College Football 2017, Week #4: the top 15 matchups

The weekly explanation of this post:

On his college hoops ratings website, Ken Pomeroy has an algorithm called ‘FanMatch’, in which “games are rated for competitiveness and level of play with a lean towards higher-scoring games”. It is a way to rate the potential watchability of various basketball contests. There is just a touch of whimsy involved, which makes it even better…

Mimicking this idea, I’ve created a somewhat byzantine and truly murky formula to produce game ratings; it is called “Tingle Factor”, or TF. The higher the TF, the better.

On the surface, this week does not have a great slate of games, but sometimes the craziest weeks are the ones that on first look seem less than stellar.

To access a Google Document that has a complete schedule of televised/streamed D-1 college football games (including all the announcing teams), see this post: Link

Here are the top 15 games for Week 4. All of them are being played on Saturday, as has been the case for the last three weeks. There haven’t really been that many intriguing Thursday and Friday night games so far this season, though the Utah-Arizona game on Friday night could be worth watching.

Road Team Home Team Gametime (ET) TV/Streaming TF
Mississippi State Georgia 9/16, 7:00 pm ESPN 81.2
TCU Oklahoma State 9/16, 3:30 pm ESPN 80.1
UCF Maryland 9/16, 3:00 pm FS1/FS-Go 79.8
Texas Tech Houston 9/16, 12:00 pm ABC or ESPN2 79.6
Washington Colorado 9/16, 10:00 pm FS1/FS-Go 75.0
Wake Forest Appalachian State 9/16, 3:30 pm ESPN3 73.8
Samford Western Carolina 9/16, 3:30 pm ESPN3 73.1
Toledo Miami (FL) 9/16, 3:30 pm ACC Regional Nets 71.8
Notre Dame Michigan State 9/16, 8:00 pm FOX/FS-Go 69.8
Duke North Carolina 9/16, 3:30 pm ESPNU 69.3
N.C. State Florida State 9/16, 12:00 pm ABC or ESPN2 69.1
Michigan Purdue 9/16, 4:00 pm FOX/FS-Go 67.3
Arkansas State SMU 9/16, 7:00 pm ESPN3 66.1
Florida Kentucky 9/16, 7:30 pm SEC Network 64.8
Cincinnati Navy 9/16, 3:30 pm CBS Sports Network 63.1

 

Additional notes and observations:

– CBS/CBS Sports Network games will also be streamed on CBS Sports Digital.

– The games on the ESPN “Family of Networks” will also be streamed via WatchESPN.

– The first five games on the list feature matchups between undefeated teams — including UCF, which has only played one game to this point in the season.

– Miami (FL) has also played only one game this year to date, and will host a Toledo squad that is averaging 46 points per game.

– This week, one FCS game sneaks into the top 15, and it’s a surprising one, a matchup between two offensive-minded teams in Samford and Western Carolina. The over/under is 74 for this Southern Conference clash.

– Other games in the top 15 that the oddsmakers think could be high-scoring include UCF-Maryland (over/under of 67), Texas Tech-Houston (71), Arkansas State-SMU (73), and TCU-Oklahoma State (68.5).

– Against Rice, Houston had a 22.5-yard edge in average field position for the game, the biggest advantage in that category for all of last week’s FBS matchups.

– Even though Georgia and Mississippi State were both charter members of the SEC (founded in 1932), there have only been 23 football games between the two schools. UGA leads the all-time series 17-6.

– After Saturday, there are no more scheduled meetings between Notre Dame and Michigan State until at least 2026. The two programs have met on the gridiron 78 times since 1897.

– This is the first time Duke and North Carolina have ever played each other in football in the month of September. The earliest date the schools had faced each other before this season was October 10 (a game played in 1925).

Other than an October 20 meeting in 2012, 77 of the previous 78 meetings had occurred in November.

– Saturday’s Cincinnati-Navy game is the first gridiron meeting between those two schools since 1956. They will meet more often in the future, now that both are football members of the American Athletic Conference.

In the last ten years, Navy has an overall record of 79-41. Cincinnati has an overall record of 78-41.

– Not part of the TF rating, but definitely part of the story: Kentucky is trying to end a 30-game losing streak against Florida.

It should be another great week. Saturday is just around the corner!

Game Review, 2012: North Carolina State

North Carolina State 52, The Citadel 14.

Links of interest:

The Post and Courier game story

Notes from The Post and Courier

The News and Observer (Raleigh) game story

The News and Observer photo gallery

Box score

Postgame video with Kevin Higgins, plus Darien Robinson and Derek Douglas

I’m not going to write much about this game. I wasn’t there in person, as I brought a mild case of the flu back home from Chicago. Perhaps it was just as well, although I am disappointed I couldn’t go support a team that certainly deserves as much support as it can get.

I watched the ESPN3 feed of the game, which featured analysis by the one and only Paul Maguire, backed by play-by-play man Mike Gleason in the role of Abbott to Maguire’s Costello. For the record, Gleason is not Jackie Gleason’s son, as Maguire faux-claimed late in the broadcast. At least, I’m fairly sure he’s not…

Also, the ESPN3 graphic about Maguire near the game’s end was wrong to about the 4th power. Maguire, curiously, only seemed to care about the error regarding TD receptions, which I thought was funny.

I was a little surprised that the NC State offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage as easily as it did. Not shocked, but surprised. That is the kind of thing that tends to happen in an FBS vs. FCS matchup, though.

This loss doesn’t bother me too much. As long as none of the players for The Citadel suffered any major injuries, and the team doesn’t have a sudden loss of confidence because of the result, the outcome shouldn’t have an impact on any of the Bulldogs’ long-term goals for this season.

I get the sense that a few people get upset when the Bulldogs lose games against FBS teams by significant margins. They wonder why The Citadel can’t be more competitive with these teams. Often, a comparison is made to the glory days of the late 1980s-early 1990s.

However, that era was definitely an outlier in terms of the school’s history in these matchups. There are two remarkable things about the games The Citadel played against FBS teams from 1988 through 1992. One is that of the eight such contests played during that time, the Bulldogs threatened to win seven of them. The other, and perhaps more amazing statistic, is that the Bulldogs actually won six of those seven (the exception being the 1990 game versus Air Force, which the Falcons won 10-7).

The Citadel won six of eight games against FBS competition from 1988-92 despite having a negative point differential in those contests (thanks to losing the 1988 game against Duke 41-17).

Other than that six-year period, though, even being in the mix against larger schools has not happened too often. Sure, The Citadel beat Air Force soundly in 1976, and knocked off Vanderbilt in 1979. I’ve written about the great victory over South Carolina in 1950, and you can throw in the 0-0 tie against Florida State in 1960 as well. There have been close calls, too, like the game against the Gamecocks in 1984 or the Wyoming loss in 2002.

Most of the time, though, the games are more along the lines of  the “76 Trombones” game against Georgia in 1958, or the 52-0 loss to Vanderbilt in 1970, or the 61-0 setback at Maryland in 2003 — and none of those defeated squads were terrible (heck, the 2003 Bulldogs won six games).

There is hope, then there is reality. Expectations need to be managed.

Now as for the players, they are in a different category. I realize that the players are disappointed. They are competitors, after all. I wouldn’t expect anything less.

All that said, I think there are a few takeaways from the game worth mentioning. In no particular order:

– It was a tough night for special teams. Not only did the Bulldogs allow a punt return TD, the kickoff return team struggled, both in execution and decision-making. That unit needs to improve as The Citadel resumes SoCon play.

– Derek Douglas returned to the field. I was a little surprised to see him get snaps on Saturday, but he is now apparently ready for the stretch run. That is obviously great news for The Citadel.

– The Bulldogs didn’t tackle particularly well in this game.

