With less than a month to go until football season begins, an odds-on look at Week 0 and Week 1

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I’m basically going to do three things in this post: take a look at the sizable number of “lopsided” early-season contests; compare Massey Ratings projected game scores with early lines for various games of interest; and make a list of the best opening weekend (and pre-opening weekend) matchups.

Why am I doing this? Well, why not?

Lines are courtesy of an offshore site to be named later.

There are 136 contests in Weeks 0 and 1 that feature at least one Division I team. Among them are 44 FBS vs. FBS games; of those, 11 are games between Power-5 conference teams, 9 are Group of 5 matchups, and 24 are games in which a P5 team is playing a G5 opponent.

There are also 48 FBS vs. FCS matchups, 26 FCS vs. FCS contests, and 18 games in which FCS teams face non-D1 opposition.

Of those 136 games, 36 have an early-line spread of 30 points or more.

The breakdown of those 36 matchups:

  • FBS vs. FBS: 6
  • FBS vs. FCS: 18
  • FCS vs. FCS: 4
  • FCS vs. non-D1: 8

It’s not great that more than 26% of the D-1 games which take place prior to and through the Labor Day weekend are projected to be that one-sided. Of course, it could be argued that this is the best time for these matchups, given that the general football-loving public is starved for live gridiron action of any kind, no matter the blowout potential.

As of August 1, the largest point spread for any D-1 game in this time period is the Florida A&M-Arkansas contest on August 31, a Thursday night affair in Little Rock. The Razorbacks are favored by 51.5 points. Two games have 51-point spreads, Bethune-Cookman vs. Miami (the homestanding Hurricanes are favored, just to state the obvious) and an all-FCS matchup, Mississippi Valley State vs. North Dakota State (with the host Bison expected to prevail).

The biggest road favorite is Washington, favored by 30.5 points at Rutgers. Stanford plays Rice at a neutral site (Sydney, Australia); the Cardinal are 31.5-point favorites.

The other four FBS vs. FBS matchups with a spread of 30+ points: UTEP-Oklahoma (44 points, the largest spread in an all-FBS game), Kent State-Clemson (38.5 points), Georgia Southern-Auburn (35 points), and Akron-Penn State (33 points). To the surprise of no one, the home teams are all favored.

The other three FCS vs. FCS games with 30+ point spreads: Butler-Illinois State (36 points), Valparaiso-Montana (34 points; apologies to Adam Amin), and Delaware State-Delaware (33 points). Again, home teams are the favorites.

In the table below, I’ve included every FBS/FCS game in Week 0 (eight games played on August 26, and one on August 27), and a sampling of contests from Week 1 (August 31 through September 4). Just to reiterate, not every D-1 game from Week 1 is listed.

The first nine games in the table are from Week 0.

Favorite Underdog Line Massey Differential
Colorado State Oregon State 3.5 34-31 0.5
BYU Portland State 32.5 44-13 1.5
Florida A&M Texas Southern 1.5 26-24 -0.5
Jacksonville State Chattanooga 6.5 28-26 4.5
Cal Poly Colgate 7 35-31 3
USF San Jose State 20 41-31 10
Stanford Rice 31.5 38-7 0.5
Sam Houston State Richmond 6.5 38-34 2.5
Hawai’i Massachusetts 1 33-31 -1
Wake Forest Presbyterian 39 35-0 4
Toledo Elon 37.5 43-7 1.5
Georgia State Tennessee State 18 38-17 -3
Arkansas Florida A&M 51.5 52-3 2.5
Mercer Jacksonville 21 42-21 0
Samford Kennesaw State 7.5 38-30 -0.5
Towson Morgan State 28 35-7 0
Oklahoma State Tulsa 17 42-33 8
Ohio State Indiana 20.5 31-17 6.5
Army Fordham 15.5 40-24 -0.5
Eastern Michigan Charlotte 12.5 35-27 4.5
Navy Florida Atlantic 13.5 42-28 -0.5
Colorado Colorado State 7 35-28 0
Clemson Kent State 38.5 44-3 -2.5
Texas Maryland 16.5 34-27 9.5
Oklahoma UTEP 44 49-13 8
North Carolina California 12.5 42-32 2.5
Villanova Lehigh 6.5 28-22 0.5
Pittsburgh Youngstown State 14 40-24 -2
North Carolina State South Carolina 5.5 28-17 -5.5
Notre Dame Temple 15 28-24 11
Georgia Appalachian State 14.5 21-18 11.5
Michigan Florida 4 24-20 0
Virginia William and Mary 19.5 33-14 0.5
North Dakota State Mississippi Valley State 51 52-0 -1
Texas Tech Eastern Washington 16.5 45-38 9.5
Mississippi State Charleston Southern 18.5 38-21 1.5
The Citadel Newberry 30 37-7 0
Wofford Furman 13.5 26-14 1.5
Gardner-Webb North Carolina A&T 7 28-21 0
Baylor Liberty 30 42-14 2
East Tennessee State Limestone 28.5 35-7 0.5
Auburn Georgia Southern 35 34-13 14
Air Force VMI 31.5 41-10 0.5
Alabama Florida State 7.5 33-21 -4.5
LSU BYU 13 21-7 -1
Southern South Carolina State 2.5 27-24 -0.5
Virginia Tech West Virginia 4 29-26 1
UCLA Texas A&M 3.5 25-28 6.5
Tennessee Georgia Tech 3.5 31-32 4.5

