Game Review, 2018: Samford

Links of interest:

– Game story, The Post and Courier

– Video from WCSC-TV

– AP game story

– School release (The Citadel)

– School release (Samford)

Box score

– Game highlights, including postgame comments from Brent Thompson (video)

– ESPN+ replay of the game

Why do people keep coming back to watch games year after year? Well, for a lot of reasons, of course.

However, one of the biggest reasons is that there is always a chance you will get to witness something special, something extraordinary, something that will cause you to pridefully say years from now, “I was there that day.”

I think Saturday’s game was like that if you are a fan of The Citadel. It was certainly one of the most memorable games in the history of Johnson Hagood Stadium.

It wasn’t a game that resulted in a championship for the Bulldogs. It didn’t set up another key contest, or even clinch a winning season. The fact there were no obvious stakes for the Bulldogs arguably made the game — including the on-field play and the general atmosphere  — all the more remarkable.

Ultimately, it was a tremendous advertisement for football at the military college, and for The Citadel as a whole.

With 10:37 to play in the second quarter, Samford took possession of the ball at its own 33-yard line. To that point in the contest, SU had run 23 plays for 221 yards, scoring three touchdowns. The Citadel had only run 15 plays from scrimmage for a total of 49 yards, and had no points.

The game’s momentum started to change slightly over the next four possessions, two by each team. The Citadel scored on the second of its two drives in that sequence, but then Samford drove 65 yards late in the half, settling for a field goal and a 24-7 lead at the break.

The third quarter didn’t start off very well for The Citadel either, as Bulldogs quarterback Brandon Rainey promptly fumbled the ball away. It would prove to be one of Rainey’s few missteps in a brilliant second-half performance, but Samford was in position to take an even more commanding lead.

That SU failed to do so is a credit to The Citadel’s defense. There was a key play that may have flown under the radar, but that I think is worth highlighting.

On third and six from the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line, SU quarterback Devlin Hodges threw a swing pass to Robert Adams. It looked like Adams was going to pick up the first down, but Aron Spann III defeated his blocker and then stopped Adams four yards short of the line to gain, forcing a fumble that rolled out of bounds.

Without that stop by Spann, the drive would have continued. Instead, Samford saw a 40-yard field goal attempt sail wide of the right upright (and that particular upright has not been kind to the Birmingham Bulldogs in their last two trips to Johnson Hagood Stadium).

Eight plays later, Lorenzo Ward was in the end zone for The Citadel, and the tide had begun to turn.

It didn’t completely turn, though. Samford drove down the field for another field goal try, and this one was good. Then The Citadel had to punt after a seven-play possession.

That set up the next huge play by the Bulldogs’ defense, as Shawn McCord sacked Hodges on first down, basically taking the ball away from the quarterback in the process. It took the offense three plays to go 10 yards for its third TD (and the second by Ward) and close to within six points.

The next three possessions for each team…

  • Samford: 13 plays, 73 yards, one first down (on a 41-yard run by Hodges), no points
  • The Citadel: 19 plays, 202 yards, eight first downs, 21 points (including a scintillating 60-yard TD run by Rainey to take the lead, and two more TDs for Ward, including a 43-yard scamper)

The game was essentially decided. Samford drove 67 yards on its final drive against a prevent defense, but couldn’t punch it in for a TD, and at the final whistle the scoreboard, almost unbelievably, read 42-27 in favor of the home team.

It was really incredible to see the change in fortunes of the two teams as the game progressed. The Citadel’s players and coaches have to be credited for that.

Essentially, a runaway train was plunging straight downhill. The Bulldogs managed to somehow stop the train, gradually turn it around, then push it in the other direction, where it careened downhill even more uncontrollably than it did before, even though that means it would have been going downhill both ways.

It makes no sense, even as a metaphor. Isaac Newton would have to rewrite at least two of his three laws of motion.

The comeback still happened, though.

Assorted observations:

– I thought the corps of cadets richly deserved the overnights granted by Gen. Walters. As the game wound down, the chant “We want ‘Bama!” could be heard from that section of the stadium, one of several things I’ll always remember about this game.

– Then there was the money that started falling out of the sky after one of the Bulldogs’ second-half touchdowns. It was apparently thrown by someone in one of the suites. After another touchdown for The Citadel, more money appeared from the clouds on high.

I admit I would have been more impressed if the bills were 20s…

– The spontaneous “jump around” by the team on the sideline at the 6:11 mark of the fourth quarter led to a renewed burst of energy in the stands, and then that filtered back down to the team again, just repeating the cycle. It was kind of crazy.

– At the game, someone asked me about time of possession. I don’t know what the modern-day record for TOP is for The Citadel; it presumably is something in the 40-45 minute range. Saturday’s game wasn’t quite so lopsided in terms of time of possession, although The Citadel did have the edge in that area by over ten minutes (35:01 to 24:59).

That said, it was actually the smallest edge in time of possession The Citadel has had against Samford in the teams’ last six meetings:

  • 2018 — The Citadel 35:01, Samford 24:59
  • 2017 — The Citadel 36:52, Samford 23:08
  • 2016 — The Citadel 38:17, Samford 21:43
  • 2015 — The Citadel 35:15, Samford 24:45
  • 2014 — The Citadel 37:42, Samford 22:18
  • 2013 — The Citadel 35:42, Samford 24:18

Obviously, time of possession isn’t always indicative of dominance one way or the other (after all, SU won two of the games listed above). However, it seems to me that being on the short end of TOP on a regular basis puts a lot of strain on a team’s defense. Eventually, that can be a problem.

– Okay, a negative observation. The P.A. was too loud, sometimes painfully so. I also would have liked for the band to play more, but at least that unit got to play at halftime (a Homecoming tradition).

– The drill team outfits worn by some members of the Class of 1968, which were on display both at the parade and at the stadium march-on, were unique. I guess when you’ve been out of school for 50 years, you have had plenty of time to think of some fun things to do at your reunion.

I was amazed at how many ’68 alums were there. It was truly an impressive turnout for that class.

– It got rather cool during the second half, at least to me, but then my blood is unnaturally thin. Anecdotally, the cold weather appeared to improve beer sales, so I guess that was a positive.

All in all, I thought the crowd was great. Sure, some people went back to the reunion party tents for the second half, which always happens at Homecoming (not a criticism), but those who remained were into the game in a major way.

Nerd stuff, comeback category:

  • The 21-point comeback by The Citadel was the largest by the Bulldogs in the history of Johnson Hagood Stadium. The previous mark was 20, which has happened twice — in 1973 against Chattanooga (when the Bulldogs trailed 20-0 but won the game 28-20) and 2007 versus Furman (a 27-7 deficit turned into a 54-51 victory in OT).
  • The biggest comeback in school history remains the 2011 game at Chattanooga, when the Bulldogs trailed 27-0 before rallying to win that contest 28-27.
  • Also worth mentioning in terms of comebacks is The Citadel’s 1989 game versus Western Carolina. The Bulldogs trailed WCU 22-0 but came back to tie the contest, 22-22. The game ended with that scoreline, the last time The Citadel played a football game that ended in a tie. That matchup was played at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia as a consequence of Hurricane Hugo.

Nerd stuff, passing statistics category:

  • The 69 pass attempts by Samford’s Devlin Hodges on Saturday were the most ever thrown in a game by an opponent of The Citadel. The record for most completions in a game by an opponent remains 49, set earlier this year by VMI’s Reece Udinski in Lexington.
  • Hodges did set the Johnson Hagood Stadium record for pass completions (43) and attempts (69) in a game, by any individual.
  • The previous record-holder for pass completions and attempts in a game at Johnson Hagood Stadium was Jim Schumann, who threw 56 passes (completing 36) for Boston University against The Citadel in 1988. The Bulldogs won that game 24-13.
  • In case you were wondering, Kip Allen holds the JHS record for pass completions and attempts in a game by a Bulldog, as he was 34 for 53 versus Wofford in 1985, a 42-28 victory for The Citadel. His 428 passing yards in that contest remains a school record as well (regardless of venue).
  • Allen’s 34 completions against the Terriers is the all-time game record for The Citadel; the attempts record for the Bulldogs, also held by Allen, is 57, set at Clemson in 1986.

Editor’s note: I will be travelling most of this week, and as a result my upcoming preview of the game between The Citadel and Alabama game will be A) much earlier than usual, and B) much shorter than usual. Apologies for that, but real life intrudes once in a while.

I took pictures on Saturday, mostly bad ones. Many of them are of the review parade. As for the game pics, I started having battery issues late in the first half, and I also just struggled taking photos in general (not for the first time). Thus, there are no second-half action shots. I did take some pictures of the post-game on-field activity, however.

 

2018 Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Samford

The Citadel vs. Samford, to be played at historic Johnson Hagood Stadium, with kickoff at 2:00 pm ET on November 10, 2018.

The game will be streamed on ESPN+. Kevin Fitzgerald will handle play-by-play, while former Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen supplies the analysis. Emily Crevani is the sideline reporter. 

The contest can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. 

Luke Mauro (the new “Voice of the Bulldogs”) calls the action alongside analyst Cal McCombs. The sideline reporter will be Jay Harper.

The Citadel Sports Network — 2018 radio affiliates

Charleston: WQNT 1450AM/92.1 FM/102.1 FM (Flagship)
Columbia: WQXL 1470AM/100.7FM
Greenville: WLFJ 92.9FM/660AM
Sumter: WDXY 1240AM/105.9FM

Links of interest:

– Game preview in The Post and Courier

– Game notes from The Citadel and Samford

– SoCon weekly release

– Preview on The Citadel’s website

– AFCA FCS Coaches’ poll

– Brent Thompson’s 11/6 press conference

– Brent Thompson’s 11/7 radio show (video)

The Bulldog Breakdown 11/7

Noah Dawkins is a finalist for the Blanchard-Rogers Trophy

– “The Heat” – Western Carolina game

Samford meets with the media

This week is Homecoming at The Citadel. As always, there will be plenty of events on campus, and a lot of visitors on hand.

On Saturday, the barracks open at 8:30 am (and then close ninety minutes later). The Summerall Guards will perform at 8:50 am.

The review parade is at 11:00 am.

I have to establish very important and utterly sacred ground rules when writing about The Citadel and Samford, as both teams are nicknamed “Bulldogs”. Obviously, the SoCon should have forced Samford to come up with a new nickname when the suburban Birmingham school joined the league, but that canine has now left the kennel.

In this post, “Bulldogs” refers to The Citadel. After all, I graduated from The Citadel, and this is my blog. So there.

I’ll occasionally call Samford “SU”, or the “Birmingham Bulldogs”, or the “Crimson Bulldogs”, or the “Homewood Homebodies”, or the “Baptist Tigers”.

For those unfamiliar with the Baptist Tigers, a short history lesson that I’ve referenced before:

The Howard College [later to be renamed Samford] team was known originally as the “Baptist Tigers.” However, rival Auburn also had “Tigers” as a nickname. Howard’s teams went by “Baptist Bears” until Dec. 14, 1916, when the student body voted two-to-one for the “Crimson Bulldog” over the “Baptist Bears.” Students decided that a bulldog could eat more Birmingham-Southern Panther meat than a bear could.

As a rule, bears are a lot bigger than bulldogs, and also generally give the impression of being hungry a lot. I’m not sure why the students voted the way they did, but 1916 was a long time ago.

However, 1916 wasn’t so long ago for The Citadel’s oldest living former regimental commander, Marion “Joe” Smoak. After all, that was the year he was born.

The pageantry and celebrations during The Citadel Homecoming 2018 will include a meeting between the oldest living Regimental Commander of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets, who is 102, and the youngest, who is 21. Ambassador Marion “Joe” Smoak, will make his way from Washington D.C. to visit campus during what would be his 80th reunion since graduating. Just before the Homecoming Review Parade, Smoak and Cadet Col. Sarah Zorn will meet to shake hands before the Corps.

 

After graduating from The Citadel with an English degree, and then from the University of South Carolina School of Law, Smoak served in the U.S. Army as an officer, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1961. During those years, he was a Judge Advocate Officer in both the Pacific and European theaters during World War II. That was followed by tours with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions during which Smoak accumulated 58 jumps earning master parachutist status…From 1969-1974, he was Chief of Protocol for President Richard Nixon, retiring from the Department of State in 1974 with the grade of Ambassador.

You may recall the recent profile of Helen McCoy, the 101-year-old fan of Bulldog football whose preferred beverage of choice at games is rum and Coke. Well, according to his family, Smoak enjoys a daily martini.

Hey, maybe they know something…

The Citadel has had some success in blocking punts this year, including two last week versus Western Carolina. The second of the two blocked punts against the Catamounts was returned for a TD by redshirt freshman Dante Smith, the first time the Bulldogs had scored on a punt block since 2012. Credit for the block on that play went to Bradley Carter, a scout team ace from Blythewood.

Sean-Thomas Faulkner has blocked two punts this season (including the first against WCU last Saturday), and the redshirt freshman has been close to getting a hand on several others. He appears to be a natural at the art of blocking kicks, a point reinforced during Brent Thompson’s radio show when the coach remarked that Faulkner “blocked about a dozen” punts while on the scout team last season.