– The triple option offense can work against any team. Even a well-coached outfit can have breakdowns, and if you make your blocks, and the opposing middle linebacker overruns the play, then Darien Robinson is going to have a very enjoyable sprint to the end zone.

On Robinson’s touchdown, I was interested in the fact that he actually went off-tackle as opposed to right up the middle, a slight alteration in play design that proved to be quite effective.

– Robinson rushed for 103 yards, becoming the first Bulldog to rush for over 100 yards against an FBS opponent since Nehemiah Broughton rushed for 175 yards against Wyoming in 2002. Robinson was the first Bulldog to rush for over 100 yards against an ACC team since Stanford Glenn rushed for 123 yards against Georgia Tech in 1982.

– Not that it matters, but NC State’s final touchdown of the first half should not have counted. Mike Glennon was the recipient of not one, but two pushes from his linemen towards the goal line, which is illegal. It was obvious, but the officials let it go. That said, I’m not losing sleep over it.

– The Citadel’s three starters at linebacker (Rah Muhammad, Carl Robinson, Carson Smith) combined to make 30 tackles, led by Robinson’s 13.

– Of Walker Smith’s six tackles, three came on special teams.

– A total of fifty-two Bulldogs saw action during the game.

It’s time to get back to SoCon action. Next up is Chattanooga, on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. I think the team is looking forward to that game. I know that I’m looking forward to it.

2012 Football, Game 4: The Citadel vs. North Carolina State

The Citadel at North Carolina State, to be played at Carter-Finley Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 22.  The game will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with play-by-play from Mike Gleason, analysis by Paul Maguire, and sideline reporting from Sarah Stankavage. The contest can also be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze patrolling the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pregame, halftime, and postgame commentary. Bulldog Insider will also provide free audio. The Citadel Sports Network broadcast can be heard on the radio in Carter-Finley Stadium via 90.3 FM.

Links of interest:

The Citadel game notes

North Carolina State game notes

SoCon weekly release

FCS Coaches Poll

The Sports Network FCS Poll

Map of Carter-Finley Stadium and surrounding parking lots

Video of NCSU head coach Tom O’Brien’s weekly press conference

I was travelling last weekend, so I wasn’t in Boone to watch The Citadel play Appalachian State (obviously my loss). I wanted to know what was going on, of course, so occasionally I would get out my smartphone and check for scoring updates. (Okay, maybe more than occasionally.)

When the game started I was wandering around the extremely impressive Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago (a school that was once a member of the Big 10, by the way, and is still a member of that conference’s academic consortium). By the time it ended I was at the underrated Loyola University Museum of Art, just off of Michigan Avenue. Hey, I’m not just a sports geek; my nerdiness is multi-faceted.

The Oriental Institute wasn’t quite as impressive, however, as The Citadel putting FIFTY-TWO POINTS ON THE BOARD IN BOONE. Fifty-two points…and in only three quarters!

Three Bulldogs rushing for over 100 yards? Another with over 100 receiving yards? Unbelievable, and also unprecedented, for while The Citadel did have three 100-yard rushers in a game against VMI in 1998, there was no 100-yard receiver in that particular contest.

I’ve spent the past couple of days trying to reconstruct the App State game before taking a look at this week’s game against North Carolina State. Kevin Higgins may give his charges only 24 hours to enjoy a victory before focusing on the next game, but I can take more time to review things.

The highlights were great fun to watch. The two TD runs by Ben Dupree, the long pass plays, the blocked punt for a TD, the sacks/pressures, and the “truck jobs” by Rickey Anderson and Van Dyke Jones — they were all good, especially with Danny Reed roaring in the background.

I think everyone by now has a good idea of what happened in the game, so I’m not going to rehash all of it. I will say, though, that while the offense was responsible for 45 points (the punt block providing the other TD) and an astounding 618 yards of total offense, it seems to me the defense may have been the more consistent unit against the Mountaineers.

I’m not sure the offense’s productivity last Saturday is sustainable, at least not in the manner it was accomplished.

As I wrapped up my preview of the Appalachian State game last week, I wrote:

The Bulldogs were only 3 for 14 on third-down conversions against Georgia Southern. That won’t be good enough against Appalachian State.

This is something I actually got right. The Citadel turned that third-down conversion stat on its head, as it went 11 for 14 on third-down conversions against the Mountaineers. That is quite a switch, but a closer look tells a more remarkable tale.

Four times against Appalachian State, the Bulldogs were faced with a third down needing six yards or more to move the chains. In fact, all four of those conversion attempts were 3rd-and-8 or longer. The Citadel’s average gain on the four plays? 36.25 yards, with two of them resulting in touchdowns (Dupree’s long scampers) and another leading to a first-and-goal (the 32-yard pass reception by Domonic Jones).

That is an absurd success rate, both in terms of percentage and resulting yardage. In contrast, the Bulldogs had eight third down plays against Georgia Southern in which they needed to gain at least six yards for a first down. The Citadel converted only one of those against the Eagles (the first TD of that contest, a 26-yard pass from Dupree to Jones on a 3rd-and-7).

When The Citadel played Charleston Southern, the Bulldogs converted twice on third-and-six but were 0-3 on third-down conversion attempts longer than that (and 3-for-9 overall).

I’m not trying to take anything away from the offense. After all, The Citadel only faced a third-and-long situation four times in twelve drives, which is excellent. However, those conversions led to 21 of the Bulldogs’ 38 first-half points. It could have been a very different game if The Citadel had converted on, say, only one of those long-yardage situations.

Going forward, The Citadel can’t count on that type of success on third-and-long. It’s nice to know, though, that the Bulldogs are capable of making big plays on offense when necessary. Another huge plus: no turnovers.

As for the defensive effort against the Mountaineers, it was just what the doctor ordered. Appalachian State had averaged over 42 points per game in the previous six contests against the Bulldogs at Kidd Brewer Stadium, so holding App to 14 points through three quarters was a welcome change.

The Mountaineers had nine full possessions in those three periods and were limited to 239 yards of total offense. Five of the nine App drives ended in punts, one in an interception, and another on a lost fumble. Six of those non-scoring drives were over in five or fewer plays, so the defense played its role in The Citadel’s huge edge in time of possession (the Bulldogs had the ball for over 38 minutes in the contest).

The defense did an excellent job preventing Mountaineers QB Jamal Jackson from making big plays (his longest pass completion of the day was only 15 yards). I am a little puzzled by App’s seeming unwillingness to throw the ball deep. Perhaps it was more a case of being unable than unwilling. The Citadel got a lot of pressure on Jackson when he did attempt to go long (Mark Thomas put his stamp on the game twice in this respect).

Now the Bulldogs will play a football game in another city in North Carolina. It won’t be a conference game, though. North Carolina State is this year’s FBS opponent, as The Citadel will pocket $375,000 for appearing at Carter-Finley Stadium this Saturday.

North Carolina State is different in at least one respect from The Citadel’s recent FBS opposition. South Carolina, Arizona, and North Carolina are all schools that have never produced a player who had a significant career as an NFL quarterback. Briefly reviewing those three schools’ histories with regards to signal-callers:

– Before Nick Foles was selected in the third round of the most recent NFL draft, Arizona had not had a QB picked in the draft since 1985. The Wildcats haven’t had an alum start a game at quarterback in the NFL since 1974.

– T.J. Yates started five regular-season games (and two playoff games) for the Houston Texans last season, which was remarkable enough. More remarkable, perhaps, is that he became the first UNC player to ever start a game at quarterback in the NFL.

– Anthony Wright, with 19 career starts, is one of only two former South Carolina players to start an NFL game at quarterback.

NC State, with a program arguably on the same level historically as those schools, is QBU by comparison, with three alums (so far) making an impact on the NFL scene at the quarterback position.