Odds (hey, a pun!) and ends:

  • Not listed: James Madison-East Carolina, which does not have a line at present for some reason. However, Massey projects FCS defending champ JMU to win the game 38-31.
  • Western Carolina’s season opener at Hawai’i also does not have a line (at least, not one that I could find), possibly because the Rainbow Warriors play a game at Massachusetts the week before.
  • The same is true for Coastal Carolina, which opens by hosting the aforementioned Minutemen.
  • Two teams in the table that are favorites (UCLA and Tennessee) are projected to lose by the Massey Ratings.
  • Massey projects several games to be considerably closer than the current lines, notably Appalachian State-Georgia, Maryland-Texas, Eastern Washington-Texas Tech, Temple-Notre Dame, and Tulsa-Oklahoma State.
  • On the other hand, Massey likes North Carolina State and Alabama even more than the offshore folks do.

On his college basketball ratings website, Ken Pomeroy has something called ‘FanMatch’, in which “games are rated for competitiveness and level of play with a lean towards higher-scoring games”. It is a somewhat whimsical way to rate the potential watchability of individual games on a given night.

I’m going to do the same thing here. However, I am purposely not going to rate Newberry-The Citadel, which from my vantage point is the most watchable game of the Labor Day weekend.

Below is a listing of the Week 0/1 games that I consider to be the twenty best in terms of quality/competitiveness. I’ve created a secret formula to produce these game ratings; it is called “Tingle Factor”, or TF. The higher the TF, the better.

Road Team Home Team Gametime (ET) TV/Streaming TF
Alabama Florida State 9/2, 8:00 pm ABC/ESPN3 86.73
North Carolina State South Carolina 9/2, 3:00 pm ESPN 84.20
Tennessee Georgia Tech 9/4, 8:00 pm ESPN 83.90
Virginia Tech West Virginia 9/3, 7:30 pm ABC/ESPN3 83.55
Richmond Sam Houston State 8/27, 7:00 pm ESPNU 80.11
Tulsa Oklahoma State 8/31, 7:30 pm FS1/FS-Go 79.68
Chattanooga Jacksonville State 8/26, 6:30 pm ESPN 75.41
Colorado State Colorado 9/1, 8:00 pm Pac-12 Network 72.15
Oregon State Colorado State 8/26, 2:30 pm CBS Sports Net 72.00
James Madison East Carolina 9/2, 6:00 pm ESPN3 68.44
Temple Notre Dame 9/2, 3:30 pm NBC 67.18
Kennesaw State Samford 8/31, 7:00 pm ESPN3 66.95
Texas A&M UCLA 9/3, 7:30 pm FOX/FS-Go 65.60
Hawai’i Massachusetts 8/26, 6:00 pm TBA 65.47
Maryland Texas 9/2, 12:00 pm FS1/FS-Go 64.19
Eastern Washington Texas Tech 9/2, 4:00 pm FS Nets/FS-Go 64.03
South Carolina St. Southern 9/3, 2:30 pm ESPN2 63.88
Navy Florida Atlantic 9/2, 8:00 pm ESPNU 63.79
Villanova Lehigh 9/2, 12:30 pm Patriot League DN 63.58
Colgate Cal Poly 8/26, 7:00 pm ESPNU 63.56