A kick-blocking savant is a great weapon for a team to have, and The Citadel really hasn’t had such an individual since Domonic Jones terrorized SoCon punters and placekickers several years ago. Before Jones, there was the indefatigable Milford Scott, the bane of many an up-back’s existence.

Actually, the Bulldogs have a little bit of a tradition when it comes to blocking kicks. That dates at least as far back as 1950, when Sam Rubino famously blocked two punts in a game against South Carolina, both of which were returned for touchdowns in The Citadel’s staggering 19-7 upset of the Gamecocks.

Samford was the consensus preseason favorite to win the SoCon, and can still do so, but the Birmingham Bulldogs have not exactly had the season their fans envisioned.

After an essentially useless 66-9 season-opening victory over Shorter, Samford lost its next four contests, a stunning September swoon:

  • Florida State scored two late touchdowns to escape with a 36-26 win over SU. It was a game Samford probably should have won, but the Crimson Bulldogs lost the turnover battle 5 to 1, giving the Seminoles the chance to avoid one of the worst losses in FSU history.
  • The following week, Samford began SoCon play by losing at home to Mercer, 30-24. The Bears led 17-7 at halftime and dominated time of possession in the first three quarters of the game. Samford gave up a 73-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter that proved to be too much to overcome.
  • The following week at Chattanooga, SU fell behind 17-0 and eventually lost, 27-20. Devlin Hodges threw 62 passes in the game, completing 44 of them — but also got picked off three times. Samford managed to drive the ball to the UTC 15-yard line late in the game, but was unable to score a tying touchdown.
  • Samford then lost at Kennesaw State, 24-10. In this game, SU actually had the same number of rushing attempts as it did passes (including sacks). Against a triple option opponent, Samford didn’t fare too badly against the run (KSU averaged 4.0 yards per rush) and only lost the TOP battle by five minutes, but trailed the Owls 21-3 after KSU’s first possession of the second half and never got back into the contest.

Since the loss to Kennesaw State, though, Samford has rebounded to win its next four games. The first two triumphs were massive offensive explosions (66-28 over Western Carolina and 70-22 over VMI). Samford had a total of 1,509 yards of combined total offense in those two games.

SU maintained the positive momentum derived from those two blowouts, and that resulted in solid victories over Furman (38-25) and Wofford (35-20). In both contests, SU lost the time of possession battle by a wide margin, but it didn’t matter.

The game against the Paladins was played in Greenville, and was followed by a bye. Last week’s win over the Terriers came at home — and on SU’s Homecoming. Thus, the Homewood Homebodies will play in Homecoming games on back-to-back Saturdays.

The math is fairly simple for Samford at this point. Win its last two games against The Citadel and East Tennessee State, and SU will claim the SoCon’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Lose either one of them, and the Baptist Tigers will be home for the holidays.

Samford’s rank in conference play (SoCon games only) in select categories:

  • 1st in scoring offense (42.7 points per game)
  • 1st in total offense, and 1st in yards per play
  • 1st in passing efficiency offense
  • 1st in passing offense, but somewhat surprisingly only 4th in yards per pass attempt (The Citadel is 3rd)
  • 6th in rushing offense, 5th in yards per play
  • 4th in scoring defense (25.3 points per game)
  • 6th in total defense, 4th in yards allowed per play
  • 5th in rushing defense, but a solid 2nd in rush yards allowed per play

[Running is] not what [Chris Hatcher] wants to do. Just like me — I don’t want to throw the football, right? He doesn’t want to run the football. Let’s face it, let’s do what we do, and let’s make it better…

Brent Thompson, during a discussion of offensive philosophy on his radio show (which also included thoughts on Mike Leach’s concept of what really constitutes “balance” in an offense)

Devlin Hodges (6’1″, 210 lbs.) has completed 71.3% of his passes this season, with 30 TD tosses against 15 interceptions, averaging 8.2 yards per attempt (not taking sacks into account). The senior from Kimberly, Alabama has made news this season with both his passing statistics and his success as a duck caller.

Hodges is obviously really good. The best (and perhaps only) way for The Citadel to stop him is to keep him on the sidelines. One other note about Hodges: he has punted the ball 10 times this season.

Samford alternates two running backs, DeMarcus Ware (5’9″, 186 lbs.) and Roland Adams (5’10”, 203 lbs.). Ware, a freshman from Mississippi, has six rushing touchdowns and leads the squad in rushing yards, while Adams (a senior from Florence, Alabama) is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has scored three times. As you might expect, both are capable receivers out of the backfield.

Wide receiver Kelvin McKnight (5’8″, 186 lbs.) caught nine passes for 118 yards in his previous visit to Johnson Hagood Stadium. The senior from Bradenton, Florida has 76 receptions so far this season, with eight touchdowns, and is well on his way to repeating as a first-team All-SoCon performer. He is averaging an almost absurd 15.2 yards per catch.

McKnight also serves as SU’s punt returner.

It is hard to highlight every Samford pass-catching target, since 20 different Crimson Bulldogs have caught passes this year, but Chris Shelling (5’8″, 165 lbs.) is definitely worth mentioning. Shelling has nine TD catches, and is second on the team in receptions, with 48. He has found the end zone against every SoCon opponent this season except for (somewhat surprisingly) Western Carolina.

Samford’s projected starters on the offensive line average 6’6″, 299 lbs. Left tackle Nick Nixon (6’6″, 275 lbs.), a junior from Hendersonville, Tennessee, was a preseason first-team all-league pick.

Incidentally, four of SU’s o-line starters are 6’6″, and the other is 6’7″. The tallest of the group is actually the center, Brendan Loftus (6’7″, 322 lbs.), who began his collegiate career at the University of Miami.

I don’t remember seeing many 6’7″ centers, at least on the gridiron. Hoops, sure…

Under defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio, SU has mostly employed a “Bear” front against The Citadel’s triple option offense. From 2010 to 2012, the Bulldogs had a difficult time moving the football against Samford, with really bad third-down conversion rates (15% for the combined three-year period).

However, in recent years The Citadel got better in that category against SU:

  • 2013: 8 for 17, 47.1%
  • 2014: 7 for 19, 36.8%
  • 2015: 6 for 14, 42.9%
  • 2016: 11 for 21, 52.3%

Last year was a setback. The Citadel was only 3 for 13 converting third downs (23.1%). That conversion rate has to dramatically increase on Saturday if the Bulldogs want to win.

Defensive end Ahmad Gooden (6’2″, 245 lbs.), the preseason defensive player of the year in the SoCon, has 15 tackles for loss thus far in 2018 (including 5 1/2 sacks). Against Furman, he returned a fumble 58 yards for a touchdown, a huge play in that game.

In his last two games versus The Citadel, Gooden has 27 total tackles. He is a senior from Talledega.

Although not listed as a starter, freshman defensive end Nelson Jordan (6’1″, 252 lbs.) is second on the team in sacks, with three. He also has three additional tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries.

Middle linebacker Aaron Harris (6’0″, 218 lbs.) is far and away Samford’s leader in tackles this season, with 71. The senior transferred from Southern Mississippi after his freshman year.

William Bryant (6’1″, 194 lbs.) is a junior strong safety who ranks third on the team in tackles. He also leads the team in passes defensed.

Samford placekicker Mitchell Fineran (5’10”, 175 lbs.) is 10 for 13 on field goal attempts this season, with a long of 46. The freshman has made all 42 of his PATs, and also handles kickoffs (with a touchback rate of 17.5%).

Bradley Porcellato (6’0″, 170 lbs.) is the SU punter. Like a lot of D-1 punters these days, Porcellato is a native of Australia — specifically, Melbourne. He is a product of Prokick Australia, a school for kickers down under that has sent many punters to U.S. colleges and universities.

While listed on the two-deep and on the game notes roster, Porcellato is not on the team’s online roster, which seems odd.

Odds and ends:

– The weather forecast for Saturday in Charleston, per the National Weather Service:  partly sunny, with a high of 66 degrees. That sounds like great Homecoming weather to me.

– The Citadel is 6-5 all-time against Samford, including a 4-2 record at Johnson Hagood Stadium. The last meeting between the teams in Charleston was certainly a memorable one.

– Useless trivia alert:  the two sets of Bulldogs both have long consecutive program scoring streaks. Samford has scored in its last 199 games, the longest streak in the SoCon. The second-longest streak belongs to The Citadel, at 93 games.

– Per one source that deals in such matters, Samford is a 13-point favorite versus The Citadel (as of Thursday night). The over/under is 60.

When the line was first posted on Tuesday evening, Samford was an 11 1/2 point favorite.

– Other lines involving SoCon teams:  Chattanooga is a 6-point favorite over Mercer; Furman is an 11 1/2 point favorite at VMI; Wofford is a 14 1/2 point favorite at Western Carolina.

ETSU is off this week.

– Also of note: Towson is an 1 1/2 point favorite at Elon, while Charleston Southern is a 9 1/2 point favorite over Gardner-Webb. Alabama, next week’s opponent for The Citadel, is a 24-point favorite against another set of Bulldogs, those representing Mississippi State.

– Massey Ratings: The Citadel is ranked 60th in FCS, up five spots from last week. Samford is 23rd (also moving up five places).

Massey projects the Cadets to have a 23% chance of winning, with a predicted final score of Samford 33, The Citadel 24.

Other FCS rankings of note in Massey: Colgate (7th), James Madison (11th), Kennesaw State (12th), Elon (14th), Towson (18th), Wofford (24th), Furman (32nd), East Tennessee State (35th), Chattanooga (40th), North Carolina A&T (46th), Youngstown State (50th), San Diego (53rd), Mercer (55th), Northern Arizona (59th), Richmond (61st), Holy Cross (64th), Sacred Heart (69th), Western Carolina (78th), North Alabama (85th), South Carolina State (87th), Gardner-Webb (90th), Charleston Southern (91st), Campbell (92nd), VMI (93rd), Dayton (100th), Lehigh (107th), Presbyterian (120th), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (125th and last).

Massey’s top 5 FCS squads: North Dakota State, Princeton, UC Davis, South Dakota State, and Dartmouth.

I think that top 5 exposes a flaw in the Massey Ratings, to be honest. Because Ivy League schools as a group play a non-conference schedule with limited connectivity to the rest of Division I, the top teams in the conference tend to be placed higher in the ratings/rankings than they should be.

Princeton is a good team, but it is hard to imagine the Tigers are really on the same level with the elite FCS squads. There is certainly no evidence suggesting that to be the case.

Biggest movers in FCS this week: Lamar moved up 17 spots to 45th after winning at Central Arkansas, 38-24. Conversely, UCA is now 44th, a fall of 17 places, after losing to the Cardinals.

Massey’s top ten FBS teams (in order): Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Michigan, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCF, and Florida. Some other notables:  Missouri is 11th (?!), Ohio State 13th, Mississippi State 14th, South Carolina 17th, Penn State 18th, Auburn 20th, Fresno State 22nd, North Carolina State 24th, Boston College 29th, Texas 30th, Army 34th, Duke 36th, Pittsburgh 38th, Arizona State 42nd, Tennessee 45th, Virginia 46th, Georgia Tech 50th, Appalachian State 52nd, Maryland 56th, Florida State 61st, Wake Forest 64th, North Texas 71st, Toledo 72nd, South Florida 73rd, Minnesota 82nd, Georgia Southern 84th, Air Force 89th, North Carolina 97th, Louisville 100th, Coastal Carolina 101st, Navy 105th, Liberty 109th, Charlotte 111th, Old Dominion 118th, Connecticut 126th, UTEP 129th, and Rice 130th and last (after the Owls lost to the Miners last week).

Biggest movers in FBS this week:  Missouri moved up 15 spots after beating Florida 38-17 in Gainesville. Meanwhile, Minnesota fired its defensive coordinator after a 55-31 home loss to Illinois. The Golden Gophers dropped 20 places in the rankings after that debacle.

– Among Samford’s notable alumni: actress Mary Anderson (Maybelle in Gone With The Wind), opera singer Elizabeth Futral, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Harold E. Martin.

– Samford’s roster includes 47 players from Georgia and 41 from Alabama. Other states represented on its squad:  Florida (16 players), Tennessee (8), Mississippi (4), North Carolina (2), and one each from Texas, Louisiana, Maryland, and Indiana.

As noted earlier, starting punter Bradley Porcellato is from Australia.

There are no South Carolinians on the squad, which means no players from celebrated gridiron super-machine Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School are on SU’s roster. The absence of any alumni from the famed maroon and orange is stupefying; one can only ascertain that there is a possibility Samford may be dropping the sport in the near future, and thus is not interested in superior footballing talent going forward.

– The Citadel’s geographic roster breakdown (per the school’s website) is as follows: South Carolina (47), Georgia (28), Florida (9), North Carolina (5), Texas (5), Tennessee (4), Pennsylvania (3), Alabama (2), New York (2), and one each from Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

– This week’s two-deep changes:  as was announced by Brent Thompson earlier this week, Brandon Rainey is now the starting quarterback. Clay Harris is the new starter at B-back. Nkem Njoku has been named a starter at one of the A-back spots.