Roman Gabriel was the first. Gabriel, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was the second overall pick in the NFL draft in 1962. He played for 16 years in the league with the Rams and Eagles, winning the NFL MVP award in 1969. Gabriel was in a movie with John Wayne; he also portrayed a headhunter on Gilligan’s Island.

Erik Kramer’s NFL career wasn’t quite as distinguished as Gabriel’s, but in ten seasons Kramer did make 67 starts. His claims to fame include an appearance on Married with Children (as himself). Most notable, however, is the fact that Kramer is the only man alive to have quarterbacked the Detroit Lions to victory in a playoff game.

Philip Rivers is a known quantity to current football fans. By the time the month of October rolls around, he will have started 100 games in the NFL and thrown for over 25,000 yards. Unlike Gabriel and Kramer, Rivers has yet to make an appearance in a network sitcom.

Russell Wilson may not be as well known as Rivers yet, but odds are he will be sooner rather than later; he has already made his first commercial. Russell was the Pack’s starting QB for three seasons before spending his final year as a transfer grad student at Wisconsin (leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl). He won the starting QB job for the Seattle Seahawks this year as a rookie despite only being a third-round pick.

Wilson’s move to Madison was a controversial one, and could have backfired on NC State head coach Tom O’Brien. It didn’t, though, largely because O’Brien had another potential NFL quarterback in Mike Glennon waiting in the wings. Glennon wasn’t a sure bet this time last year, however, and so O’Brien was the subject of a lot of criticism.

Criticism of O’Brien isn’t exactly a new concept. O’Brien has always had a particular kind of rap against him, that of being a decent coach with a definite ceiling. At Boston College, he took over a program racked by scandal and patiently built it into a perennial bowl team, consistently winning eight or nine games every season.

After a while, though, BC fans began to tire of never winning “the big one” and playing in middling bowl games (which O’Brien usually won; he is 8-2 in bowls). O’Brien also apparently didn’t get along with his AD, and so he wound up taking the NC State job. The school needed an experienced, steady disciplinarian (O’Brien went to the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Marine Corps).

O’Brien had a slower start in terms of wins and losses at North Carolina State, but in the last two years the team has won nine and eight games, respectively. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple last year, as not only had Wilson departed, but due to scheduling two FCS teams, the Pack had to win seven regular season games to qualify for a bowl.

A befuddling loss to O’Brien’s old team, Boston College, meant that NC State had to win its last two games to get to seven victories, and one of those was against eventual ACC champ Clemson — but the ever-erratic Pack smashed the Tigers, 37-13. Then in the season finale against two-win Maryland, NC State trailed 41-14 in the third quarter before scoring 42 straight points to win the game and a berth in the Belk Bowl (slacks for everybody!).

Fans of NC State are unsure if the Pack can win a title with Tom O’Brien as a coach. He is not known for recruiting at a championship level, he isn’t an offensive innovator, and there is nothing in his history that suggests he can take the program to the “next level”.

On the other hand, he wins more than he loses, he runs a relatively tight ship, and he knows how to beat UNC (5-0 against the Heels). Maybe one year, a few more breaks will go his way, and NC State will wind up in the Orange Bowl.

O’Brien has also inspired TOBing, easily one of the great college football memes of this century, good enough to be the subject of newspaper articles. It has been mentioned by ESPN and NC State’s own game notes. The TOBing craze was instigated by longtime blogger Akula Wolf of Backing the Pack.

The coach has a couple of Low Country connections. His youngest daughter works for the Historic Charleston Foundation. O’Brien is also one of the 1,989 college football and basketball coaches who owns a vacation home along the South Carolina coast.

When Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, that put the onus on Mike Glennon to deliver an all-star type of season. He did just that in 2011, completing 62.5% of his passes for 3,054 yards and 31 TDs. In his last four games, Glennon threw for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The 6’6″ Glennon struggled in this year’s opener against Tennessee, throwing four interceptions, but has been pick-free in two wins over Connecticut and South Alabama. He threw three TD passes against the Jaguars.

While Glennon is established as the snap-taker, that same sense of stability cannot be found at running back for NC State. Irmo High grad Mustafa Greene will not play against The Citadel, as he has been suspended. James Washington and Tony Creecy should get the bulk of the carries. Washington is the last NCSU player to rush for 100 yards in a game; he did so against North Carolina last season.

NC State is averaging 2.6 yards per rush through three games, a number that includes lost yardage from sacks, but is still not very good. The Pack has not had a player rush for over 1,000 yards since 2002.

Part of not having a 1,000-yard back  can probably be attributed to offensive line play, which has been a sore subject for Pack supporters during the O’Brien era. The coach has not been able to consistently develop the kind of quality o-line talent in Raleigh that he had in Chestnut Hill.

This season a couple of regulars were shifted around (“new” starting left guard R.J. Mattes has now played in four different spots on the o-line in his career). NC State is already on its second left tackle of the campaign after Rob Crisp was injured against Tennessee.

Several receivers are capable of making big plays for the Pack. Bryan Underwood has two TD receptions this year of more than 40 yards. Quintin Payton is a 6’4″ wideout who is averaging almost 20 yards per reception; he had 129 receiving yards versus Tennessee. Tobais Palmer had five TD catches in 2011. He is also NC State’s primary kick returner. Another receiver, Rashard Smith (who caught a touchdown pass against South Alabama), returns punts.

Mike Glennon will also occasionally throw to his tight ends. Actually, Glennon will throw to just about anybody, as he has already completed passes to twelve different players this season through just three games.

NCSU’s strength on defense lies in its secondary, which has talent and experience. All-American David Amerson is an amazing ball-hawk; he intercepted 13 (!) passes last season and already has two picks this year. He got burned a couple of times against Tennessee, but that can happen to the best of DBs.

Amerson is joined in the defensive backfield by safeties Earl Wolff (such a good name for an NC State player) and Brandon Bishop, who have combined to start 69 games for the Pack. The two aren’t afraid to mix it up, either, as they have accounted for a combined 54 tackles through three games this season.

Incidentally, Wolff’s mother is currently serving overseas in the military.

North Carolina State’s linebacking corps is not nearly as experienced. Middle linebacker Sterling Lucas is back after missing the 2011 season due to injury. Lucas is easily the best-educated of all the Pack players, although he has yet to inform the school’s athletic media relations department that it has the name of his high school listed improperly in the game notes.

NCSU has a couple of promising younger players in sophomores Rodman Noel (whose younger brother, Nerlens Noel, is a super-hyped freshman basketball player at Kentucky this year) and Brandon Pittman. Noel will start in the Pack’s base 4-3, but Pittman will play a lot.

On the defensive line, NCSU will rotate up to ten guys. The key players in this unit on Saturday might be veteran right end Brian Slay and 315-lb. DT Thomas Teal.

Over the last two games NCSU has held its opponents to a meager 2-for-23 on third down conversion attempts, with South Alabama pulling an 0-fer in the category (in eleven tries). Tennessee was 9-for-19 converting third downs against the Pack.

Both of NC State’s kicking specialists started as freshmen last year. Niklas Sade is the Pack’s placekicker. He has made 50 consecutive PATs and was 11-16 on FG attempts last year, although so far this season Sade is only 2-5. His career long is 45 yards.

Wil Baumann is NC State’s punter. From what I can tell, based on the stats, he is more of a directional kicker than a true “boomer”. This could be a tough week for fans of the Domonic Jones Puntblocking Experience (DJPE), however, as NC State hasn’t had a punt blocked in over three seasons, and hasn’t had one blocked and returned for a TD since 2005.

For the third consecutive week, The Citadel will play in a game designated as Military Appreciation Day. NC State has an impressive history of producing military officers, and I would anticipate a particularly good show at Carter-Finley.