Notes:

  • Alabama-Florida State will be played in Atlanta, GA
  • Georgia Tech-Tennessee will also be played in Atlanta, GA
  • North Carolina State-South Carolina will be played in Charlotte, NC
  • Colorado State-Colorado will be played in Denver, CO
  • Chattanooga-Jacksonville State will be played in Montgomery, AL
  • Virginia Tech-West Virginia will be played in Landover, MD

The season is getting closer…and closer…

A few thoughts on Bulldog baseball

Wow, this place is dusty.  I guess I need to post more often.

It’s been a tough year so far for The Citadel’s baseball team, to say the least.  One year after claiming the Southern Conference regular season and tournament titles, the Bulldogs are 10-19 overall, 5-10 in the SoCon (entering a weekend series against the College of Charleston).  If the season ended today The Citadel would barely qualify for the league tournament.  The Citadel failing to make the SoCon tourney, held again this year at Riley Park, would obviously be a painful outcome for the program and could have repercussions going forward (in terms of future SoCon tourneys in Charleston).

Obviously when a team is 10-19 there are multiple issues at play, but let me put my own spin on things…

The Citadel is 2-9 in one-run games, and 1-5 in two-run games.  Yes, that’s a lot of one-run games (tied for most in the nation heading into the weekend).  The Bulldogs played 12 one-run games all last season (going 6-6 in those contests).

One thing to keep in mind is that there have been more one-run games this season in college baseball.  Across the board, 10% more games have been decided by one run this year (through the first 45 days of the season) than last.  That means that almost one-fourth of all Division I games are being decided by one run.  There are also more games going into extra innings.

The reason for all the close games?  The games are lower-scoring, thanks to the new bats.  The new bats also make it very hard to compare statistics from last season to this season, but I’ve taken a look at a couple of things with regards to The Citadel that I want to note.

Before I start, I want to say that some of the general information I’m posting comes courtesy of CollegeSplits.com, although most of the numbers are not posted on that site (which provides analytical and data services to about half of MLB).  However, occasionally one of the site administrators publishes an article on ESPN Insider and discusses some of the data they have compiled.

Defensive efficiency is a statistic that measures the rate batted balls become outs — in other words, plate appearances that lead to the ball being put into play, as opposed to walks, homers, strikeouts, etc.  It’s a good way to judge a team’s defensive ability, as it doesn’t have the biases inherent in fielding percentage.

Last season South Carolina and Texas were the two teams that had the highest defensive efficiency in the country, which should come as no surprise to anyone.  They each rated at 72.6%.  This year, more balls are being put into play (thanks to the decline in homers), so the national leader after 45 days has a higher rate (74.6%).  That would be Louisville, led by former Bulldog second baseman Dan McDonnell.

What this means is that defense is arguably even more important this year than in previous years.

I can’t calculate exact defensive efficiency data for The Citadel in 2010 and 2011, mainly because I don’t know the number of runners who have reached base via an error.  I could get that data if I went through each game log for the past two seasons, but I can only be a dork for so many hours at a time.  At any rate, I have the BABIP data, which tells more than enough of a tale.  BABIP means batting average on balls in play, for anyone wondering.  The numbers for The Citadel are instructive.

Last season in Division I, the average BABIP was .351 (so slightly more than 35% of batted balls that weren’t homers turned into hits).  This year, with the new bats, that number is down markedly, to .334, as more balls are being gobbled up by fielders and turned into outs.

In 2010, The Citadel had an impressive .332 team BABIP.  In 2011, though, it’s at .370 through 29 games.

Yikes.  In my opinion, that goes a long way to explaining the team’s struggles, particularly in close games.  Those are extra outs Bulldog pitchers are having to get, and they aren’t always getting them.