– The Citadel has an all-time record of 7-7-2 for games played on November 10, although the Bulldogs have won the last five contests played on that date. The Citadel is 6-2 at home on November 10 (either at Johnson Hagood Stadium or Hampton Park), 4-1 in SoCon play. A brief review of a few of the contests, as we travel back in time:

  • 1906:  At Hampton Park, The Citadel shut out Mercer, 10-0. The game started at 11:00 a.m., so as not to interfere with other activities surrounding “Gala Week”, a festival that celebrated Charleston’s recovery from the devastating 1886 earthquake. Apparently there was a lot of partying associated with the festival, as only 200 hardy souls were awake enough at that hour to attend the football game. Starting quarterback and team captain James Hammond was the outstanding performer for the Bulldogs. The Citadel scored two touchdowns (which were worth five points back then), with Ted Russell and Albert Able finding the end zone for the blue and white.
  • 1973:  Before a crowd of 12,600 on a chilly Homecoming afternoon at Johnson Hagood Stadium, The Citadel defeated Furman 26-21. Andrew Johnson and Gene Dotson both scored two touchdowns for the Bulldogs, with Johnson rushing for 172 yards while Dotson chipped in with 131. The Citadel (which only had one completed pass) trailed 21-20 in the fourth quarter before Johnson’s second TD of the day gave the Bulldogs the lead for good. A sack by Greg Erickson snuffed out the Paladins’ last scoring opportunity. Other defensive stalwarts for The Citadel that day included Jim Roberts, Tom Leitner, Kemble Farr, Brian Ruff, and Tony Cicoria.
  • 1990:  After a Wofford halfback stated to a reporter that the Terriers had a better offensive attack than The Citadel — indeed, that Wofford had “the best wishbone offense in the country” — The Citadel’s defense held the Terriers to 30 yards rushing in a 48-14 Bulldogs victory before a crowd of 14,121 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. In a game played in blustery conditions, The Citadel rushed for 394 yards, with fourteen different Bulldogs carrying the ball at least once. Ray Wimbush and Jack Douglas both ran for 2 TDs; other Bulldogs to score included Willie Jones, Erick Little, and Howard Barnard (two field goals). Dwayne Smalls recovered one fumble and forced another, while Geren Williams dominated the line of scrimmage from his noseguard position.
  • 2007:  Andre Roberts caught eight passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, while Bart Blanchard threw for 370 yards and three TDs, as The Citadel rallied to beat Elon 42-31 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. Tory Cooper scored three rushing touchdowns, while Taylor Cornett and Tim Higgins each had a TD reception. Andrew Rowell had an interception for the Bulldogs and also blocked a field goal. Attendance: 10,261.

– Samford has an all-time record of 7-4-1 in games played on November 10.

– As many fans of the Bulldogs know, the 1906 squad mentioned above won the national championship, as it finished that campaign undefeated and untied (and also unscored upon). Two other programs, Yale and Princeton, also claim a share of the title for that season, with various selectors opting for one of the three schools. Princeton, for example, was the retroactive pick of the Helms Foundation, while The Citadel was the choice of the TSA Matrix Ratings System.

For some reason, the 1906 title hasn’t been as widely publicized as The Citadel’s 1871 national title (though to be fair, that championship has flown under the radar at times as well). One possible reason for the difference in recognition between the two seasons is that the 1871 title is undisputed.

I’m hoping there will be a sizable crowd at the game on Saturday — not just in the tailgating areas (that is a given), but in the stands. It should be a nice day to watch a good gridiron contest.

I am a little irked that some members of the national press are already assuming Samford will win on Saturday:

Yes, I know which team is favored. I also know which team is playing at home, which team is playing before a lot of passionate alumni, and which team played its best half of football this season just last week.

All of that counts for something. As for how much it counts…I guess we’ll find out on Saturday.

League-only statistics from the 2017 SoCon football season, with assorted observations

League links of interest:

– Keeper’s College Football Ratings “Starters and Stats Lost” spreadsheet has been updated

– Hero Sports’ previews for The Citadel, Chattanooga, East Tennessee StateFurman, Mercer, and Samford (with more to come)

– The College Sports Journal’s preview for VMI, Chattanooga, ETSU, The Citadel, and Western Carolina (with more to come)

– Conference preview from “SoCon John”: Link

– Local columnist from Macon says Mercer is playoff-bound

– Terrell Owens is going to celebrate his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in Chattanooga instead of Canton

– East Tennessee State signs 10-year marketing/sponsorship/media sales agreement that could be worth up to $15 million

My analysis (such as it is) of the 2018 SoCon non-conference football slate

While compiling information for my posts about The Citadel’s 2017 football statistics, I wound up with a spreadsheet that included stats for all the SoCon teams (league games only). I decided that it wouldn’t hurt anybody if I made an additional, SoCon-related post centered around that spreadsheet, with some random thoughts and observations.

Anyway, here it is:

2017 SoCon football statistics

As mentioned, these are conference-only stats for the nine league football teams. I got them from the SoCon’s own website, as this year the conference posted league-only numbers very early in the off-season. For that, I’m grateful.

All I’ve done here is put them on a Google spreadsheet, which was not exactly heavy lifting. I have added a few different categories for offense and defense (and one for the kicking game). There are also tabs for things like attendance, game length, and the coin toss, which I gathered myself (not that it was too hard).

I tried to make it as easy to read as possible, though I’m not sure I completely succeeded in doing so.

Below are a few comments, mostly arbitrary (but not capricious).

When it came to the coin toss, most of the squads in the league were ready to defer at a moment’s notice.

I mean that literally. Seven of the nine conference teams, on winning the coin toss in a SoCon game, always chose to defer the option to the second half.

As I’ve written before, there is no question that the rise in teams deferring the option can be traced to the influence of Bill Belichick:

Among the many changes to the sport Bill Belichick has generated has been the growing trend of teams deferring after winning the opening coin toss. Gone are the days when teams licked their lips at the chance of opening the game with a scoring drive to take an early lead, as the option to delay that chosen possession until the start of the second half has increasingly become in vogue.

That’s in large part due to the way Belichick and Tom Brady have worked to flip games upside-down by scoring on the final possession of the first half and then scoring on the opening possession of the second half — the “dreaded double score,” as it’s come to be known by every broadcaster. If you can pull it off, it’s effective, and so many opposing coaches have opted to defer when they win the opening coin toss — especially when facing the Patriots.

Of course, you have to be careful that your team captains know what to tell the official after winning the coin toss in case you want to try something different, as Belichick himself learned a couple of years ago.

You also have to make sure they know what to do if the other team wins the coin toss, as Texas found out in 2014:

Texas defensive tackle Desmond Jackson apologized for his role in bungling the coin toss in the Longhorns’ loss to UCLA on Saturday.

UCLA won the toss and deferred its choice to the second half. That meant Texas would have the option of choosing to kick or receive to start the first half. The Longhorns chose to kick, allowing UCLA to choose to start the second half with the ball.

Thus, UCLA received to open both halves, essentially gaining a free possession. That was a big deal, as the Bruins wound up winning the game by three points, 20-17.

Back in the SoCon, Western Carolina and VMI were the league rebels, with both teams electing to receive when winning the coin toss (which each did three times last season).

What I found curious is that they didn’t always do so in non-conference games.

Western Carolina won the coin toss in both of its first two games, against Hawai’i and Davidson, and deferred the option each time. By the time the Catamounts played North Carolina at the end of the season, however, WCU was ready to go on offense, electing to receive in that game.

VMI also deferred after winning the coin toss in its season opener, against Air Force. I was unable to determine the coin toss winner for VMI-Robert Morris, though I suspect the Colonials won and took the ball.

The Citadel won the toss in its first game of the season, versus Newberry, and elected to receive. That is the only other non-conference game from last year that I found in which a SoCon team didn’t follow its standard defer-or-receive decision-making process.

One thing I was curious about with regards to game length was whether or not instant replay review had an appreciable effect on time.

Last season, Mercer and The Citadel were the only two schools to have review capability. The fact the SoCon is playing conference games under two different sets of rules is beyond annoying, but that’s not my focus here. I’m just evaluating the length of the games.

The Citadel’s away games took on average 2:55 to play. When the Bulldogs played at Johnson Hagood Stadium, with instant replay review, contests took on average 3:06 to complete.

As for Mercer, it had an average home game time of 3:18. The average length for the Bears’ three non-JHS road games was 2:59 (and one of those games, against ETSU, went to overtime).

In terms of time, the games at Five Star Stadium were the longest conference road contests played by VMI, Wofford, and Chattanooga. Also, the second-longest SoCon road games for VMI and Wofford were their respective matchups at The Citadel.

Samford’s game at Mercer was the Birmingham squad’s second-longest league away matchup, in part because SU’s longest road game, at Western Carolina, was delayed in the fourth quarter by lightning.

The differential is rather striking. The league might claim that replay review has little to do with the time difference, and you can surely put some of it down to small sample sizes.

However, some of the reviews were very lengthy, including one in The Citadel’s game against Western Carolina that took much longer than what was stated on the game report. Both the length of the reviews and the accuracy of the game reports are issues that the conference must address.

Other tidbits on the length of league contests:

  • Shortest game: The Citadel at Chattanooga, 2:44
  • Longest game: Samford at Western Carolina, 4:10
  • Longest game not delayed by lightning: Chattanooga at Mercer, 3:31
  • Teams that averaged under three hours per game on the road: VMI, The Citadel
  • Teams that averaged over 3:10 per game on the road: Chattanooga, Furman, Samford
  • Teams that averaged under three hours per game at home: VMI
  • Teams that averaged over 3:10 per game at home: Mercer, Samford, Western Carolina

I’ve also included a tab for league game attendance. A few quick notes:

  • Largest crowd: Wofford at Mercer, 12727
  • Smallest crowd: Samford at VMI, 3310
  • Largest home crowd variance: Samford, 3523 vs. Chattanooga and 9233 vs. The Citadel
  • Smallest home crowd variance: ETSU, 7087 vs. Wofford and 8022 vs. Mercer
  • Largest road crowd variance: Samford, 3310 at VMI and 12018 at Western Carolina
  • Smallest road crowd variance: The Citadel, 7521 at Chattanooga and 10105 at Furman

Odds and ends, 2017 SoCon action edition:

– Western Carolina led the league in net rushing if you take sacks out of the equation (as you should). The most important player any league team will have to replace for the upcoming season, in my opinion, is former WCU running back Detrez Newsome.

– Furman quarterbacks were only sacked twice in conference play, despite 142 pass attempts. The Paladins’ 1.4% sack against rate was easily the league’s best. The SoCon average was 6.3%.

– The passes defensed rate in league action was 12.6%. Samford led the conference in PD rate, at 15.8%, slightly ahead of Western Carolina.

– The Citadel led the conference in time of possession (and led FCS in that category as well).

– The kickoff touchback rate in SoCon play was 28.8%, but East Tennessee State’s t-back rate was 72.7%, by far the highest in the conference.

– Wofford’s +10 turnover margin was the best in the league. VMI trailed the field with a -18 margin.

– The average yards per play in conference games was 5.22. The top offense in y/p was Furman (6.68). The best defense in the category was Samford (4.72).

There are now less than two months to go before the season begins. The first league game takes place on September 1, when The Citadel plays at Wofford.

We’ll be ready.

“Advanced” statistics from The Citadel’s 2017 SoCon campaign

Other recent stats-related posts:

Part 1 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 run/pass tendencies and yards per play numbers)

Part 2 of Inside the Numbers (The Citadel’s 2017 fourth-down decision-making and plenty of other statistics)

League-only statistics for the SoCon in 2017 (all teams), plus assorted observations you can’t live without

This is a post primarily about the “Five Factors” of college football. For what it is worth, I made a similar post last season about The Citadel’s 2016 season.

I’m also going to mention three other not-so-advanced stats later in this post, but we’ll start with the Five Factors. As I did last year, let me quote Bill Connelly of SB Nation on what the Five Factors actually are:

…I’ve come to realize that the sport comes down to five basic things, four of which you can mostly control. You make more big plays than your opponent, you stay on schedule, you tilt the field, you finish drives, and you fall on the ball. Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.

  • If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.

  • If you win the efficiency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.

  • If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.

  • If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.

  • If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.

Those percentages were based on 2013 FBS data. It’s now 2018, but there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t still be valid. Connelly made adjustments to some of the formulas that go into the five factors (especially the “explosiveness” category), but the basic principles are the same.

I’ve already gone over a bunch of statistics in my annual post on per-play numbers, conversion rates, etc., (see Part 1 and Part 2), but these are slightly different types of stats.

What follows is a package of advanced statistics for the Bulldogs’ 2017 season. It comes with its very own spreadsheet.

Keep in mind that these stats are for SoCon games only. Also, please remember that the stats were compiled by me, so they may not be absolutely perfect. You don’t get a refund if there are any mistakes, though.

I’ll be using some FBS numbers for comparison purposes, as there are no readily available equivalent stats online for FCS teams. Now, you may be wondering whether or not FCS stats would be similar to those for the FBS.