It is hard to really predict how Saturday’s game will go. The Citadel was very competitive in its last matchup against an FBS opponent, and that was against a nationally ranked South Carolina squad at the close of last season. On the other hand, it is also true that the Gamecocks did not punt in that game.

I don’t think this NC State team is as good as that South Carolina outfit (at the very least, there will be no Alshon Jeffery with which to contend), but the Pack is a solid ACC program that features a fine quarterback and several playmakers.

By my count, Tom O’Brien is 10-0 against I-AA/FCS schools in his head coaching career. One of those wins came in 2007 against Wofford, in O’Brien’s first season in Raleigh. NC State won that game 38-17, a good approximation of what the smart money says Saturday’s result will be.

NC State has played Georgia Tech in each of the last two years, so it is not unfamiliar with the triple option. The Pack did not always defend the Jackets’ offense very well in those games, but then Georgia Tech has a different level of athlete in its system than does (for the most part) The Citadel. At any rate, NCSU was already preparing for this game before the season began.

Much of the focus for this week’s contest has been on how NC State will defend Triple O’Higgins, but it may be that The Citadel’s biggest task will be for its defense to stop a potent (if occasionally inconsistent) Pack offense. In most FBS vs. FCS contests, the main advantage the FBS school has is on the line of scrimmage. How the Bulldogs solve that problem will go a long way to determining how close the game will be.

To me, this game is a freeroll for the Bulldogs. A loss doesn’t affect any of the team’s long-term goals in any way, except for having a winning season, and even there The Citadel will have plenty of opportunities to get three more victories.

What is important is that The Citadel comes out of this game with A) no serious injuries, B) confidence intact, and C) a cashed check for $375K.

Ben Dupree was asked if a win over NC State would “validate” the program. He correctly said no.

To beat an FBS team, you have to be on your ‘A’ game. I don’t think winning this game would validate us, but it would get us some more national attention. We’re hoping to win this game and be a top 5 team.

Exactly right.

In a bit of an oddity, The Citadel could be the team on Saturday night in danger of suffering a letdown. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise for the Bulldogs to come out flat after two enormous (and potentially program-altering) wins.

That said, the bandwagon is starting to fill up. A win in Raleigh would fill it to near capacity.

2012 Football, Game 1: The Citadel vs. Charleston Southern

Ah, football. So glad to see you again, old friend. The offseason was long and hard. The lack of a winter confused us. We’ve had to wade through conference realignment conspiracy theories again, with some of those rumors involving our own conference.

Yes, football is back, and just in time.

The Citadel vs. Charleston Southern, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 6:00 pm ET on Saturday, September 1.  The game will not be televised, although it will be webcast on Bulldog Insider (subscription service) and can be heard on radio via the twelve affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Danny Reed (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Josh Baker, with Lee Glaze roaming the sidelines and Walt Nadzak providing pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary. After the game, there will be a fireworks show, which probably guarantees that a series of thunderstorms will begin to pass through Charleston during the second half.

Some links of note:

The Citadel game notes    The Citadel depth chart   SoCon weekly release

Oh, and just for fun, a few things I wrote in the spring and summer:

Why I don’t expect an overflow crowd at Saturday’s game

A brief look at returning lettermen for The Citadel and its opponents

An analysis of attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium over the past five decades

My ridiculously long-winded manifesto on why The Citadel needs to add more varsity sports

Watching The Post and Courier‘s video preview for The Citadel’s upcoming season, I was interested to hear Jeff Hartsell state that head coach Kevin Higgins was not under any particular pressure in terms of wins and losses for this year. According to Hartsell, The Citadel administration is “all-in” on Higgins, who is now in his eighth season at the military college.

I’m not surprised school officials would take that position in public (it is, after all, the correct thing to do). I was a little curious to hear Hartsell say so without equivocation, which tells me the public position is also the private one. Higgins has one year remaining on his contract after this season, to be sure, and The Citadel is not known for terminating coaches in that situation.

Not that I’m advocating a “win this year or else” strategy with regards to Higgins; far from it. I think it’s good to have a veteran coach running things. As long as he still has the energy for the job (and that certainly appears to be the case), I like the idea of having a coach who has been at the school long  enough to know what to do and what not to do. He knows how to approach things that are unique to The Citadel, whether it be recruiting or corps squad/rest of corps relations (this tweet is evidence of the latter).

In other words, he’s made all the big mistakes he’s going to make. Now, though, I would like to see him win a few more games, which would go along nicely with his cutting-edge practice field attire.

I think it’s important to be realistic about a football program that has had just one winning season since 1997. The definition of a successful campaign this year, then, is to finish with more wins than losses. As Hartsell also said in the video preview, that’s what fans should be expecting (in terms of a breakthrough).

It won’t be easy. The schedule is not as conducive to a winning year as one would like. There are only five home games, and in addition to that the slate is front-loaded. It is not out of the question The Citadel could be 1-4 after its first five games. In fact, the football cognoscenti of the SoCon would predict exactly that. The Bulldogs were picked to finish next-to-last in the league by both the media writers and the coaches.

Therefore, a key to the season is improving upon that 1-4 expectation. That is quite possible, in my view. The Bulldogs more than held their own last season against the three league opponents they will play in that five-game stretch. The Citadel lost by seven points to Appalachian State at home, narrowly missed out on a road upset of Georgia Southern, and stunned Chattanooga (in Chattanooga!) after spotting the Mocs a 27-point lead.

The Citadel won’t be favored to be as competitive against North Carolina State, though nothing is impossible (and taking no chances, Tom O’Brien is already preparing his team for the triple option). The Bulldogs are a solid favorite against Charleston Southern. (I get a little nervous whenever I write that The Citadel is a “solid favorite” over any team.)

The Citadel total offense (in yards) vs. SoCon opponents, 2010: 359, 304, 263, 197, 160, 143, 300, 203

The Citadel total offense (in yards) vs. SoCon opponents, 2011: 301, 267, 268, 238, 361, 447, 264, 259

Triple O’Higgins was clearly better last season, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The Citadel averaged 300.6 yards of total offense in eight league games. That number rises to 318.8 counting the non-conference contests, which was the worst total in the SoCon.

Of course, the numbers that matter are points, but total offense is generally a good indicator of points scored, and The Citadel’s 23.5 points per game finished next-to-last in the SoCon, ahead of only hapless Western Carolina.

Most of The Citadel’s total offense came in rushing, which will surprise nobody. The Bulldogs only averaged 32.2 yards passing per contest, which ranked last in the entire country. In a way, that makes The Citadel’s rushing totals all the more impressive, given every opponent could focus exclusively on the run — and I do mean exclusively.

I remember driving through a torrential thunderstorm on I-26 and listening to Danny Reed call the Bulldogs’ game against Elon. “10 men in the box for Elon,” he said about one early second-quarter play. Later on, he exclaimed, “Now the Phoenix have 11 men in the box!” As the game wound down to its conclusion, I was half-expecting him to say that Elon was putting 12 men in the box.

The lack of a passing threat was a key reason why the Bulldogs, despite finishing third in the SoCon (and the nation) in rushing, wound up finishing last in the league in total first downs.

For this season, The Citadel needs to at least make its opponents nervous about the possibility of a forward pass. To do so, a new formation has been added to the playbook:

A new feature of The Citadel offense this year will be a heavier reliance on the shotgun, a formation which will allow both returning quarterbacks to improve their accuracy and make the Bulldogs more of a productive passing team.

Kevin Higgins is not going to tell anybody what numbers he is looking for in the passing game, which is understandable, because he really isn’t looking for a specific amount of receiving yards. He just wants to make opponents honor the pass, which will in turn help the Bulldogs’ rushing attack.