Last season Matt Talley had a .302 BABIP; through April 7 of this year, it’s at .370 (right at the team average).  Drew Mahaffey had a .267 BABIP last season, which wasn’t likely to hold up this year, but as of today he’s got a .431 BABIP.  Wow (and not in a good way).  In other words, 43% of balls hit into play against Mahaffey are turning into hits.  Either teams are hitting screaming line drives off him, or a lot of bloops are finding holes.  I think it’s the latter.

It isn’t just about defense.  The Bulldogs have not pitched as well this season as last, although interestingly they are striking out batters at a very high clip (almost a batter per inning).  The Citadel is also averaging about a walk allowed per two innings, significantly higher than last season.  Neither of those numbers are in line with the “new bats data”, as strikeouts are just slightly up nationally, and walks are down.

The Bulldogs’ bats have been very slow to get started, as some of the returning regulars have struggled with the new “lumber”, although there are signs that they are heating up.  Good thing, too, as The Citadel is 0-12 in games in which the opponent scores 6 or more runs.

I have been impressed with two of the freshmen.  Drew DeKerlegand has had a solid year at the plate, and looks like he will be manning the hot corner for the next few seasons.  Joe Jackson (the great-great-great nephew of The Shoeless One) can really hit, too.  I am not sure yet about his abilities as a receiver, although I haven’t seen anything to suggest he won’t eventually become a fine catcher.  With that bat, he’ll play somewhere regardless.  I’m hopeful that he will develop more power with time, too.

One of the problems Fred Jordan has had is figuring out a way to keep the five returning regulars from last season in the everyday lineup (including all three of last year’s outfielders, catcher Grant Richards, and 2010 primary DH Brad Felder) without leaving out Jackson (DeKerlegand being set at third base).  All the jumping around has probably had an effect on the defense, particularly at shorstop, but also including the outfield.

However, I can’t blame Jordan for shuffling things around trying to find the right combination.  If I had a suggestion, it would be to settle on the best defender at shortstop and stay with him.  Easy to say from a distance, to be sure.

Another thing I want to mention briefly is the baserunning.  While the Bulldogs’ stolen base totals are okay, I don’t think the baserunning has been good at all.   Too many guys have been picked off, and there have been multiple miscues on the basepaths.  In a lower-scoring environment, The Citadel cannot afford giving up outs (and killing potential rallies) with bad baserunning.

Personally, I think The Citadel is better than its record suggests, but as Bill Parcells would say, “You are what your record says you are.”  The Bulldogs still have time to salvage the season, but the team needs to avoid losing confidence as a whole.  I’m a little worried about that — two of the last three games have been blowout losses — but I believe the squad will perservere.

The recipe for success over the remainder of the season?  Hope, faith, and less charity on defense…

Conference expansion: should The Citadel join the Big 10?

Nebraska, Missouri, Notre Dame, Texas — it’s hard to take in all that’s (not) going on right now…

With all this expansion talk, there is a chance the Big 10 (motto:  “Just ignore the ’10’ thing”) might wind up with an odd number of teams.  Of course, it has an odd number of teams right now.  However, I’m thinking that when all the dust settles from this latest realignment, Jim Delany and company are going to want to be at 12 or 14 or 16 teams, if only to end speculation the league might expand again (and thus prevent all those late-night telephone calls from the folks at Iowa State begging for admission).

If the Big 10 needs an extra team, The Citadel would be an obvious candidate and would presumably get an invitation.  The question is, should the military college accept the Big 10’s offer and leave the Southern Conference?  What are the positives and negatives of making the move?

Positives

— There would be no controversy over where the conference baseball tournament would be hosted, as the other schools in the Big 10 would have no problem playing in Charleston every May.  Charleston versus Columbus?  No contest.  No more carping from the likes of UNC-Greensboro.  (And do you see UNCG mentioned as a candidate to join the Big 10?  No.  The Spartans should be grateful just to be in the same hemisphere with the Bulldogs, much less the same league.)

The Citadel would be a favorite to win the league in baseball every season.  Also, we could probably demand that all of our conference games would be played at Riley Park.  Fun spring trip for the guys from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and an easy three-game sweep for us.

–All home games in football and basketball would be on TV, along with a lot of televised games for the other sports.  Also, the Big 10 Network has a slightly larger distribution nationally than the SoCon TV package.

