million.

Georgia Southern shares a time zone with South Florida, but quite honestly there is little else the two schools have in common.

— Boise State is a school of a similar size to GSU, both in student enrollment (slightly larger) and alumni base (slightly smaller).  Boise State’s athletic budget of $26.55 million (FY2009) dwarfs Georgia Southern’s; it spends about the same amount of money on its football program as GSU spends on its entire athletic budget.  Boise has a huge advantage in its corporate base, with lots of tech, agricultural, mining, and timber companies (including Simplot, Micron, Boise Cascade, and Albertsons).  This probably helps account for its ability to spend that kind of money for athletics and its ability to raise money  for its athletic facilities.  BSU has a waiting list for football season tickets and over 4,000 members in its booster club.

It’s hard to compare a school in a part of the country so different than that of GSU, but I think it would be safe to say that Boise State has had an advantage over Georgia Southern as far as having money to spend on its program is concerned (including key capital projects).  BSU also had about a 20-year head start on GSU in terms of trying to move up to Division I-A.  The Broncos also got a little lucky, in my opinion — particularly with the expansion, and then contraction, of the original WAC.  The timing was just right for Boise State to move into the decimated WAC after the split.

The other thing going for Boise State is that, as far as FBS football is concerned, it’s the only game in town for miles around.  There is no FBS school within 300 miles of Boise State (and there is no major professional sports franchise in the area, either).  Boise, particularly with its corporate presence, is just large enough of a metro area to provide the resources needed for the school to successfully compete at the FBS level, especially given the lack of local (or even regional) competition.  In contrast, there are numerous college football programs in a 300-mile radius around Georgia Southern, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Auburn, plus NFL franchises in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Jacksonville.

— Marshall’s student enrollment is a bit larger than Georgia Southern’s.  Its football attendance is larger (the Thundering Herd averaged over 24,000 fans in 2007).  Its population base is larger and notably older (by about eight years in median age).  Marshall has an athletic budget of over $21 million.  MU has 2,900 booster club members; in 2008, its booster club raised $1.65 million (as compared to GSU’s $950,000).

I’ll say this, too.  Marshall had an enormous amount of success in the period in which it transitioned from I-AA to I-A, with multiple conference titles in both the Southern Conference and the MAC (although someone needs to tell the sports information department that the Thundering Herd did not win the SoCon in 1992, as stated in its media guide; Marshall won the national title that year, but The Citadel won the league crown).

My perception of Marshall is that at least at one time it had one of the more passionate fan bases around, one that “traveled well”, as the saying goes.  I often wondered, though, how sustainable its success would be as it moved further up the football ladder.  There are limitations to a football program from a non-flagship school based in Huntington, West Virginia.  Since moving to C-USA, Marshall has endured four consecutive losing seasons, and perhaps more ominously has not had a winning record to date in conference play.

This recent lack of success may have been covered up just a bit by a movie, but the school administration has to be concerned.  Marshall’s booster club donations dropped by 22% this past year.  The economy undoubtedly played a large role in that, but once things start going downhill, it can be hard to stop the rush down the tubes.  Marshall may have won a lot of games in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that won’t prevent it from ultimately becoming another who-cares FBS program with no notice on a national level if it doesn’t get back to winning, and soon.

When you digest all that information, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than Georgia Southern should stay right where it is, at the FCS level.  I can understand why some GSU fans would be less than satisfied with the program’s current status, though.    There are several things that feed this frustration:

— One factor is the “small time” perception of FCS football, exemplified by this rather silly piece of commentary by New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy, who is upset that his alma mater, Wisconsin, is playing Wofford this season.  Bondy is apparently unaware that Wisconsin could have (and should have) lost last season to an FCS school (Cal Poly) and was tied at halftime two years ago with one of Wofford’s fellow SoCon brethren (The Citadel).  It’s usually hard to take seriously a writer for a New York City tabloid when college football is the subject (or perhaps when anything is the subject), but that’s the kind of thing that’s out there.  (Bondy also seems annoyed at having to pay $41 for a ticket, but that isn’t too surprising a price for a BCS home game.  I tend to share his annoyance on that front, however.  North Carolina is charging $50 for single-game tickets for contests against The Citadel and Georgia Southern this season.)