While there may be no “magic number”, I believe some parameters for success can be estimated. It appears The Citadel does plan to throw the ball a bit more often this season. If the idea is to average 10-12 pass attempts per game (the Bulldogs averaged a shade under 7 attempts last season), then I think The Citadel needs to average around 8.0-8.5 yards per pass attempt at a minimum (preferably it should be above 9 yards per attempt). Last season, that number was 4.7 ypa, an awful average.

As for interceptions, I am inclined to think the goal should be no more than one per 25 attempts, though that number could fluctuate based on overall total offense production and the number of possessions per game. Last season the Bulldogs threw seven interceptions in only 75 passing attempts, which is very poor. Interestingly, Wofford tossed seven picks in 108 attempts, which isn’t much better — but the Terriers also threw eight touchdown passes. The Citadel only had one TD pass, and that was a halfback option pass by Rickey Anderson.

While the Bulldogs need to improve in the passing game, the team needs to be careful not to lose its identity as a run-first, run-second, run-as-much-as-possible offense. The Citadel needs to stick to the basics. This isn’t about “balance”. Nothing is more overrated than balance in an offense. It’s not how you score points, it’s how many points you score. Case in point: since 1990, there have been ten games in which The Citadel has had seven or fewer passing yards. The record for the Bulldogs in those ten games? 6-4.

Regardless of formation variance, I think the offense will be better this season. The Citadel has a generally solid cast of returnees, including a plethora of slotbacks, two quality B-backs, and two quarterbacks. The largely experienced offensive line is led by the offense’s best player, center Mike Sellers.

There is some concern about the wide receiver position, but to me the biggest question marks are the two tackle positions and the rotating quarterbacks. The Citadel recently made a significant move at the tackle position, inserting Cullen Brown at starting right tackle. Alex Glover will now start at tight end.

Regarding the QBs, I am not a huge believer in the notion that you must have a #1 guy at the position, at least at the college level. However, I do wonder about the timing of the offense when you combine two quarterbacks with two different B-backs. Everyone remembers the problems the Bulldogs had two years ago with the center-QB exchange and the QB/back “mesh” operation. No one at The Citadel wants to see anything resembling a repeat of those days.

I am a little worried about the defense, particularly when it comes to that four-game stretch following the opener: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, North Carolina State, and Chattanooga. The unit must be ready to compete at a high level for those games, but lacks starting experience in key areas. The front-loaded schedule could really hurt the Bulldogs.

Four of the five leading tacklers from last season are gone, although that in itself doesn’t bother me too much. It’s the amount of experience those four players had that is the real issue (last year’s three starting linebackers played in a combined 126 career games).

Then there is the loss of Derek Douglas for at least the first part of the season due to a knee injury. Many observers felt Douglas was the team’s best all-around player last season, a force on the d-line and an all-conference selection. He had 11 tackles for loss; only one other returning SoCon player had more (Wes Dothard of UTC). Douglas can’t return fast enough for the Bulldogs.

There is more talent coming back, however, including lineman Chris Billingslea, a true playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Billingslea’s big-play capability (he always seems to be around the football) is something The Citadel needs from more of its defensive players; while solid, last season’s defense didn’t force quite enough negative plays, particularly turnovers (eighteen in eleven games).

There are a number of candidates to feature alongside Billingslea (and Douglas, when he returns) on the defensive line. I think the Bulldogs are in reasonably good shape with this group. The Citadel just needs two or three of them to assert themselves as major contributors, and quickly. It appears that at least two freshmen will get an opportunity to make an impact.

While the linebacking corps will feature three new starters, all three played last season and showed promise, including flashes of that big-play ability the Bulldogs need. However, there has been talk that they aren’t as athletic as the previous starters. Personally, I’m not overly concerned with their athleticism, as long as they can make game-changing plays that benefit The Citadel. Depth could be an issue, however, as there are fewer obvious options for this group than there are for the defensive line.

The secondary needs to improve on its interception totals (only six all last season). The lack of picks has been an ongoing problem. The Citadel was last in the league in passes intercepted in 2010 and next-to-last in 2011. Another issue that has occasionally bedeviled The Citadel is the “killer pass” from the opposition —  not just long TD throws, but third-down conversion pickups that have allowed drives to continue.

The Citadel allowed opponents to complete 65.3% of their passes last season, the highest percentage allowed in the Higgins era. Opponents have completed at least 60% of their passes against the Bulldogs in each of the last four years, a far cry from the 52.7% completion rate allowed in 2007, The Citadel’s last winning campaign.

The Bulldogs were next-to-last in the league in defensive pass efficiency last season. To win more games, The Citadel has to do better than that in 2012.

Phil Steele recently released his FCS Special Teams rankings for the 2011 season. The Citadel, primarily thanks to its success in punting and returning (or rather, blocking) punts, finished first in the nation in his ratings. Only one other Southern Conference team finished in the top 30 (Georgia Southern was thirteenth).

The star performer for The Citadel’s special teams last season was punter Cass Couey, who was superb, leading the SoCon in punting average (43.0 yds) and net punting (38.2 yds). He’s also capable of tucking the ball under his arm and running for a first down if the opposition isn’t paying attention.

The Citadel also had a big edge when the other team punted, thanks to nine blocked punts. However, one of the NCAA’s rules changes for 2012 will force the Bulldogs to adjust at least part of their kick-blocking strategy:

There will…be a new rule prohibiting players from leaping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt. Receiving-team players trying to jump over a shield-blocking scheme has become popular for teams in punt formation. Receiving-team players try to defeat this scheme by rushing into the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are contacted and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders.

This change could be called the Domonic Jones Rule, as the rangy 6’5″ wide receiver blocked or deflected five punts last season by doing exactly what is described above. While the new rule may not favor The Citadel, in all honesty I think it’s a good change. Too many times I have watched a player land on his head or neck after leaping into a pair of shield blockers.

Kevin Higgins was on the committee that recommended the new rules changes, and he and his fellow panelists were busy. The kicking game drew special attention, and the Jones Rule wasn’t the only thing to be enacted:

[T]eams will kick off at the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Also, players on the kicking team can’t line up for the play behind the 30-yard line, which is intended to limit the running start kicking teams used to have during the play.

Also, touchbacks on free kicks will be moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20 to encourage more touchbacks. Touchbacks on other plays (for example, punts that go into the end zone, or fumbles that go out of the end zone) will remain at the 20-yard line.

Those rule changes will affect The Citadel on kickoffs, an aspect of special teams the Bulldogs could improve upon. While the kickoff return unit was fine, The Citadel was seventh in the league in net kickoff coverage. A freshman is expected to be the Bulldogs’ kickoff specialist this fall. So far, reviews are good.

Reviews are also good for senior Thomas Warren, who becomes the starting placekicker this season. By all accounts, Warren has had an excellent preseason camp. Missed opportunities in the kicking game cost The Citadel a chance at winning both the Elon and Georgia Southern games last season, and as a result there is a lot of interest (if not angst) among fans about the placekicking unit. It should be pointed out, however, that it’s not all about the kicker. The holder, snapper, and blockers must all do their jobs too.

One thing The Citadel did very well last year was not commit penalties. In fact, the Bulldogs were the least-penalized team in the nation last season, both in terms of number (3.09 per game) and yardage (22.45 yds), which is to the credit of the players and the coaches. I like rooting for a team that doesn’t commit a lot of penalties.

Incidentally, another rules change for this season will particularly impact teams running the triple option:

Offensive players in the tackle box at the snap who are not in motion are allowed to block below the waist legally without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions (for example, straight-ahead blocks).

The Citadel’s opponent on Saturday, Charleston Southern, had a rough season last year. Actually, “rough” may be a nice way to put it, as the Buccaneers were 0-11. Charleston Southern started the season getting blitzed by two FBS opponents (Central Florida and Florida State) by a combined score of 124-10, and never really recovered.