It’s important for The Citadel to increase its TV presence, as I have written many times before.  I have previously advocated playing Big 10 teams in non-conference action so as to get on TV.  Now, the opportunity could be there to play Big 10 teams as league games.

–By 2012 or 2013 or whenever we joined the league, there is a chance Indiana still wouldn’t have its act together on the hardwood and we could snag a road victory at Assembly Hall, which would be neat.  Plus, you know Nebraska won’t be any good at hoops, and Northwestern would be a promising opportunity for a road W.  So we could be competitive almost immediately.

–A new recruiting territory would open up, and with the advantage of offering recruits the best weather in the conference (unless Texas joins the league, and even then it’s a push).  The Citadel has already had some good luck recently with players from Big 10 country (Ohio is the home state for basketball’s Austin Dahn and baseball’s Justin Mackert).

If Texas winds up in the conference along with the Bulldogs, that opens up the Lone Star state even more to The Citadel’s predatory hoops recruiters (see:  Cameron Wells, Zach Urbanus, Mike Groselle).  With that type of opening, regular trips to the Final Four would be inevitable.

–The extra money from being a Big 10 member could go toward expanding Johnson Hagood Stadium.  The Big 10 could also flex its collective muscle and break the NCAA’s silly postseason ban in the Palmetto State.  That, combined with the newly expanded JHS, would result in a new bowl game for Charleston, so the community would also benefit.

Negatives

–Well, the road trips would feature a lot of snow and ice (excepting UT-Austin, which would probably be worth a mandatory travel game for the corps of cadets).  There is only so much places like East Lansing and Iowa City have to offer (not to mention Lincoln).

That’s why you can expect a lot of the league meetings to get moved to Charleston. Also, look for a lot of the Big 10 coaches to acquire beachfront property in the Low Country, a la Roy Williams, Ralph Friedgen, Les Robinson, etc.  It’s just a natural thing for them to do.

–Big 10 basketball can often be unwatchable.  Actually, you could say that about a lot of Big 10 sports…

–The Citadel probably would not be able to play schools like Chowan or Webber International in football.  Wait, that’s a positive!

–Women’s sports:  The Citadel has a limited number of women’s teams, and the ones we have would probably struggle in the Big 10.  We don’t have a women’s lacrosse program, though, which may be just as well.

–The other schools in the Big 10 would be much larger than The Citadel, which could lead to their fans trying to take over our home parks/arenas.  If we made sure the corps of cadets was fully armed before games, however, I think we would maintain our home field advantage.

–There is a possibility that a spot in the ACC or SEC could open up.  If that happens, it’s important for The Citadel to explore all its options.

All in all, I’m undecided about a potential berth in the newly constructed Big 10.  One thing I can say for sure, though, is that The Citadel will be okay wherever it lands.  Can Rutgers or Kansas say the same?

The New Big 10

Reviewing the NCAA baseball tournament selection committee’s work

The verdict:  well, it wasn’t awful.

I realize that other observers have been more positive.  Kendall Rogers of Yahoo! Sports stated that the committee made “few puzzling decisions”.  Aaron Fitt of Baseball America thought that the committee “did better this year than it has in years.”

I won’t argue with that — after all, the committee did do the most important thing right, which is get the correct teams in the tournament.  This isn’t like last year, when Tim Weiser (the Kansas State AD) and his crew handed out bids to every Big XII outfit it could, only failing to pick Iowa State and Colorado because those two schools no longer field baseball teams.  No, it’s a justifiable field.  I actually correctly predicted the 64 teams in my previous post.  Maybe I wouldn’t have taken these exact 64 teams myself, but there were no shocks, no outrages.

However, I get the sense that everyone is so relieved the committee didn’t completely screw up that they are overlooking the errors that were actually made.  Let me list a few:

— Naturally, I’m going to complain about the ludicrous decision to slot The Citadel as a 3 seed in Columbia, while giving the College of Charleston a 2 seed and sending the Cougars to Myrtle Beach.  The two schools had similar RPI numbers (32 for The Citadel, 26 for the CofC).   More to the point, The Citadel won the regular season AND tournament titles in the Southern Conference.  The Cougars finished second (by two games) in the regular season and went 1-2 in the tournament.  Fitt did mention this anomaly in his BA post.