For the most part, they should be — with a couple of possible caveats. I asked Bill Connelly a question about FBS vs. FCS stats and potential differences, and he was nice enough to respond. Here is what he had to say about it on his podcast:

…The one thing you will notice is the further down you go, from pro to college, from FBS to FCS, Division II to high school and all that…the more big plays you’re going to have, and the more turnovers you’re going to have. That’s going to be the biggest difference, because you’re going to have more lopsided matchups, and you’re just going to have more mistakes. And so if you go down to the FCS level, it’s not going to be a dramatic difference with FBS — but that’s going to be the difference. You’re going to have more breakdowns, you’re going to have more lopsided matchups to take advantage of, you’re not going to have quite the same level of proficiency throughout a defense, and so there will be more mistakes on defense, and I think the reason North Dakota State has been so good is that they’re about as close as you can get to kind of being mistake-free in that regard.

As someone who has watched various levels of football for a long time, I tend to agree with that idea. I will add, though, that while there may be a slightly wider variance in terms of overall quality in FCS as opposed to FBS, it is probably less prominent in most intra-conference games, like those for the SoCon, where for the most part eight of the nine teams were very competitive last season.

Now that I’ve got all that out of the way, let’s look at the Five Factors.

Field position

The key thing to remember here is that you measure an offense’s effectiveness (in terms of field position) by the starting field position of its defense (and vice versa).

Special teams play is obviously critically important for field position as well. Net punting, kickoff coverage, the return game — it all counts.

The FBS national average for starting field position in 2017 was the 29.6 yard line.

-Average starting yard line of offensive drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 32.6 26.1  6.5
(Road) 29.4 30.6 -1.2
Total 31.0 28.3  2.7

The Citadel won the field position battle in five of eight league contests. In a bit of an anomaly, in games played by the Bulldogs, the team with the edge in field position only won twice.

The Bulldogs had similar field position numbers at home in 2016, but were significantly better on the road that season.

A corollary stat to field position is “3-and-outs+”, which is forcing an offense off the field after a possession of three plays or less that does not result in a score. Last season, The Citadel’s offense had a “3-and-outs+” rate of 27.5%, while the Bulldogs’ opponents had a rate of 35.2%. That 7.7% differential was excellent.

In 2017, however, The Citadel had a negative differential in 3-and-outs+, with an offensive rate of 34.4% and a defensive rate of 31.9%. (For anyone interested, this year I have included a tab on the spreadsheet breaking down the game-by-game numbers in this category.)

The Citadel’s net punting average in SoCon play was 35.1; the league average was 36.4. The Bulldogs were slightly below league average in yards per punt return, and slightly above average in yards per kick return.

On kickoffs, The Citadel had a touchback rate of 46.7%, well above the conference average (28.8%) and second in the league, behind only East Tennessee State (which had a very impressive touchback rate of 72.7%).

Stanford (+9.1) and Alabama ranked 1-2 in field position margin for FBS. Kansas, with a FP margin of -9.2, was far and away the worst FBS team in the category.

Efficiency

With efficiency, we’re talking about a statistic called “Success Rate”. Here is its definition, via Football Outsiders:

A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The FBS national average for Success Rate in 2017 was 40.3%; the median was 41.8%.

-Success Rate-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 37.77% 38.62% -0.85%
(Road) 40.63% 50.00% -9.37%
Total 39.03% 43.27% -4.24%

The Citadel split the efficiency battle in league games, coming out ahead four times, but falling short by a big margin in two of the other four games.

For a few more details, see the tab on the spreadsheet.

Last season, The Citadel’s offense had a success rate in league play of 45.4%, while the defense was also better in the category (39.9%).

The nature of the Bulldogs’ offense is such that Success Rate is particularly important. The Citadel has to remain “on schedule”, and consistently staying in good down-and-distance situations is paramount.

In FBS, Oklahoma led all teams in offensive Success Rate, at 53.2%. Army ranked second, followed by Ohio State, UCF, and Washington. Navy was 10th, Clemson 16th, Alabama 17th, and South Carolina 65th.

As for the remaining triple option teams, Air Force was 27th, Georgia Tech was 45th, New Mexico was 98th, and Georgia Southern was 119th. UTEP was last nationally, with an offensive Success Rate of only 32.7%.

Michigan had the top defensive Success Rate in FBS, at 30.6%. The top 5 also included Clemson, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, and Auburn. Others of note: Alabama was 7th, Georgia 11th, Notre Dame 18th, South Carolina 59th, and East Carolina last (with a defensive Success Rate of 50.6%).

Explosiveness

As was the case last year, I think an explanation of “IsoPPP” is necessary. Again, from SB Nation’s Bill Connelly:

IsoPPP is the Equivalent Points Per Play (PPP) average on only successful plays. This allows us to look at offense in two steps: How consistently successful were you, and when you were successful, how potent were you?

The Citadel will never be a national leader in “Explosiveness”, due to the nature of its offense. That isn’t to say big plays aren’t a key feature of a successful triple option attack, as they certainly are. However, the (hopefully large) number of relatively modest-but-successful plays tends to cancel out those long gainers when the statistic is calculated.

The Bulldogs only came out ahead in this category in one of eight league games. That was also the case last season, so I wouldn’t be overly concerned about it, at least on offense. Defensively, the Bulldogs allowed too many big plays on the road, and that is reflected in the numbers.

-Explosiveness (IsoPPP)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 1.04 1.05 -0.02
(Road) 1.06 1.44 -0.38
Total 1.05 1.24 -0.19

The FBS national average for Explosiveness was 1.17. Memphis led the division in offensive IsoPPP, at 1.48, just ahead of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Mississippi was 4th, and UCF 5th.

This is just the umpteenth example of how amazing Oklahoma’s offense was last season. Finishing 1st in Success Rate and 2nd in Explosiveness is just an incredible statistical combination.

The triple option teams were all below average in IsoPPP, with the exception of New Mexico (53rd overall). Georgia Southern ranked last (0.93), just behind Army. Given that the Black Knights won 10 games last season, I don’t think Jeff Monken is too worried about his squad’s offensive IsoPPP numbers.

Washington was the national FBS standard-bearer for defensive IsoPPP (0.93). The rest of the top 5: Fresno State, Clemson, Michigan State, and Wyoming. Alabama was 8th and South Carolina was 19th (a key factor in the Gamecocks’ improved record last year).

The bottom two teams in defensive IsoPPP were Georgia Southern and Air Force, with the Falcons trailing the field (1.46).

Georgia Southern was last in offensive IsoPPP, and next-to-last in defensive IsoPPP. In related news, it was a tough year in Statesboro.

Finishing Drives

This category calculates points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. It’s a supersized version of the “Red Zone”, with the theory being that the true scoring territory on the field begins at the +40.

The FBS national average for points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line in 2017 was 4.42.

-Finishing Drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 2.36 5.33 -2.97
(Road) 3.63 5.76 -2.13
Total 2.95 5.59 -2.64

This is beyond ugly. The Citadel’s opponents had the edge in this category in seven of eight games, with the exception being Wofford.

Yes, even VMI, which scored just three points against the Bulldogs, did better in finishing drives. Of course, one reason for that was the Keydets had only one such drive during the game, scoring those three points on it.

The Citadel, meanwhile, averaged 1.4 points per drive inside the 40 against VMI.

The Bulldogs’ offense actually had one more opportunity inside the 40 in conference play last season than it did in 2016. However, it averaged 4.53 points per such drive in 2016, as opposed to a measly 2.95 points in 2017, a difference of 1.58 points per drive.

That’s an enormous differential. If you extrapolate those numbers, The Citadel’s offense scored eight more points per game in “inside the 40” situations in 2016 than it did last year. That is a huge difference.

The defense also did not fare as well last year in preventing opponents from finishing drives with points. The point differential from 2016 to 2017 for the Bulldogs’ D was about four points per contest inside the 40.

In 2016, The Citadel had a scoring margin per game in conference play of 11.1. In 2017, that number was -6.6, for a differential of 17.7 points.

The difference in the “finishing drives” category alone amounted to 12 points per league contest.

The trouble the Bulldogs had in plus territory, both offensively and defensively, wasn’t the only thing (in terms of quality of play) that separated The Citadel’s last two seasons. It was a major factor, however.

Florida Atlantic led the nation in finishing drives (offense) in 2017, with a stellar 5.5 points per trip inside the 40-yard-line. Lane Kiffin leaned on running back Devin Singletary to carry the freight in scoring territory, and the sophomore delivered, leading FBS in rushing touchdowns with 32 while rushing for 1,920 yards.

The team with the best defense inside the 40 was Troy, which allowed only 3.13 points per drive in those situations.

Ohio State ranked first in finishing drives margin (combining offense and defensive numbers), at +1.8 points per drive inside the 40. Wisconsin was 2nd, followed by Washington and Alabama.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kent State, which had the worst finishing drives margin in FBS (-1.88). Also in the bottom five: San Jose State, UTEP, Tennessee, and Oregon State.

Turnovers

First, a table of the actual turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 10 6 -4
(Road) 2 6 4
Total 12 6 0

Those home turnovers were decidedly unpleasant. More than a few of them happened when it looked like the Bulldogs were about to score.

This next table is the “adjusted” or “expected” turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 9.74 6.04 -3.7
(Road) 3.54 4.24  0.7
Total 13.28 10.28 -3.0

The expected turnovers statistic is based on A) the idea that recovering fumbles is a 50-50 proposition, and B) a little over 1/5 of passes that are “defensed” are intercepted. In other words, if a defensive back breaks up four passes, the fifth one he get his hands on would likely be a pick.

The “passes defensed” interception rate is calculated at 22%.

Basically, the Bulldogs committed too many turnovers, and were a little lucky to finish with a break-even mark in turnover margin.

Some teams in FBS were a lot luckier, however. Stanford had a -3.8 expected turnover margin, but actually finished with a turnover margin of +16. Other squads that had good fortune in this area: Purdue, Iowa State, Wyoming, Alabama, and Louisiana Tech.

On the other hand, Marshall won eight times last season (including a bowl game) despite a -8 turnover margin, when the expected turnover margin for the Thundering Herd was actually +1.9.

How did The Citadel fare in the “Five Factors” head-to-head with each opponent in league play?

  • at East Tennessee State: 1-4, with Bulldogs dominating TOP but not taking the lead (thanks to miscues) until the fourth quarter
  • at Samford: 2-3, but never in the game; SU’s combined offensive Success Rate/Explosiveness was quite decisive
  • Mercer: 1-4, but the advanced stats were all close except for Finishing Drives
  • Wofford: 2-2-1, and the game could have gone either way
  • at Chattanooga: 1-4, with some very close numbers; three UTC turnovers outweighed a sizable field position edge for the Mocs
  • VMI: 4-1, a frustrating game for the Bulldogs in some ways, but still never really in doubt after the first quarter
  • Western Carolina: 1-4, a contest defined by multiple turnovers by the Bulldogs in the Red Zone
  • at Furman: 0-4-1, the sole highlight being that The Citadel committed no turnovers

There are three other statistical categories that I’m going to mention in this space. All of them are included in tabs on the linked spreadsheet (and all reference SoCon games only).

-First down yardage gained per play-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 5.95 4.75 1.20
(Road) 5.70 7.40 -1.70
Total 5.83 6.06 -0.23

Not on the spreadsheet, but worth mentioning:

  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.49 yards on first down in 2015, including 5.94 yards per rush on first down and 11.04 yards per pass attempt on first down
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.21 yards on first down in 2016, including 6.14 yards per rush on first down and 6.65 yards per pass attempt on first down
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 5.83 yards on first down in 2017, including 5.39 yards per rush on first down and 7.76 yards per pass attempt on first down

The Bulldogs were better on first down pass attempts in 2017 than the year before, but not really good enough. In a “standard down” situation, a triple option team needs to be considerably better. I would hazard a guess that averaging at least nine yards per pass attempt on first down should be the goal.

The decline in rushing yardage per first down play is also something that has to be reversed for the 2018 campaign.

-3rd down distance to gain (in yards)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
(Home) 5.48 9.10 3.62
(Road) 6.48 7.19 0.71
Total 5.98 7.62 1.64

That isn’t bad, but not quite as good as last season, when the margin was 2.49.

In FBS, the top three offensive teams in this category were all triple option outfits — Army, Navy, and Georgia Tech. The Citadel would have slotted in nicely behind them in this category, as the 3rd-ranked Yellow Jackets had a need-to-gain average on 3rd down of 5.97.

Definition of “passing downs”: 2nd down and 8 yards or more to go for a first down, 3rd/4th down and 5 yards or more to go for a first down

-Passing down success rate: offense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
(Home) 47 23 25.71%
(Road) 58 32 33.33%
Total 105 55 30.00%

In 2016, The Citadel ran the ball 75.6% of the time on “passing downs”. Last season, that number declined to 65.6%, a full ten percentage points. The success rate also declined, perhaps not surprisingly.

The Bulldogs were only successful 18.2% of the time when throwing (or attempting to throw) on passing downs. More than fourth-fifths of the time, a pass play in that situation either resulted in an incomplete pass, a sack, or a completion that did not gain The Citadel a first down (or set up 3rd-and-short after a 2nd down play).