The lowlight of the Bucs’ season was probably the 32-20 loss to Division III Wesley College, which came at CSU’s Homecoming. Charleston Southern lost close games to Jacksonville, VMI, Coastal Carolina, and Gardner-Webb, but also got bashed a few times, including a 30-point loss to Norfolk State and a 31-point defeat to Presbyterian in the season finale.

Non-FBS opponents averaged 35 points per game against the Bucs, and had success on the ground and in the air. CSU allowed 225 rushing yards per game, and 217 passing yards per contest.

Charleston Southern ranked last in the Big South in the following defensive categories: defensive pass efficiency, fumbles recovered, rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, tackles for loss, sacks, and turnovers gained.

Offensively, CSU ranked last in the Big South in rushing offense and scoring offense. The Bucs were also the worst team in the league at returning kickoffs. On the bright side, Charleston Southern led the Big South in net punting and only lost seven fumbles.

It all added up to a winless season. CSU has now lost twelve straight and eighteen of its last nineteen games.

Charleston Southern has two quarterbacks battling for the starting spot; regardless of which player wins the job, he must improve upon last year’s pass completion percentage (45.7%). I mentioned earlier that CSU finished last in the Big South in rushing offense. In fact, the Bucs only averaged 2.6 yards per carry, and only two starters return on CSU’s offensive line. Charleston Southern quarterbacks were sacked 32 times last year.

The defense has a new coordinator, Shawn Quinn, who was Georgia Southern’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator last season. He has work to do. However, given his experience at GSU, he should have a very good idea of how to defend The Citadel’s triple option attack.

Charleston Southern is not completely bereft of experienced talent. Senior cornerback Charles James was selected as the preseason Big South Defensive Player of the Year. He must be an excellent player to receive that kind of accolade while playing for a team coming off an 0-11 campaign. James is a former walk-on who has ten career interceptions; he also made 66 tackles last season for the Bucs and is a fine punt returner as well, averaging just under ten yards per return last season (with one touchdown).

Junior wideout Nathan Perera caught 43 passes (four touchdowns) last season and joined James on the preseason All-Big South squad. Perera averaged over 16 yards per reception. However, he is questionable for the game against The Citadel due to injury.

The Buccaneers’ special teams were respectable in 2011, with the punting units in particular being very solid. However, CSU must replace its punter/placekicker this season.

Charleston Southern was picked to finish last in the Big South’s preseason poll. One of the eighteen voters did tip CSU to finish second, for reasons not immediately apparent.

This year’s Charleston Southern team is probably not as good as the Jacksonville squad that The Citadel faced in last year’s opener. However, the Bucs are likely better than 2010 opening-game opponent Chowan or the Presbyterian outfit the Bulldogs played in the 2009 home opener.

While CSU’s defense last year was porous, it will return seven starters, and that group doesn’t include UGA transfer Damian Dixon, who will likely start in the defensive backfield with Charles James. Add in to the mix a new defensive coordinator who is familiar with The Citadel’s offense, and the result is a unit that should be ready to compete against the Bulldogs.

On the other side of the ball, The Citadel has several players who will be starting for the first time, but the same is going to be true for CSU’s offense. It may be a good situation for the Bulldogs in that respect.

The Citadel should win this game. It probably won’t be a rout, but it ought to be decisive. Losing to the Buccaneers would be disastrous. The Bulldogs will struggle to salvage the rest of the 2012 campaign if they do not prevail on Saturday.

That is pressure. Then again, nobody goes to The Citadel to avoid pressure.

I can’t wait until Saturday.

Waiting on college football season…hurry up already!

This is a post featuring meaningless gridiron musings, and it’s not even June yet.

I saw this chart on Phil Steele’s site a couple of days ago. It’s an interesting look at the percentage of lettermen returning for each FBS team, although perhaps not really indicative of how a team may do this season. For example, I suspect that Southern California, next-to-last in the category, is still going to be really good.

North Carolina State, which will play The Citadel in late September, is also near the bottom of the list, with a lettermen return rate of 59.6%. That got me thinking, what’s The Citadel’s return rate? It turns out to be not much higher (62.9%).

I compiled a similar list of The Citadel’s opponents this year in a chart. Well, not all the opponents, for the simple reason that I couldn’t find readily available numbers. I found practically no information about Charleston Southern’s returnees, to name just one school, although I would imagine that since the Buccaneers were 0-11 last season there are going to be some changes.

I have return/loss statistics for eight of the eleven schools playing the Bulldogs. As I get more information for the others, I’ll add those numbers to the chart.

Anyway, this is what I came up with for eight opponents, plus The Citadel (excuse the less-than-stellar presentation):

Team     2011 L’men     Lost         Returning   % Returning

Appy           55                22                 33       60.0%

GSU             80                24                 56       70.0%

NCSU          52                 21                 31       59.6%

Wofford      64                 17                 44       68.8%

WCU           63                 21                42       66.7%

UTC            65                 20                 45       69.2%

Furman        62                 17                 45       72.6%

VMI          54                   19                    35       64.8%

The Citadel  62                 23                 39       62.9%

Among returning offensive and defensive starters, Chattanooga returns 16 of 22 (8 offensive/8 defensive); Georgia Southern, 15 of 22 (8/7); Appalachian State, 14 of 22 (5/9); North Carolina State, 14 of 22 (7/7); Western Carolina, 14 of 22 (8/6); VMI, 11 of 22 (5/6); and Furman, 14 of 22 (6/8).

Some links, if you’re interested or bored or both:

Appalachian State 2012 Preseason Prospectus

Georgia Southern 2012 Quick Facts

A report from Charleston Southern’s spring game

Wofford 2012 Quick Facts

Chattanooga 2012 Spring Notes

Furman 2012 Quick Facts

VMI 2012 Quick FactsNewspaper report on VMI spring footballschool report on final spring scrimmage

Western Carolina 2012 Quick Facts and A report from Western Carolina’s spring game

Samford 2012 Prospectus

A report from Elon’s spring game

North Carolina State 2012 Spring Prospectus

Phil Steele’s team page for The Citadel

Jeff Hartsell’s writeup of The Citadel’s spring game (over two months ago, sure, but in case you missed it)

Less than 100 days to go…

Larry Leckonby’s Lament: The Citadel in 2010-11

The first thing I want to note is that none of what follows is intended to be a negative reflection on any of the individuals who compete for The Citadel in varsity athletics.  I am greatly appreciative of all the young men and women who represent the school on the field of play.

This is about the “big picture”, and the truth is that the big picture for the school year 2010-11 at The Citadel featured a lot of losing.  Just how much losing?

Well, let’s take a look at all the varsity programs under the military college’s banner. The Citadel has fifteen varsity sports, by my reckoning.  I count rifle (listed as both a men’s and women’s sport on the school’s website) as just one sport, because it is co-ed.  I consider indoor track and outdoor track to be separate entities, because the Southern Conference awards championships in both of them (and for both men and women).  The school competes in the SoCon in fourteen of the fifteen sports (the exception is rifle).

The Citadel’s most successful sport in 2010-2011 was, in fact, rifle.  The rifle team won its first conference title since 2001, the conference title in question being the Southeastern Air Rifle Conference championship.  I don’t know a whole lot about this, but it sounds good to me.  The previous four SEARC titles had been won by North Carolina State.  Those four titles had been won by NCSU prior to Debbie Yow being named director of athletics at that school, but there was no indication that sabotage was involved in The Citadel’s triumph.

It seems appropriate that The Citadel has an outstanding rifle program.

The women’s soccer team finished 12-8-1, 7-4 in the Southern Conference (good for 3rd place), and was easily the second-most successful sport at The Citadel this school year.  It was #1 in the “feel good” category by miles and miles, however, since the program had only won three league games in its entire history prior to the 2010 campaign.