— Then there is the disparity in schools within the Southern Conference itself, a historic problem for a league that has always been a grab-bag of regional colleges and universities, some of which have very little in common with each other.  If you are a Georgia Southern fan, it may be hard to get enthused about regularly playing small schools like The Citadel or Wofford as opposed to “like” institutions such as Appalachian State (or Marshall, back when it was still in the league).  There is also the complaint (groundless, in my view) that the conference has drifted more into the small and/or private school arena, particularly with the recent admission of Samford (at the expense of, say, Coastal Carolina).

I can understand some of that angst.  GSU fans want the conference to go in the direction that GSU wants to go.  The thing is, though, that the reverse is also true.  It can be very frustrating to be a supporter of a school like The Citadel and have to compete on a yearly basis in the conference with much larger schools with very different missions, and it has been that way for decades.  This is a league that as recently as the 1960s still had schools like West Virginia and Virginia Tech as members.  East Carolina was in the SoCon until 1976 (not to mention all the ACC/SEC schools that were in the league in the first half of the 20th century).

The Southern Conference was the ideal spot for Georgia Southern when it needed a place to land.  The conference hasn’t really changed.  Whether Georgia Southern’s priorities and expectations have changed or not is another matter.

— Another thing that may be causing frustration (or perhaps concern) is that in 2010 there will be another GSU playing FCS football, namely Georgia State, which has received a surprising amount of publicity for its entry into the football world (thanks to hiring Bill Curry, I believe).  Again, you have the “prestige” issue in play.  Georgia Southern fans want to be in the same galaxy with Georgia and Georgia Tech, not Georgia State.

What’s amazing (at least to me) is that Georgia State isn’t alone in starting a football program right now.  It won’t even be the only new program in the Colonial Athletic Association, as Old Dominion will begin play this fall.  Also soon to be lacing up the ol’ pigskin:  South Alabama (which plans on playing in the Sun Belt as an FBS program), UT-San Antonio (which has hired Larry Coker and also plans to eventually play at the FBS level), and UNC Charlotte.

South Alabama has already lined up games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Kent State, and Navy, according to this article by ESPN writer Ivan Maisel.

Tangent:  one part of the reclassification report I am dubious about is its estimate of how much money “guarantee” games would bring to the program.  Page 5-44 of the report outlines potential guarantees ranging between $150,000 and $500,000, but as Maisel’s article notes, much larger sums of money are being thrown around for a lot of these types of games (Tennessee will pay South Alabama $850,000 to come to Knoxville in 2013).  I think the report was a little too conservative in that section.

Given the current state of the economy, I was expecting less expansion of athletic programs and more news along the lines of Centenary dropping to Division III (the linked article comes complete with a couple of semi-nasty quotes from Tim Brando, of all people).

— You also have various conspiracy theories floating around that the current Georgia Southern administration adamantly opposes any move to FBS, and may even prefer to “dial down” athletics in general at the school.  There are some particularly strident fans who suggest that the current administrators have been less than competent.  These sentiments seep out in various ways, including message boards and, somewhat amusingly, Wikipedia.  The current wiki entry for Paulson Stadium includes the following paragraph:

Constructed at a cost of $4.7 million, the stadium was designed with two expansion phases in mind. The first would increase the capacity to approximately 35,000, while the final phase would expand seating to 50,000. However, because of the lack of effort on the part of school leadership, neither of these additions have been implemented. Permanent light fixtures were added prior to the 1994 season.

Of course, the report commissioned by GSU isn’t for these types of fans, because they wouldn’t believe anything in it anyway unless it said “GSU MUST MOVE UP TO FBS NOW!!” on the cover page.

Incidentally, The Citadel also studied whether or not it should move up to the FBS level  — in 1995.  At that time, a new rule had been enacted by the NCAA that required major-college teams to win six games against I-A competition in order to qualify for a bowl bid.  The rule meant that playing I-AA schools was counterproductive for the bigger schools.  The Citadel lost potential guarantee games against LSU and Clemson as a result, games the military college needed to balance its budget.

However, the school didn’t really want to leave I-AA, and when the NCAA changed the bowl-qualification rules to allow one victory against a I-AA school to count towards six bowl-worthy wins, The Citadel elected to stay right where it was.

So, to sum up…Georgia Southern has a winning tradition and a loyal fanbase.  That’s not enough to make a move to FBS, though.  You need to have the right resources to build and maintain an FBS program (that’s a polite way of saying you need a lot of cash, both on hand and in the future).  In 2009, Georgia Southern simply doesn’t have enough going for it to develop those resources, no matter how hard it squeezes the proverbial turnip.  Maybe down the road it will have the ability to successfully move up to that level, but for right now its fans should enjoy what they already have.