-Passing down success rate: defense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
(Home) 36 55 26.37%
(Road) 18 45 31.75%
Total 54 100 28.57%

The Citadel’s opponents were a little more successful throwing the ball on passing downs, but not by a huge margin. Only 26 of 100 pass attempts (which include sacks) against the Bulldogs’ D on passing downs resulted in successful plays.

No matter how you slice it (and when it comes to football statistics, there are a lot of different ways to use a knife), The Citadel had a somewhat disappointing gridiron campaign in 2017. Some of the improvements necessary to ensure a more successful 2018 are fairly obvious. Others are perhaps a bit more obscure.

Regardless, we’re all ready to see how the team fares this year — as we are every year, stats or no stats.

Inside the Numbers, Part 2: The Citadel’s 2017 4th down decision-making, plus much more (Red Zone stats! 3rd down conversion info! Big plays! Coin tosses! Game length data!)

This is Part 2 of my annual “Inside the Numbers” post. This year, it is in two parts because, well, it got too cumbersome for just one post.

If you happened on this part of the writeup first, you may want to first go to Part 1 for the introduction. You can read Part 1 right here.

Referenced throughout this post will be The Spreadsheet.

Let’s start this part of the post with the Red Zone, which was a crimson-colored house of horrors for The Citadel last season:

  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 56.3%
  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2016: 64.5%
  • The Citadel’s offensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2017: 43.3%

In case anyone was wondering whether or not 43.3% was bad, the answer is yes, it was bad. Very bad. Last in the league, in fact (the Red Zone average TD rate in SoCon play was 61.7%).

The Bulldogs were throwing away points inside the 20. There was a three-game stretch (UTC, VMI, WCU) where The Citadel only scored touchdowns on 3 out of 13 trips to the Red Zone, which is abominable.

Also, while scoring rate isn’t as big a deal as TD rate in the Red Zone, the Bulldogs were last in the league in that category as well, and last by a huge margin. The Citadel only scored 50% of the time in the Red Zone (either field goals or TDs), which is simply miserable (the league average RZ scoring rate was 79.6%).

When all games are taken into account, The Citadel ranked only 90th (out of 123 FCS teams) in Red Zone TD rate, with the Bulldogs faring better in the statistic in out-of-conference play (leading to a 51.2% rate for all games).

I believe The Citadel should have a goal of converting at least 70% of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns, something that was done by fourteen FCS teams last season. I would have said 75% (in fact, that was the benchmark I suggested last year), but only five FCS teams accomplished that, so it may be a tough goal. Those five teams, incidentally, were Monmouth (which scored touchdowns on 80.9% of its Red Zone possessions), South Dakota State, Incarnate Word, Princeton, and North Dakota State.

Three of those five teams had good-to-great seasons. On the other hand, Incarnate Word was 1-10; the key to the Cardinals’ Red Zone stats wasn’t as much the TD rate, but the lack of total opportunities (24 in 11 games). Charleston Southern was sixth nationally in the category, but like UIW also struggled to drive inside the 20 (only doing so 26 times last season).

Sam Houston State and James Madison finished 1-2 in Red Zone opportunities (77 and 72, respectively). At the other end of the spectrum was VMI, which only had 13 chances inside the 20 in 11 games.

In general, Furman and Wofford fared the best in offensive Red Zone statistics among SoCon teams.

In 2016, Navy led all FBS teams in Red Zone TD rate. Last season, Army finished first in the category (at 82.4%). The Midshipmen slipped to 26th overall (at 68.6%). Air Force was 11th, Clemson 14th, and Georgia Tech 15th. Some teams that need to improve offensive Red Zone efficiency in 2018 include South Carolina (93rd), Georgia Southern (109th), and Kent State (last).

In terms of total Red Zone opportunities among FBS teams, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma ranked 1-2. UCF, Alabama, and Ohio State rounded out the top 5. South Carolina was tied for 116th, and UTEP was last (no place to go but up, Jim Senter).

  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2015: 52.2%
  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2016: 66.7%
  • The Citadel’s defensive Red Zone touchdown rate in SoCon action, 2017: 81.8%

Oof. The Bulldogs were the worst Red Zone defense in the league, and by a considerable margin. The one positive was that opposing teams didn’t get inside the 20 quite as often as the league average (about half a possession per game difference).

The best defensive team in conference play in the Red Zone was Western Carolina, though truthfully the league did not have a dominant team in this category.

Villanova topped FCS in defensive Red Zone TD rate (34.4%), with St. Francis University and South Carolina State tying for second. Towson was 35th and Charleston Southern 37th. The Citadel finished 117th.

Wisconsin led FBS in defensive Red Zone TD rate, allowing touchdowns just 31.4% of the time. Notables in the top 30: Troy (2nd), TCU (3rd), Virginia Tech (4th), Clemson (5th), Alabama (9th), Georgia (11th), South Carolina (26th). UTEP finished last.

Make no mistake, The Citadel’s difficulty in making positive plays in the Red Zone was a huge factor in the team’s overall struggles. In fact, I feel confident in saying that finishing drives (on both sides of the ball) was the #1 problem for the Bulldogs in 2017. That aspect of the game has to get significantly better this season if The Citadel wants to contend for a conference title.

  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2015: 50.0%
  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2016: 50.4%
  • The Citadel’s offensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon play, 2017: 38.7%

For all games, The Citadel actually finished 24th in FCS in offensive third-down conversion rate (42.2%); the Bulldogs were 21 for 32 on third down attempts against Newberry and Presbyterian, upping the percentage, though a 4 for 17 performance versus Clemson had the opposite effect.

The league average in conference play was 38.8%, so the Bulldogs were fair-to-middling in the category. Obviously, you can’t be fair-to-middling in too many things (especially important things like 3rd down conversions) and still expect to compete for a championship.

Furman (51.4%) and Wofford led the SoCon. In all games, the Paladins had an offensive 3rd-down conversion rate of 48.6%, which ranked 4th nationally.

The top three in FCS were Princeton, Youngstown State, and Kennesaw State. Wofford was 8th, Towson 32nd, Western Carolina 33rd, Samford 41st, Mercer 55th, Presbyterian 59th, Charleston Southern 87th, ETSU 94th, Chattanooga 101st, South Carolina State 110th, VMI 118th, and Georgetown 123rd and last.

Army topped FBS in offensive third-down conversion rate, at 55.2%. Air Force was 3rd, Clemson 7th, Georgia Tech 13th, Navy and UCF tied for 15th, South Carolina was 85th, and Charlotte last (at just 26.0%).

  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2015: 33.7%
  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2016: 33.3%
  • The Citadel’s defensive 3rd-down conversion rate in SoCon action, 2017: 33.3%

That’s solid, and also extremely consistent. In conference play, Furman and The Citadel ranked 1-2 in this category.

The Bulldogs finished 42nd nationally in defensive 3rd-date conversion rate, with a number slightly higher (35.8%) than their league stats. McNeese State led FCS (with a very impressive 23.8%), followed by North Carolina Central and North Dakota State.

You’ll notice that NDSU, Jacksonville State (9th) and James Madison (10th) tend to rank at or near the top of many of these categories. There is a reason those teams won a lot of games.

A few others worth mentioning: Towson (17th), South Carolina State (22nd), Charleston Southern (68th), Florida A&M (last). New head coach Willie Simmons is going to have to whip the Rattlers’ D into shape; allowing a 53.4% 3rd-down conversion rate to opponents is not a recipe for success.

For the second consecutive season, Michigan led FBS in defensive 3rd-down conversion rate, at 26.1%, finishing just ahead of Virginia Tech in that category. Texas, Washington State, Wisconsin, and Clemson followed (in that order). Alabama was 30th, South Carolina 76th, and Oregon State was last (allowing third down conversions at a 53.2% clip).

  • The Citadel’s defense in 2015 in SoCon action: 20 sacks, 33 passes defensed in 212 pass attempts (15.6% PD)
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2016 in SoCon action: 21 sacks, 29 passes defensed in 211 pass attempts (13.7% PD)
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2017 in SoCon action: 13 sacks, 24 passes defensed in 205 pass attempts (11.7% PD)

Passes defensed is a statistic that combines pass breakups with interceptions.

The lack of sacks is noticeable, though it is also true that the Bulldogs increased their “hurries” totals in league play for a fourth consecutive season (garnering 26 last year). I’m a little leery of hurries as a statistic, though — it reminds me a little too much of trying to define errors in baseball, in the sense that one person’s idea of an error is not necessarily someone else’s.

The Citadel’s “havoc rate” was 19.4%. The definition of havoc rate: tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed, all added together and then divided by total plays.

I am unaware of any site that compiles havoc rates at the FCS level, but Football Outsiders does track the statistic for FBS teams, so that can be a little bit of a measuring stick. A havoc rate of 19.4% would have been good enough to tie for 18th nationally in FBS.

To be honest, I was a little surprised The Citadel’s havoc rate would be that high, given the relatively modest totals that went into compiling the stat. Then I realized I was forgetting about the relatively low number of total plays and how that affected the numbers.

In terms of total tackles for loss, the Bulldogs were not ranked that high in FCS, tying for 50th nationally. However, The Citadel’s tackles for loss rate was 20th-best in the subdivision.

The top 5 “havoc rate” teams in FBS in 2017: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Alabama, and Clemson.

East Carolina finished last in havoc rate, which isn’t all that surprising. Next-to-last, though: Nebraska. Scott Frost needs to find some top-shelf Blackshirts in a hurry.

Since I mentioned tackles for loss rate, and I’ve already gone into “overkill” mode with the numbers, here are some rankings for tackles for loss rate in FCS. As mentioned previously, The Citadel was 20th (this is for all games, not just conference matchups).

Others: North Carolina A&T (1st), McNeese State (2nd), Yale (3rd), Jacksonville State (4th), Morgan State (5th), North Dakota State (12th), Charleston Southern (17th), South Carolina State (26th), Samford (38th), James Madison (44th), Presbyterian (120th), Dayton (123rd).

In this section, I’m going to discuss “big plays”. There are a lot of different definitions of what constitutes a big play. My methodology is simple; I define “big plays” as offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20+ yards, regardless of whether or not they are rushing or passing plays.

  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2015: 30 (19 rushing, 11 passing)
  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2016: 26 (15 rushing, 11 passing)
  • The Citadel’s offensive plays from scrimmage resulting in gains of 20 or more yards, 2017: 36 (21 rushing, 15 passing)

In 2015, 20 of the 30 big plays by the Bulldogs’ offense in conference play either resulted in touchdowns or led to touchdowns on the same drive. In 2016, that was the case for 19 of the 26.

In 2017? Just 17 of 36. That reflects The Citadel’s struggles in the Red Zone.

There may be a perception out there that the Bulldogs were unable to break long gainers for TDs last season. All too often, it seemed like a Bulldog would break away for a 30- or 40-yard gain, only to be stopped around the 20-yard-line, and then the team couldn’t punch the ball in for six.

The problems in the Red Zone seemed to accentuate this issue. However, the truth is a little more complicated.

In 2017, The Citadel’s offense actually had just as many touchdowns from 40+ yards out in SoCon action as it did in 2016 — four. The difference? Last year, only one of those four long scores occurred when the game was still in doubt. All four long TDs in 2016 were consequential (as were the Bulldogs’ two defensive scores in league play that season).

  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2015: 23 (9 rushing, 14 passing)
  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2016: 28 (9 rushing, 19 passing)
  • Plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more allowed by The Citadel’s defense, 2017: 32 (10 rushing, 22 passing)

In 2015, 14 of the 23 big plays allowed by the Bulldogs either resulted in TDs or led to them on the same drive. In 2017, 18 of 28 big plays given up led directly or indirectly to touchdowns.

Last year, 25 of the 32 big plays allowed resulted in immediate TDs or led to touchdowns on the drive they occurred. That is a higher percentage than was the case in the prior two years.

  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2015: 3 for 8 (37.5%)
  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2016: 8 for 16 (50.0%)
  • The Citadel’s offense on 4th down in league play in 2017: 8 for 19 (42.1%)

  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2015: 8 for 13 converted against (61.5%)
  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2016: 5 for 9 converted against (55.6%)
  • The Citadel’s defense on 4th down in league play in 2017: 3 for 7 converted against (42.9%)

The 4th-down conversion rate for SoCon teams in league play was 49.5%.

I need to note here that the official league totals for The Citadel in these categories (both offense and defense) are a little different than what I have listed above. That is because I don’t count certain 4th down plays.

Against ETSU, The Citadel was officially 0-for-2 on 4th down. Those two “attempts” were A) a botched punt snap recovered by the Buccaneers, and B) the final play of the game, when Dominique Allen ran backwards before going down, in a successful effort to run out the clock.

I didn’t count either of those plays as fourth down attempts in my stats package. I also don’t count a fumbled punt by VMI as a 4th down attempt by the Keydets.

Whoa, nellie! Fumble!!!

When evaluating fumble stats, keep in mind that teams generally have a 50-50 chance at the recovery. The only other observation worth making about fumbles is that fumbling is bad.

  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 12 (lost 8)
  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2016: 12 (lost 5)
  • The Citadel’s offensive fumbles in SoCon action, 2017: 17 (lost 7)

  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2015: 8 (recovered 7)
  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2016: 13 (recovered 8)
  • The Citadel’s defensive forced fumbles in SoCon action, 2017: 9 (recovered 5)

On average, SoCon teams lost 5.78 fumbles in league play.