In addition, the soccer team was the only squad this year to win a postseason game of any kind for The Citadel, defeating Furman 2-1 in 2OT in the first round of the SoCon tourney.

The wrestling team finished fourth in the SoCon (out of six teams) in what probably could be considered a mildly disappointing season.  On the bright side, at least The Citadel still has a wrestling program, which is more than can be said for second-place UNC-Greensboro or NCAA Division II champion Nebraska-Omaha.

The Citadel finished 5th in the SoCon (out of nine teams) in both men’s indoor and outdoor track, while the women were 9th (out of twelve teams) in both.  This strikes me as perfectly respectable.  Ninth is not as good as first or second, obviously, but perspective has to maintained, especially considering that as of September there were only 142 female cadets overall at The Citadel.  The coaches just need to find another Stephanie McNeill or two in order to vault a few spots in the standings.

The Citadel finished next-to-last in both men’s and women’s cross country in the SoCon (10th/11 men, 11th/12 women).  In this case, though, it may be fair to grade on a curve. I suspect that it is not easy (if even possible) to develop a serious league contender in cross country at a military school located in Charleston, South Carolina. The City of Charleston has a number of charms, but it is certainly not conducive to ideal cross country training.

I noticed when reviewing the league’s history and records that the College of Charleston (since becoming a league member) has generally joined The Citadel in the lower part of the standings.  That’s probably not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that Appalachian State and Chattanooga have dominated the sport in the league over the years.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 3rd-place result in the 1972 SoCon meet is the best finish in school history.

You know it’s been a bad school year in Bulldog athletics when there are six varsity sports that arguably had worse seasons than a pair of cross country teams that each finished next-to-last in the league…

The volleyball team finished 7-25, 1-15 in the SoCon.  Perhaps not surprisingly, The Citadel made a coaching change.  You have to wonder if the success of the women’s soccer team this year cast a less-than-favorable light on the volleyball program, which has an alltime record in league play of 10-192.  (No, that’s not a typo.)

One of the downsides when a “non-revenue” sport is on the short end of the wins-and-losses ledger is that alums and other interested observers are less likely to read or hear about the players, and some of those cadets are rather accomplished student-athletes.  That’s just another reason why it’s important to maintain competitive teams in all of The Citadel’s varsity programs.

Another program that will be helmed by a new coach next season is the tennis team, which finished 3-21, and failed to win a single Southern Conference match (0-10). The Bulldogs were winless against Division I competition, with the three victories coming against Case Western and Reserve, Johnson C. Smith, and Lenoir-Rhyne.

Then there is the women’s golf team, which was possibly even less competitive in the conference in 2011 than the tennis team.

At this year’s SoCon championships, there was a 79-shot difference between the first-place team (Chattanooga, which won the title by 30 strokes) and the ninth-place team (Appalachian State).  The Citadel finished 10th and last, 70 shots behind App State.

For a lot of graduates, football, baseball, and basketball are the sports that matter. They tend to get the lions’ share of attention and resources, and are thus held to a higher standard by most alums, who are more inclined to follow them and compare the successes and failures of the programs to other schools.  If you are reading this, you undoubtedly know how their seasons went, but a quick recap:

Football:  3-8, 1-7 (tied for last) in the SoCon.  The first year of Triple O’Higgins was often a cover-your-eyes situation, with the nadir being the nine-turnover debacle at home against Georgia Southern.

Basketball:  10-22, 6-12 in the Socon (next-to-last in South Division).  Chuck Driesell’s first year as head coach was not a success, as a senior-laden team and wannabe league contender struggled all season.

Baseball:  20-36, 8-22 in the SoCon (last).  The baseball team missed the SoCon tournament for the first time since 1987 (and back then, only four teams made the tourney).  A twelve-game losing streak to close the season resulted in the Bulldogs finishing last in the league for the first time ever.  The collapse came as a shock, despite expectations being relatively modest following the team’s championship season of a year ago.

The combined 66 losses by the “Big 3” is a record, as you might have guessed.  It’s not often all three programs have a losing season in the same school year.  The last time it happened was in 1993-94, but that year the baseball team got on a serious roll at the end of the season and won the league tournament, making the NCAAs.  The football team was a not-so-terrible 5-6.  The worst record for the three sports that year was the hoops squad’s 11-16 mark.

When it comes to “best year” or “worst year” in Bulldog athletics, of course, it’s really just a matter of opinion.  To me, an especially difficult year would include poor results by the “Big 3” combined with less-than-stellar records for a lot of the other programs.  I want The Citadel to be good at everything, or at least decent at everything.

I went back and looked at some of the records for the past five decades.  I was particularly interested in the 1966-67 and 1986-87 school years, the most recent campaigns (prior to 1993-94) where the “Big 3” programs all finished with losing records.  Exact comparisons could not be made, of course, as The Citadel has sponsored sports in which it no longer fields varsity teams (like men’s golf and men’s soccer) and now has other sports which didn’t exist in previous years (all the women’s teams).

In 1966-67, the baseball team lost 12 in a row (just like this season) and finished 9-16.  That losing streak included losses to Taylor and Pfeiffer.  The basketball team was 8-16, a season that has been well chronicled.  The football team was 4-6, although that campaign did include end-of-season victories over VMI and Furman.

The 1966-67 basketball and baseball teams were not good, and comparable to this year’s editions of those teams, but the football team was probably better than 2010’s squad.  In addition, 1966-67 featured a solid tennis team (3rd in the SoCon) and, most notably, a championship outfit — the wrestling team, which won the Southern Conference title that year and featured Ed Steers, who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler after winning the second of his three league titles in the 145-lb. division.

When comparing 2010-11 to 1986-87, it’s a closer call.  The football team was arguably worse (that was Tom Moore’s final season; the Bulldogs finished 3-8 with some dreadful performances, particularly at home against VMI and Chattanooga), but the hoops squad was better (13-15, 6-10 in the SoCon) and the baseball team was too.  In addition, the other sports were slightly more successful across the board in 1986-87 (with tennis being significantly better).

I did not find another school year in the 1961-2001 era where the varsity sports teams struggled as much as in those two years.  I think a persuasive argument can be made that 2010-11 was the worst school year for varsity athletics at The Citadel in at least 50 years.

What does it mean?  Well, in the short term it probably means that Jerry Baker, Caleb Davis and company will have that much more difficult a time raising money for the Brigadier Foundation. Contributors want to see a winner, and you had to search far and wide to find a winner in The Citadel’s athletics department this year.

For Larry Leckonby, it means that 2011-12 will be an important year, one in which he will have to make key decisions.  His biggest call will be on Kevin Higgins’ future.  The department of athletics pivots off the success of the football team; it’s the most high-profile sport at the school, it’s where the money is made, and I also think that it sometimes establishes momentum for the other sports.

Speaking of coaches, Leckonby also needs to find the right one for the tennis team, which should be better than 3-21 (and yes, I know that NCAA tennis is a different animal than it was two and three decades ago).  I don’t have any good advice on that front, other than if he gets an applicant who drives a Jaguar (with a baby bulldog in the front seat) and appears regularly on television, he should hire him.  It worked fairly well the first time.

While last year was mostly grim, there is hope, and that hope can be found by considering what happened following the 1986-87 school year.  In May of 1987, it would have been easy to be pessimistic about sports at The Citadel, but in the next six years:

— The baseball team won two regular season SoCon titles, one league tourney, and advanced to the College World Series in 1990.

— The football team won at South Carolina, at Army, beat Navy twice (at home and on the road), made three playoff appearances, and won the Southern Conference title for only the second time in school history.

— The basketball team won at South Carolina (the first win over the Gamecocks since the 1943 Southern Conference tournament) and had a 16-win season.

— The tennis team had two top-3 finishes in the SoCon tourney; the golf team had a top-4 finish; and the soccer team had a tie for first place (in 1990).