  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2015: 42
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2016: 45
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel in SoCon action, 2017: 43

For a third consecutive season, the number of penalties per game against the Bulldogs declined (there was one fewer conference game in 2015). The average total number of penalties per team in SoCon play was 44.

  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2015: 29
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2016: 33
  • Penalties enforced against The Citadel’s opponents in SoCon action, 2017: 26

No team had fewer penalties enforced against its opponents than The Citadel in league play, and it wasn’t particularly close. This has been an ongoing tradition in the SoCon for many years, as long-time fans of the Bulldogs are all too well aware.

  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2015, SoCon action: 6 (in seven games)
  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2016, SoCon action: 1 (in eight games)
  • Punts by The Citadel while in opposing territory in 2017, SoCon action: 5 (in eight games)

I think a couple of these punts were debatable decisions. Some of them were understandable (the punt near the end of the first half against Mercer, for example).

It is possible Brent Thompson may have second-guessed himself for the punt late in the fourth quarter against Chattanooga, and also the punt in the first half versus Furman. Then again, the coach really doesn’t have time to second-guess himself. He has to make a call, and move on.

  • Punts by The Citadel’s opponents while in Bulldogs territory in 2016, SoCon action: 1 (in eight games)
  • Punts by The Citadel’s opponents while in Bulldogs territory in 2017, SoCon action: 5 (in eight games)

Three of the five punts in 2017 came in one game, as UTC coach Tom Arth was quite conservative, maybe overly so. The Citadel scored 10 points on two of the ensuing drives after the Mocs punted.

ETSU’s short-range punt didn’t work out for the Buccaneers, either, as the Bulldogs put together a 66-yard touchdown drive after getting the ball back.

4th down is just the downiest of all downs, isn’t it?

Defining some terms (courtesy of Football Outsiders):

– Deep Zone: from a team’s own goal line to its 20-yard line
– Back Zone: from a team’s own 21-yard line to its 39-yard line
– Mid Zone: from a team’s own 40-yard line to its opponent’s 40-yard line
– Front Zone: from an opponent’s 39-yard line to the opponent’s 21-yard line
– Red Zone: from an opponent’s 20-yard line to the opponent’s goal line

On the spreadsheet I’ve categorized every fourth down situation The Citadel’s offense had in conference play (see the “4th down decisions” tab).

The Citadel punted all four times it had a fourth down in the Deep Zone. In the Back Zone, the Bulldogs punted 23 times (counting the “botched snap punt” in the ETSU game) and went for it in two late-game situations (against Wofford and Western Carolina).

In the Mid Zone, the Bulldogs punted 10 times and went for the first down six other occasions, successfully converting four times. I would characterize only one of those fourth down conversion attempts as something other than a “desperation” situation (that being the first of two attempts in the Mid Zone versus WCU).

In the Front Zone, The Citadel had two punts (both mentioned in the section above on punting), three field goal attempts (making one of those), and went for it five times. Only one of the five tries was successful, a 4th-and-1 play against Mercer in the second quarter.

Then there was the Red Zone, where all too often the Bulldogs wound up red-faced.

There were six missed (or blocked) field goal attempts, and two field goal tries that were made — but one of the made field goals came after the Bulldogs lined up to go for it on 4th down, then committed a false start.

The Citadel went for it on 4th down in the Red Zone five times, but only converted once, on the opening drive of the game against Wofford.

Over the last four seasons, The Citadel has had 32 4th-down situations in the Red Zone during SoCon regulation play. The Bulldogs have gone for the first down and/or touchdown on 4th down eight times, making it twice:

  • On the opening drive versus Wofford in 2017 (two-yard run for Brandon Rainey on 4th-and-1 from the Wofford 11-yard-line)
  • In the fourth quarter against VMI in 2016 (a 17-yard TD run by Jonathan Dorogy on 4th-and-3 from the VMI 17-yard-line)

(Note: there was a key go-for-it play that occurred in an overtime session during that four-year period, specifically the OT against Furman in 2014. In that situation, Aaron Miller picked up the first down on 4th-and-1 from the Furman 4-yard-line, and later scored what would prove to be the game-winning TD.)

For the second straight year, I’ve also tabulated what the Bulldogs’ league opponents did on 4th down versus The Citadel.

In the Deep Zone, conference opponents punted nine times on 4th down, but on one of those punts The Citadel committed a penalty that resulted in an automatic first down. There was also a late-game “desperation” attempt to go for it in the Deep Zone by VMI that was unsuccessful.

In the Back Zone, there were 19 punts and three fourth down tries. Wofford picked up a first down, ETSU failed to convert on its attempt, and VMI kept a drive alive after the Bulldogs jumped offsides on 4th down.

In the Mid Zone, The Citadel’s opposition punted all thirteen times a 4th down was faced. Well, there were actually 12 punts, as VMI bobbled a snap on one of its attempts to boot the ball away.

In the Front Zone, there were two punts (both by UTC, as detailed above) and four field goal attempts (two were made). Furman made both of its fourth-down attempts in the Front Zone, while VMI was 0-for-1.

There were two field goal attempts by The Citadel’s opponents in the Red Zone. Both were converted. The sole go-for-it situation faced by the Bulldogs’ D in the Red Zone came against Chattanooga, when the Mocs needed a TD late in the game. A pass attempt on 4th-and-10 was intercepted by Aron Spann III.

Three years ago, The Citadel began what appeared to be a policy of deferring the option to the second half every time it won the coin toss. The Bulldogs won the coin toss 4 times in SoCon play in 2015, and deferred on each occasion.

In 2016, The Citadel won the coin toss 6 times in 8 league games. In five of the six games in which the Bulldogs won the toss, they deferred, just as they had done in 2015. The exception was at Western Carolina, where The Citadel elected to receive after winning the toss.

That is the only time in the last three seasons of conference play in which the Bulldogs did not defer the option after winning the coin toss. In 2017, The Citadel was 5-3 in coin toss contests, and deferred all five times it won.

The “defer” gambit, which was undoubtedly influenced by Bill Belichick, has become a league-wide movement, with seven of the nine schools deferring on every occasion after winning the coin toss (at least in SoCon matchups). Bucking the trend are Western Carolina and VMI, both of which elected to receive every time after winning the coin toss (in conference action).

There is a tab on the spreadsheet that lists game-by-game attendance (home and away) and game length (in terms of time). Home games at Johnson Hagood Stadium took on average 11 minutes longer to play than contests the Bulldogs played on the road.

I suspect that is a direct result of The Citadel being one of two teams that have instant replay review capability. It did not benefit the Bulldogs in any way last season, of course.

Less than two months before new statistics come to life…

Inside the Numbers, Part 1: The Citadel’s 2017 run/pass tendencies and yards per play statistics

Some other links related to The Citadel’s upcoming gridiron campaign:

– Preseason rankings and ratings

– Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium: the annual review

– Which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

A glance at the SoCon non-conference slate

Also of interest from around the internet:

Hero Sports previews The Citadel’s upcoming gridiron campaign

– The Citadel’s 2018 Athletic Hall of Fame inductees include former quarterback Gene Brown

This is Part 1 of a two-part post that focuses on select statistics on the 2017 football season. I broke it down into two parts this year to make it at least slightly easier to digest.

Part 2 can be found here.

I’ve also released three other stats-oriented posts:

A look at advanced stats (the Five Factors!), first down/third down information, and standard/passing down data

Last year’s conference-only statistics for the SoCon (all teams), with some additional league observations

An essay on a pet theory of mine: creating more big plays with an aggressive fourth-down philosophy

In the buildup to recent seasons, I have written about playcalling tendencies by The Citadel’s coaching staff, and I’m going to continue to do that this year. As always, I am comparing statistics over a rolling three-year period.

For this post, I’ll take a look at the 2017 season stats, and compare/contrast them with those from the 2015 and 2016 campaigns. The two most recent campaigns featured Brent Thompson as head coach, with the other (2015) the final season under Mike Houston (with Thompson serving as offensive coordinator that year).

My focus in this post will be on the following:

  • down-and-distance run/pass tendencies (for The Citadel and its opponents)
  • yards per play numbers (offense and defense, rushing and passing)
  • select defensive passing stats (including sacks, hurries, and passes defensed)
  • success in the “red zone” (mostly defined as scoring or preventing touchdowns)
  • plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or more (“big plays”)
  • fourth-down decision-making (for The Citadel and its opponents)
  • situational punting for The Citadel and its opponents (i.e. punting from inside the 50-yard line)
  • the all-important coin toss
  • attendance and time-of-game information

Some of those items will be in Part 1, and others will be in Part 2.

First things first: The Spreadsheet

One thing you will notice is that almost all of the statistics in the spreadsheet are broken down by game. In other words, if you wanted to know about The Citadel’s average yards-per-rush against VMI (good), or The Citadel’s Red Zone numbers against the Keydets (not good), or the Bulldogs’ time-of-possession for every quarter of every SoCon game this season, or any number of other things that you never dreamed you really wanted to know until you read this paragraph — well, this is the spreadsheet for you.

If you didn’t want to know about any of those things, you should keep reading anyway. After all, I’m going to keep writing.

Most of the statistics that follow are based on league play, and only league play. It’s easier and fairer to compare numbers in that way. The bottom line for The Citadel is that its on-field success or failure will primarily be judged on how it does in the Southern Conference, not against Charleston Southern, Towson, or Alabama (this year’s non-conference slate).

The league schedules over the last three years looked like this:

  • The Bulldogs played seven games in 2015 against SoCon teams. The conference schools competing on the gridiron that year were Western Carolina, Wofford, Samford, Furman, Mercer, VMI, and Chattanooga.
  • The Citadel played eight games in 2016 versus Southern Conference opponents. The league schools that year: Mercer, Furman, Western Carolina, Chattanooga, Wofford, East Tennessee State, Samford, and VMI (with ETSU joining the league for football that season).
  • In 2017, the Bulldogs played the same SoCon opponents as they had in 2016. The Citadel faced East Tennessee State, Samford, Chattanooga, and Furman on the road, while playing Mercer, Wofford, VMI, and Western Carolina at home.

One quick note before diving in to the numbers: I am fairly confident in the overall accuracy of the statistics, though I am definitely not infallible. One thing that helped this year was that the SoCon (promptly) put league-only stats on its website. That was very nice to see.

Not so nice, though, were the conference’s play-by-play data summaries for several games. I had a great deal of difficulty compiling information for most of the contests, in particular The Citadel’s games against ETSU, Chattanooga, VMI, and Mercer — especially Mercer.

The biggest problem was a glitch in the system that gave teams a first down on the 20-yard-line after touchbacks on kickoffs, instead of the 25-yard-line. That often led to a lot of down-and-distance errors, and occasionally some team identification issues as well (which led to things like defensive tackles punting for -42 yards, defensive backs rushing for 43-yard losses, and other assorted hiccups).

I could refer back to the team play-by-play summaries for the correct information, and I did. However, those summaries don’t include play breakdown categories, which is what I use for a lot of the data listed on the spreadsheet.

All that said, I think I got everything straightened out. If I didn’t, apologies in advance.

Incidentally, here is last year’s spreadsheet: Link

If someone also wants to look at the 2015 stats, that spreadsheet can be found here: Link

Some definitions:

– 2nd-and-short: 3 yards or less for a first down
– 2nd-and-medium: 4 to 6 yards for a first down
– 2nd-and-long: 7+ yards for a first down
– 3rd-and-short: 2 yards or less for a first down
– 3rd-and-medium: 3 to 4 yards for a first down
– 3rd-and-long: 5+ yards for a first down

The first number that will follow each down-and-distance category will be the percentage of time The Citadel ran the ball in that situation in 2017. Next to that, in parenthesis, is the run percentage for The Citadel in 2016, and that will be followed by the Bulldogs’ run percentage for that situation in 2015 (which will be in brackets).

For example, when it came to running the ball on first down, the numbers looked like this:

– 1st-and-10 (or goal to go): 81.1% (86.0%) [89.1%]

Thus, The Citadel ran the ball on first down 81.1% of the time last year, while the Bulldogs ran the ball in that situation 86.0% of the time in 2016. The Citadel ran the ball 89.1% of the time on first down during its 2015 campaign.

Overall, the Bulldogs ran the ball 77.9% of the time in 2017, after rushing 85.6% of the time on its 2016 plays from scrimmage, and on 86.5% of all offensive plays in 2015. The lower percentage is almost certainly an indicator of The Citadel trailing in more games in 2017 than it did in the previous two seasons.

Here are the rest of the down-and-distance categories (in terms of rush percentage):

– 2nd-and-short:  88.9% (94.1%) [89.2%]
– 2nd-and-medium:  87.2% (96.1%) [89.8%]
– 2nd-and-long:  76.9% (83.8%) [89.2%]
– 3rd-and-short:  91.7% (100.0%) [93.1%]
– 3rd-and-medium:  83.9% (88.5%) [82.4%]
– 3rd-and-long:  57.6% (68.1%) [66.0%]

Obviously, there were a few called pass plays that turned into runs. However, if the result of a play was a sack, that counted as a passing down even if a pass wasn’t thrown. For the season, Bulldog QBs were sacked 10 times in league play, for a loss of 64 total yards.

  • After running the ball on every 3rd-and-short play in 2016, the Bulldogs threw the ball twice in that down-and-distance situation last year. One attempt was in a late-game hurry-up situation against Mercer. The other throw resulted in a two-yard TD catch by Keyonte Sessions (from Dominique Allen) versus Western Carolina.
  • On 3rd-and-long, The Citadel was more inclined to run the ball against ETSU, Chattanooga, and Western Carolina, while the Bulldogs threw more often versus Mercer and Furman.
  • The Citadel passed on first down far more often against Mercer (16 times) than any other league opponent. Conversely, the Bulldogs threw on first down 5 or fewer times against six different conference teams (ETSU, Samford, Chattanooga, VMI, and Western Carolina).

In this section, I’m listing what The Citadel’s conference opponents did in down-and-distance situations over the last two seasons (2016 and 2017).

Overall, conference opponents rushed on 53.5% of their plays from scrimmage against the Bulldogs last year, after doing so on 49.7% of their plays in 2016. On first down, league teams rushed 62.5% of the time, as compared to 56.2% two years ago.

Here are the rest of the down-and-distance categories (in terms of rush percentage). The 2016 numbers are in parenthesis:

– 2nd-and-short:  81.8% (75.9%)
– 2nd-and-medium:  61.0% (47.9%)
– 2nd-and-long:  41.5% (44.8%)
– 3rd-and-short:  78.6% (66.7%)
– 3rd-and-medium:  46.7% (36.4%)
– 3rd-and-long:  22.6% (27.3%)

Again, some of these numbers reflect the fact The Citadel was trailing more often than it did in 2016. Thus, opponents were able to run the ball more. It is not a coincidence that the teams which threw the ball more than 50% of the time against the Bulldogs all lost.

  • Chattanooga did not have a rushing attempt on any of its 3rd down plays against The Citadel. The Mocs were also 0 for 7 on third down conversion attempts.
  • Mercer was the only conference opponent that did not attempt a pass versus the Bulldogs on either 2nd-and-short or 2nd-and-medium. The Bears did throw the ball 7 times on 2nd-and-long.
  • On 3rd-and-long, ETSU and VMI combined for 21 pass plays and only one rushing attempt.

In the next few sections of this post, I’m going to alternate offense and defensive numbers. Don’t get dizzy!

  • The Citadel’s offense in 2015 in SoCon action: 70.7 plays per game, 11.9 possessions per game
  • The Citadel’s offense in 2016 in SoCon action: 72.1 plays per game, 11.4 possessions per game
  • The Citadel’s offense in 2017 in SoCon action: 70.1 plays per game, 12.1 possessions per game

*Overtime possessions are not included in any of the conference-only statistics, for the sake of consistency (and avoiding statistical sample size issues).

**I don’t count a drive as an actual possession when it consists solely of a defensive TD via a return, or when it is a defensive turnover that ends the half or game. I also don’t count a drive as a possession when the offensive team does not attempt to score (such as a kneel-down situation). That’s how I interpret the statistic, regardless of how it may be listed in a game summary.

Last season, The Citadel had a time of possession edge in SoCon play of over six minutes (33:10 – 26:50). It was actually a smaller edge than the Bulldogs had enjoyed in 2016 (33:41 – 26:19), but greater than that from 2015 (32:13 – 27:47).

The Citadel held the ball longer than its opponents on average in three of the four quarters (the fourth quarter was the exception). The Bulldogs won the TOP battle in every game except two (Mercer and Furman).

Nationally (counting all games), the Bulldogs led all of FCS in total time of possession per contest. San Diego, standard-bearer of the Pioneer League, finished second in the category, meaning the two programs flip-flopped their positions from the year before (when the Toreros led the subdivision in TOP).

  • The Citadel’s defense in 2015 SoCon play: 65.7 plays per game, 12.0 possessions per game
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2016 SoCon play: 57.6 plays per game, 11.4 possessions per game
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2017 SoCon play: 58.8 plays per game, 11.8 possessions per game

Against Chattanooga, The Citadel’s defense faced only 47 offensive plays, not counting “running out the half” plays. Last year versus the Mocs, the Bulldogs’ D faced…47 plays. Two different locales, two different UTC head coaches, same number of plays.

Mercer ran 72 offensive plays against The Citadel (again, not counting drives in which no attempt to score was made). VMI ran a total of 68. The two teams had different approaches, however — the Bears threw only 23 passes, while VMI had 41 pass plays (including five would-be attempts that resulted in sacks).

Annual note: while NCAA statistical records count sack yardage against rushing totals, the NFL considers sack yardage as passing yardage lost. I take the NFL’s position on this, because it makes much more sense. Thus, all conference statistics included in this post count sack yardage against passing stats.

  • The Citadel’s offense in 2015 in SoCon games: 6.09 yards per play, including 5.57 yards per rush and 9.7 yards per pass attempt
  • The Citadel’s offense in 2016 in SoCon games: 5.58 yards per play, including 5.28 yards per rush and 7.4 yards per pass attempt
  • The Citadel’s offense in 2017 in SoCon games: 5.38 yards per play, including 5.24 yards per rush and 7.0 yards per pass attempt

The rushing yards per play numbers were down again, though not by a lot (as compared to 2016, anyway). The real issue, in my opinion, is the yards per pass attempt. Seven yards per attempt is not good enough.

– 2015 passing for The Citadel in seven conference games: 63 pass attempts for 609 yards (three interceptions)

– 2016 passing for The Citadel in eight conference games: 83 pass attempts for 615 yards (two interceptions)

– 2017 passing for The Citadel in eight conference games: 114 pass attempts for 797 yards (five interceptions)

You also should throw in the 10 sacks allowed (after giving up just one sack in league play in 2016). While I mentioned that seven yards per attempt is not acceptable, I have to acknowledge that the league average in 2017 was only 7.05 yards per pass attempt. Admittedly, that number is skewed by VMI only averaging 4.55 yards/pa in SoCon action while attempting the third-most passes in the league.

In this post, I’m also going to take a look at The Citadel’s per-play stats from a national perspective (all of FCS, and including all games, not just conference play). I’ll throw in some statistics from a few FBS teams as well, concentrating (in that subdivision) on schools that run the triple option, teams of local interest, and a few others worth mentioning.

The Bulldogs’ offense was 55th nationally in yards per play, with a 5.42 average (all games). Alcorn State’s 7.04 yards per play led FCS, closely followed by Sam Houston State (which had topped the subdivision in the category in 2016). SoCon teams in the top 50: Furman ranked 14th, Western Carolina 27th, Samford 41st, and Wofford 48th.

Presbyterian was 59th in FCS, while Charleston Southern was 62nd, South Carolina State 92nd and Towson 100th. VMI finished next-to-last, ahead of only Lafayette.

Oklahoma led FBS in yards per play (shocker, I know), with a staggering 8.29 average. Other FBS rankings in this category of interest: UCF (2nd), Louisville (3rd — Lamar Jackson will be missed), Georgia (12th), Alabama (13th), Navy (42nd), Army (46th), Georgia Tech (54th), Clemson (55th), Air Force (77th), South Carolina (85th), UTEP (129th and last — good luck, Jim Senter).

The Citadel’s overall rate of yards per rush was 18th-best in FCS, second in the SoCon to Western Carolina (which was 11th in yards/rush nationally). Also hitting the top 50: Wofford (21st), Furman (27th), Presbyterian (31st), and Charleston Southern (41st). South Carolina State was 75th, and Towson 90th.

The top two FCS teams in yards per rush were Alcorn State (6.42 yds/rush) and North Dakota State. Kennesaw State, like The Citadel a triple option outfit, finished 5th.

I should emphasize that these national numbers include sacks. That is why Mississippi Valley State, which finished last in yards per rush, ended the season with negative rushing yardage. The Delta Devils netted -103 yards rushing for the season, after suffering exactly 400 yards lost due to sacks. MVSU quarterbacks were sacked on almost one-fifth of their pass plays (18.6%).

Arizona, thanks mostly to spectacular quarterback Khalil Tate, led FBS in yards per rush, at 6.56. The top five also included Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida Atlantic, and Army. Other teams of note: Georgia (7th), Alabama (10th), Navy (14th), Georgia Tech (17th), New Mexico (18th), Air Force (36th), Clemson (43rd), Georgia Southern (78th), South Carolina (93rd), Western Kentucky (129th and last).

  • The Citadel’s defense in 2015 in SoCon action: 5.07 yards per play, including 3.69 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per pass attempt
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2016 in SoCon action: 4.94 yards per play, including 4.61 yards per rush and 5.3 yards per pass attempt
  • The Citadel’s defense in 2017 in SoCon action: 5.69 yards per play, including 4.87 yards per rush and 7.5 yards per pass attempt

In 2016, the Bulldogs were very good against the pass. Last year, not so much. The rushing yards against numbers were similar, but still a dropoff of over a yard per rush from 2015.

The average yards per play in the SoCon was 5.22. As mentioned above, the average yards per pass attempt in conference play was 7.05; the average yards per rush (taking out sacks) was 4.03.

Nationally in FCS (remember, these stats are for all games), The Citadel was 102nd in defensive yards allowed per play (6.02). Jacksonville State (3.84) led FCS, after finishing second in 2016. Also in the top 5: James Madison, North Dakota State, South Carolina State (Buddy Pough’s troops had mostly very strong defensive numbers), and North Carolina A&T.

Charleston Southern was 13th, Wofford 35th, Chattanooga 38th, and East Tennessee State 40th. Towson finished 54th overall, while Presbyterian was 101st.

Lehigh finished last in FCS, allowing 7.35 yards per play. Two things to point out here: 1) Lehigh did not play an FBS school, so there wasn’t an Oklahoma or UCF on its schedule to skew the numbers; 2) despite the porous defense, the Mountain Hawks tied for the Patriot League title and garnered that league’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

Alabama led FBS in defensive yards allowed per play (3.99), the second straight season the Tide topped the charts in that category. Clemson was 2nd, followed by Wisconsin, Washington, and Ohio State.

Georgia was 10th and South Carolina 35th. The last-placed team was East Carolina, and it wasn’t close: the Pirates allowed 7.72 yards per play.

The Citadel was 94th in FCS in the national defensive yards/rush category (at 4.54, better than its league-only stats). The top 5 nationally: McNeese State (1.94 yards allowed per rush), Jacksonville State, Yale, Villanova, and South Carolina State. In the top 50: Charleston Southern (19th), Wofford (33rd), Mercer (38th), Furman (50th). Towson finished 83rd, Presbyterian 116th, and Lehigh 123rd and last.

Alabama was also the best FBS team in terms of yards allowed per rush (2.72). Washington finished 2nd, with Troy, Ohio State, and Northern Illinois rounding out the top 5. Clemson was 8th, South Carolina 38th, and Air Force last (allowing 5.93 yards per rush).

Counting all games, The Citadel allowed 7.86 yards per pass attempt, 103rd nationally in FCS. It could have been worse: Gardner-Webb finished last in this category, allowing 9.57 yards per pass attempt.

The top squad nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt was St. Francis University (5.26 yds/pa). Joining the Red Flash in the top 5 were James Madison, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, and North Dakota State.

Top 50 teams included Western Carolina (18th), South Carolina State (21st), Towson (27th), Charleston Southern (29th), Wofford (47th), and East Tennessee State (49th). Presbyterian was 75th, just behind Chattanooga and four spots ahead of Furman.

In what should come as a surprise to nobody, Alabama finished first in FBS in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.45 yds/pa). Clemson was right behind the Tide, with Florida State in third. South Carolina was 36th. East Carolina was last, allowing 10.42 yards per pass attempt, which must have been hard to watch for ECU fans over the course of the season.

Okay, that’s enough for Part 1 of Inside The Numbers.

Part 2 will include offensive and defensive statistics for Red Zone play and 3rd down conversion rates. Also discussed: sacks, passes defensed, fumbles, penalties, punts, big plays, 4th down decision-making, a comparison of both league attendance and game length, and (of course) coin toss strategy.

Link to Part 2

A glance at the 2018 SoCon non-conference football slate

Some other links related to The Citadel’s upcoming gridiron campaign:

– Preseason rankings and ratings

– Attendance at Johnson Hagood Stadium: the annual review

Which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

Also of interest from around the internet:

How will new NCAA rules on redshirting and transfers affect The Citadel?

New turf (and stands) to come at Johnson Hagood Stadium

Dates that FCS leagues will release their respective preseason polls (and often, preseason all-conference teams as well)

Cadets (not cats) and bulldogs living together

This year, the SoCon as a whole will have its usual share of games against teams from the FBS ranks, along with quite a few matchups with FCS outfits in other conferences. As was the case last season, there are four games against non-D1 schools, all from Division II.

Playing non-D1 teams out of conference does not help individual schools (or the league, for that matter) when it comes to making the FCS playoffs. It means the SoCon team in question will have one fewer opportunity to post a win against a D-1 team.