After the struggles of 1986-87, the department had its best run of success since the early 1960s.  Maybe history can repeat itself.

I hope so.  Losing isn’t any fun…

Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Western Carolina

This week’s edition of the game preview is a bit of a ramble.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad…

In last season’s preview of the Western Carolina game, I wrote (among other things) about how WCU has some built-in problems when it comes to competing successfully in football in the Southern Conference.  At the time, the Catamounts were 0-5.  It was a game The Citadel was supposed to win.

The Bulldogs lost, 14-10.

That’s the lesson to be learned when it comes to The Citadel competing in the SoCon.  The Bulldogs may face a team that is struggling and/or lacks (as a program) certain resources.  However, The Citadel will never be in a position to just show up and win while playing its “C” game.  The military school doesn’t have the capacity to do that, and never will, because of its own restrictions (note that I said restrictions, not disadvantages).

At its best as a program, The Citadel could beat any league team — and could lose to any league team.  That’s just the way it is.  In terms of physical talent, no other conference squad will ever be overmatched by the Bulldogs.

This season, Western Carolina is 1-3, including a 24-point home loss to Tusculum, a Division II school.  On Saturday, on the road at Johnson Hagood Stadium, Catamounts coach Dennis Wagner will give a true freshman quarterback his first career start.  It is a game The Citadel is supposed to win…

Western Carolina opened its season by losing 48-7 to North Carolina State, which no one could get too upset about.  Then, however, the Catamounts were embarrassed by Tusculum 54-30 (in a game that ended with 2:39 still on the clock after a lightning strike).  Plenty of Catamount fans were upset about that.

WCU followed that up with a somewhat surprising 28-14 win over Gardner-Webb, which had just upset Akron.  Last week’s 27-21 loss to UT-Chattanooga was also a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, as the game wasn’t supposed to be that close.

I decided to discount the NC State game when looking at WCU’s statistical record. Western Carolina actually scored first in that game before allowed 48 unanswered points.  Still, that was against a currently undefeated BCS school.

Against Tusculum (as mentioned above, a Division II school, and one that only won three games last season), the Catamounts gave up fumble return touchdowns of 90 and 60 yards and were also victimized by a blocked punt that resulted in a TD one play later.  Ouch.  Just before halftime, the score was 27-0.  It was just a complete debacle.

Also noteworthy:  Tusculum only had 42 net yards rushing, but threw for 410 yards without being intercepted.  The stats for this game were very different from the other WCU games in several respects — the Catamounts finished with more first downs and more time of possession, for example.

That game looks like a situation where things started terribly, and the Catamounts were simply incapable of reversing the momentum.  That may be an indication of how fragile WCU’s program is, but I think Western Carolina’s 9-40 record since 2006 is enough of an indicator.

Then came the promising performances against Gardner-Webb and UTC.

Against G-W, Western Carolina only picked up 7 first downs on offense (to the Bulldogs’ 24) and was on the short end of time of possession by almost 16 minutes. So how did the Catamounts prevail?  By taking advantage of six turnovers, that’s how. WCU intercepted five passes, returning one for a score, and also returned a fumble for a TD.  Torrez Jones had four of the five picks (although not the pick-6).

WCU’s other two scores in the game were on a 78-yard pass reception and a 60-yard run, so big plays ruled the day.  Gardner-Webb couldn’t overcome all of them, even at home.

The UT-Chattanooga game was a similar story.  The Mocs had 24 first downs to WCU’s 12 (with the Catamounts not picking up a single first down by rushing).  In this game Western Carolina committed four turnovers, all by Brandon Pechloff, the freshman who will be starting against The Citadel on Saturday (three interceptions, one fumble).

However, WCU forced four turnovers of its own, including three fumbles, one of which it returned for a TD.  WCU also scored on a trick play.  After a UTC punt gave the Catamounts great field position, WCU scored on its first play following the change in possession on a wide receiver pass.

To sum up, the Catamounts are not the type of team that sustains long scoring drives. The Catamounts have had to count on big plays, both offensively and defensively, to stay in games.    I could see The Citadel rolling up a huge edge in time of possession in this game, but it won’t mean much if the Bulldogs turn the ball over.

The big play motif is probably a key factor behind WCU coach Dennis Wagner’s decision to start Pechloff, a 6’7″ left-hander, at quarterback.  The starter for the UTC game, Zac Brindise, left that game after completing 10 of 14 passes, but for only 34 yards.  That wouldn’t be good enough for any team, and certainly not one like WCU. Pechloff may have thrown three interceptions, but his yards-per-attempt rate of 6.04 was a lot better than Brindise’s 2.43 YPA.

It’s hard to blame Wagner for taking a shot with the young QB.  It’s up to the Bulldog defense to take advantage of his inexperience and collect a few turnovers of its own.

Tangent:  Chattanooga beat writer John Frierson noted in a Tweet that “WCU coach Dennis Wagner might be the only college head coach who wears shorts on game day. I bet others wish they did.”


I don’t recall ever seeing a college head coach wear shorts during a game.  In a way it’s amazing that no one else has (or that I can’t think of anyone else, anyway). Saturday is supposed to be clear with a high of 77 degrees, so I’m guessing Wagner breaks out the long pants against The Citadel.

Frierson also noted in another tweet that Pechloff “looked good once he settled down a bit”, so this probably won’t be a case of the Bulldogs going up against an overly anxious quarterback.  Pechloff could be a find for WCU, too; he led his high school team in Illinois to the 5A championship as a senior after not starting his junior year (which according to him is the reason bigger schools did not offer him a scholarship).

Like every other high school prospect, Pechloff had a Youtube video.  You can see it here.

I would say that The Citadel needs to pressure Pechloff, but you could say that every week about every quarterback the Bulldogs defense faces.  I think another thing to do, though, is to give him different looks and force him to make reads under duress.

I also wouldn’t bet against Brindise making an appearance for WCU against the Bulldogs.

I wrote about things the Bulldogs did well/need to improve in my review of the Furman game, so I’m not going to rehash that here.  I’ll make a couple of quick points, though:

— With the triple option, there is a significant element of “take what the defense gives you” to the offense.  Terrell Dallas’ stat lines against Presbyterian and Furman the last two weeks are a good example of that.  However, I think there is still a place in the triple option to feature certain players in some situations.  The Citadel has to get the ball to its best playmakers.

It may not be that easy to free up a fullback like Dallas, but I would like to see more opportunities for Jones.  That would be Van Dyke Jones and Domonic Jones, or any other Jones on The Citadel’s campus who can be a gamebreaker.  Terrance Martin did struggle with the science of going in motion against Furman, but regardless he is another player capable of making big plays.  I hope he gets more chances to change the game.

— It’s about time for Milford Scott to block another punt.  He also has to lead all levels of football in the head-over-heels flipperama move, which is a little scary.  The special teams in general (jinx alert) have looked better this year so far, although the placekicking remains a concern.

Let’s wrap this up with a couple of sort-of-but-not-really related observations:

— One “new” tradition at Johnson Hagood Stadium that I like is the corps singing the “Olé Olé Olé” song, a la European/South American soccer matches.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the corps to emulate more soccer traditions (well, maybe not the hooliganism, racism, and setting off of flares).

There is something very natural about a crowd singing/chanting without prompting or assistance from a loud, obnoxious sound system/video board.  It just felt right to me when the corps did its chant.  The best sounds to be heard at the game were that, and the band.

If the corps could throw in some large soccerstyle banners, too, that would be cool. (The “Star Wars” one [actually two] that the Toronto fans did killed me.)

— The “get fired up” shorts featuring defensive players that are repeatedly aired on the video board…well, it gets old fast, especially when the same short gets played three or four times in a row between plays.  Maybe those should be more judiciously employed.

I’m ready for Saturday.