Of course, you could make the same argument when it comes to playing teams from the FBS, particularly the P5 conferences. Those matchups also tend to reduce the number of chances a team has to win a game versus a D-1 opponent — unless, that is, the underdog actually beats the team from the FBS.

Every SoCon team will play three non-league games as part of an 11-game regular-season schedule. Each squad has at least one matchup versus an FBS opponent. VMI has two such contests, which seems less than ideal for the Keydets.

However, neither of the FBS teams playing VMI are from P5 leagues. Two other SoCon teams, Mercer and Wofford, also avoid the five major conferences this season. The other six schools each go on the road to play either an ACC or SEC team.

Which SoCon outfit has the toughest non-conference schedule? That’s not as easy to answer this season as it was last year (when Mercer played Auburn and Alabama). After taking the opposition, location, and schedule placement into consideration, I tend to give the nod to Furman. You could also make a case for The Citadel.

Around the league…

Chattanooga:

Last year, UTC’s first three games were against non-conference foes. Chattanooga lost all of them, and never really recovered. This season, the Mocs play two of their three non-league contests in the first three weeks of the campaign.

Chattanooga opens at home (on a Thursday night) versus OVC cellar-dweller Tennessee Tech. That is a matchup UTC needs to win.

After a game at The Citadel, Chattanooga goes on the road again to face UT Martin. The Skyhawks beat UTC 21-7 last season at Finley Stadium and are projected to be a middle-of-the-pack squad in the OVC this year, so that could be a tough game for the Mocs. It may also prove to be a pivotal contest in Chattanooga’s season, particularly with a matchup against Samford on tap for the following week.

Chattanooga finishes its regular season slate by travelling to bucolic Columbia, SC, to play the South Carolina Gamecocks (and pick up a check for $450,000.00). This is the fourth consecutive season South Carolina has played a SoCon school the week before playing Clemson; it has won two of the prior three contests in the “SoCon-SEC challenge”, having outlasted Wofford and Western Carolina the past two years.

East Tennessee State:

ETSU opens with a home game versus Mars Hill, a D-2 school that went 3-7 last season. Mars Hill played one FCS team in 2017, North Carolina A&T, and lost 56-0.

The following week, the opponent is a little tougher, as ETSU travels to Knoxville to play Tennessee, the first FBS team the Buccaneers will have played since re-starting football. It will also be the first time ETSU has ever faced the Vols on the gridiron.

Midway through the year, East Tennessee State hosts Gardner-Webb for its Homecoming game. The Runnin’ Bulldogs were 1-10 last year. This is a contest ETSU could (and probably should) win.

Both in terms of opponent quality and placement, ETSU’s administration did a solid job in putting together its 2018 slate for a still-young program. The only negative is having a bye week just before the final game of the season, but that was probably dictated by the league, and finding a home non-conference game on that date was likely close to impossible.

Furman:

The Paladins get their non-conference slate out of the way early, starting the season with three consecutive out-of-league opponents. Furman opens at Clemson, as difficult a first game as any team has in the country.

Furman then faces Elon for the third time in less than a year. The two teams split their two meetings in 2017, with the Paladins winning at Elon in a playoff matchup.

This season, Elon is expected to be an upper-echelon CAA team again, with 18 returning starters. Lindy’s has the Phoenix ranked #21 in FCS in its preseason poll, while Street & Smith’s and Athlon rank Elon 9th and 10th, respectively.

FU hosts Colgate to round out the OOC schedule. Last year, the Paladins made the trip to upstate New York and came away with a 45-14 victory. That game jump-started a seven-game winning streak for Furman.

While the Raiders are the early favorite to win the Patriot League in 2018, it would be a surprise if Furman were to lose to Colgate, especially on what could be a hot mid-September day in Greenville (with a 1:00 pm ET kickoff). That being said, last year the Raiders did win their season opener on the road, against a then-ranked Cal Poly.

Mercer:

Mercer opens with a game at Memphis, one of the better programs in the Group of 5. The Tigers won 10 games last season, and both Athlon and Street & Smith’s picked Memphis to win the AAC West this year.

One potential advantage for Mercer: the Tigers’ game the following week is at Navy. It would not be a surprise if the primary focus of the Memphis coaching staff leading up to the season was on the Midshipmen’s triple option attack, and not so much on the Bears.

MU plays Jacksonville in the second week of the season, the second year in a row Mercer has played the Dolphins. Last year, the Bears beat JU 48-7.

The Bears’ final non-conference matchup is an interesting one, an October 13 game at Yale. The Elis won the Ivy League in 2017 and are favored to win the title again this year. Yale has a big game at Penn on the Friday after playing MU, which might be yet another potential scheduling boost for Mercer.

The real question, though, is this: just how good are Ivy League teams? Last year, the Ivy League was 17-6 versus FCS opponents, but more than two-thirds of those games came against Patriot League and Pioneer League teams. The Ivies rarely venture out of the northeast, with Yale’s non-conference schedule last year (at Lehigh, at Fordham, Holy Cross) fairly typical.

Samford:

The Birmingham Bulldogs begin their 2018 campaign on a Thursday night. They will presumably enjoy a victory over Shorter University, a D-2 school that has gone 0-11 each of the last two seasons.

Shorter lost its one game versus a D-1 opponent last year, to Gardner-Webb, by a 42-14 score. That was G-W’s only win of the season. In 2016, Chattanooga beat Shorter 66-0.

After that, though, Samford’s non-league slate is very tough. SU’s game the following week is at Florida State. Samford gets a little bit of a break in that FSU opens with a Monday night game against Virginia Tech.

On September 29, Kennesaw State hosts Samford. The two teams played twice last season, with SU winning the opener at home and then losing in the playoffs at KSU.

Kennesaw State is the consensus pick to win the Big South again this season, and is rated very highly by several national outlets (including a preseason FCS ranking of #3 by Hero Sports). The Owls may be the most difficult FCS non-league opponent faced by any SoCon team in 2018.

I think Samford’s non-conference schedule is problematic for a playoff contender. If SU loses at Kennesaw State, it is likely Chris Hatcher’s crew will finish with no D-1 wins outside of league play. It might not be easy for Samford to get a postseason berth if it doesn’t garner the SoCon’s automatic bid.

The Citadel:

The Citadel opens its season with two conference games, unlike 2017, when the Bulldogs began play on the gridiron with Newberry and Presbyterian. In 2016, though, The Citadel also started its campaign with two league contests. That was a very good year for the program, so fans of the Bulldogs will be hoping a similar beginning will lead to similar results.

After games against Wofford (on the road) and Chattanooga (at home), The Citadel will host Charleston Southern. The Buccaneers should be a top-3 team in the Big South this season, albeit not on the same level with prohibitive conference favorite Kennesaw State.

On September 29, the Bulldogs will journey north to Johnny Unitas Stadium to play Towson, the first football game between the two schools. Towson struggled last season after its starting quarterback and running back both suffered injuries in the season opener, finishing 5-6.

This year, opinions on the Tigers appear to be mixed. Towson returns 20 starters (including the aforementioned running back, Shane Simpson).

There are three candidates to start at QB, including incoming transfer Tommy Flacco, younger brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. There is no early word on whether or not the younger Flacco is elite.

The Citadel’s final non-conference game of the season is a November 17 matchup against Alabama. As has been well documented, Alabama has never beaten The Citadel in football.

VMI:

The Keydets travel to Toledo to begin the 2018 season. Last year, the Rockets won 11 games and the MAC crown. This season, Toledo should be one of the three best teams in its league, though VMI may benefit from the fact the Rockets have to replace last year’s starting quarterback and running back. VMI could use a little beneficence.

While a fair number of teams play two or three non-conference games in September, the Keydets actually play two of their three OOC games in November.

On November 3, VMI plays Tusculum, a D-2 team. Tusculum was 5-5 last season, 3-4 in the South Atlantic Conference.

The Pioneers haven’t played a D-1 squad since losing 62-21 to Georgia Southern in 2011. The game versus Tusculum will probably be the only 2018 matchup in which VMI is favored. It should be noted, however, that last season Catawba, like Tusculum a member of the South Atlantic Conference, beat the Keydets 27-20.

VMI’s final regular-season game will be at Old Dominion, now in its fifth season as an FBS school. The Monarchs finished 5-7 last season but return 18 starters from that team, including sophomore quarterback Steven Williams. The left-hander started the final seven games of 2017 despite not turning 18 years old until November.

Western Carolina:

WCU opens with a home game versus D-2 Newberry, which finished 5-6 last season, just one year removed from making the Division II playoffs. Last year, the Wolves also played their first game of the season versus a SoCon opponent, losing 31-14 to The Citadel.

After the Newberry game, Western Carolina has a poorly-timed bye week, and then goes on the road to play Gardner-Webb (which faces three SoCon teams in 2018, with two of those contests in Boiling Springs). Western Carolina also played at G-W in 2017, winning 42-27, the third consecutive victory for the Catamounts over the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

WCU then plays all eight of its SoCon opponents over an eight-week stretch. After the last of those matchups (a home contest versus Wofford), the Catamounts conclude regular season play with a game at North Carolina. It will be only the second time WCU has ever faced the Tar Heels (but the second straight year they will have met).

Western Carolina has playoff aspirations, and thus is another team that might have been better served by scheduling a second FCS opponent out of conference instead of playing a D-2 team. The main difference between WCU and Samford in this respect is that the Catamounts’ non-league FCS game is (at least on paper) an easier matchup than Samford’s.

A better idea for WCU’s schedule would have been to replace Newberry with, say, Davidson (one of the Catamounts’ opponents last season). Davidson’s football team is almost certainly not as good as Newberry’s, but the Wildcats are a Division I school. Every D-1 win helps, even those against non-scholarship programs.

Wofford:

The Terriers start their 2018 season with two league battles, playing The Citadel and VMI, both at home. Last season, Wofford also opened with two conference games, playing Furman in Spartanburg and then travelling to Mercer.

After the two contests against the military colleges, Wofford travels to Wyoming. At first glance, it seems to be one of the more unlikely FBS vs. FCS matchups of the season. The two schools can’t have much in common, other than both having names beginning with the letter “W”.

However, Wyoming does have a brief history of playing SoCon schools, dating back to the 1951 Gator Bowl, when the Cowboys played Washington and Lee. Other Wyoming-SoCon matchups include games against Furman (2001), The Citadel (2002), and Appalachian State (2004).

Wyoming could go bowling (or maybe that’s “Bohling”) for a third straight season, despite losing star quarterback Josh Allen. However, Wofford does have an 11% win probability in this matchup, according to projected S&P+, which isn’t bad for an FCS team playing at an FBS squad, and a couple of time zones away from home to boot.

Wofford has another non-conference road game the week after making the trip to Laramie. This matchup is much closer to home, however, as the Terriers play at Gardner-Webb.

G-W played Wofford last year, too, and the Terriers had to hang on to win 27-24 in Gibbs Stadium. The Runnin’ Bulldogs missed a long field goal try late in the game that would have tied the contest.

Incidentally, Gardner-Webb (which at this rate is closing in on honorary SoCon member status) played none other than Wyoming in 2017, losing 27-0.

Wofford’s final non-league game of the year is also the final regular season game on its slate. The Terriers host Presbyterian on November 17, the 85th meeting on the gridiron between the two schools.

PC was 4-7 last season. In November, Presbyterian announced that its football program would move to non-scholarship status by 2020. Some of the Blue Hose’s players left the team following that announcement, including running back Torrance Marable, arguably PC’s best player (he wound up transferring to Coastal Carolina).

A brief overview of the FCS as a whole…

This season, 21 FCS schools have scheduled two games against FBS opposition. Only one, Southern Utah, will face two P5 teams (the Thunderbirds play Oregon State and Arizona).

In all, FCS teams will play FBS schools 111 times, with 48 of those being P5 opponents.

The Big Sky and MVFC probably have the most aggressive slate of non-conference matchups. Eight of the Big Sky’s FBS games are versus P5 teams. The MVFC also has eight P5 games being played by its ten member schools.

The Big Sky has 14 FBS games in all, a number matched by the SWAC and MEAC. In addition, the Big Sky (with 13 schools this season) will be featured in several prominent non-league FCS vs. FCS matchups, including Northern Iowa-Montana and South Dakota-Weber State, not to mention Eastern Washington-Northern Arizona (which is a non-conference game despite both being Big Sky schools).

The Southland has 13 FBS games (six* versus P5 schools), the CAA has 12 (six P5 matchups), and the OVC and SoCon each have 10 (five against P5 teams for the OVC, six for the SoCon).

*counting BYU as a Power 5 opponent, which is open to debate

No team from the Ivy League or the Pioneer League will play an FBS squad in 2018.

Also not facing an FBS opponent: traditional FCS powers North Dakota State and Jacksonville State. NDSU will instead enjoy seven regular-season home games this season (including a Homecoming game against Delaware). It isn’t easy these days for the Bison to hook up with an FBS team.

JSU has quality non-conference FCS bookends to its schedule, facing North Carolina A&T in its opener (which is also the FCS Kickoff) and concluding the regular season with a game versus Kennesaw State at SunTrust Park.

There are just a couple of months left before the season kicks off. Be patient, everyone…