I am now not completely sure that The Citadel would have received an at-large bid had it failed to win the SoCon tourney.  Maybe it would have, but I’m not too confident, and just that sense of the unknown completely justifies Fred Jordan’s decision to start ace pitcher Asher Wojciechowski in the championship game on Sunday.  Imagine if Wojo had not pitched, The Citadel had lost, and then the Bulldogs had not received a bid.  Jordan would have second-guessed himself for the rest of his life.

Also, while we all have to accept the geographic constraints the committee has when setting up regionals, it would have been nice to send the Bulldogs somewhere other than Columbia, which is starting to get very old (and I say that as someone who lives in Columbia).  Why not flip The Citadel with Elon or Oregon State?  There wouldn’t be any more trips by airplane that would have had to be made.  Another option would have been to flip the 2-3 seeds in the Columbia and Myrtle Beach regionals.

—  California is a 2 seed.  Now, I think Cal belonged in the tournament, but as a 2? Also, the Golden Bears will play North Carolina in the first round, another bubble team, so Oklahoma, one of the weaker 1 seeds, gets the weakest 2 (in my opinion) and one of the weaker 3s.

I’m guessing the committee couldn’t quite figure out how to slot Cal as a 3 seed without causing another 3 seed travel issues, and so bumped the Bears up to a 2.  It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The committee could have made Oregon a 2 and Cal the 3 in the Norwich regional, which would have been at least marginally better, but maybe the Ducks are going to wear some crazy new Nike duds when they travel to Connecticut and the committee wanted more buzz in its northeastern regional.  I don’t know.

— The geographical decisions really cause some inequities in the matchups.  Georgia Tech is a national seed, but gets Alabama as its 2 seed; just to give you an idea, GT had an RPI of 11, ‘Bama 12 (and the Tide had a strong finish to its season).  TCU isn’t a national seed, but gets Baylor (35 RPI) as a 2 seed and Arizona (one of the last teams in the field) as a 3.

I already mentioned Cal in the Oklahoma regional; Arizona is similar in that I don’t think the committee could figure out where to stick the Wildcats, and so sending them to Ft. Worth became a default selection.  Maybe they were just trying to cut TCU a break for slotting the Horned Frogs (potentially) against Texas in a super-regional.

Of course, RPI isn’t necessarily indicative of quality (and I should mention Arizona actually had an RPI of 24), but it’s used as a crutch so often by the committee that when it isn’t, its absence is glaring.

— I don’t get the geographic thing for super-regional matchups.  You aren’t talking about that many more airplane flights even if the expected matchups actually occur, and sometimes they don’t anyway.  Why make TCU (a contender for the last national seed) have to play a super-regional at national 2 seed Texas?  Another team that had an argument for a national seed was Cal State Fullerton; at least with UCLA as the #6 national seed, that potential matchup is more fair (if also more convenient).

Really, though, if South Carolina (the other team in the national seed mix) is close to being #8, it shouldn’t be in a bracket opposite #4 Coastal Carolina.  It should be in the bracket opposite Georgia Tech (the team that did get the final national seed).  Would setting Oklahoma up to play Coastal Carolina be so terrible?  TCU-Louisville?  Florida State-Texas?

I think it’s time for the top teams to be seeded 1-16.

Well, that’s enough carping.  I’m just ready for the regionals to begin.

Open letter to Chuck Driesell

Dear Coach Driesell (mind if I call you Chuck?) —

Congrats on being named head coach at The Citadel.  I liked your choice of tie at the press conference.  You and your family will enjoy Charleston.  Whether or not you enjoy your new job will depend on how you approach it.  Here are some tips:

—  Know your history.  I assume Larry Leckonby told you all about The Citadel’s hoops past.  If not, here is a primer:  Link

I hope you’re not having second thoughts…

Now, that post in the link covers everything up to Ed Conroy’s last two years at The Citadel, which were really good by Bulldog standards.  Conroy won 20 games in 2009 and went 16-16 this past season; he parlayed that into a nice gig at Tulane.  This is good news for you, Chuck, if you have designs on moving up the D-1 coaching ladder. Imagine if you actually won the Southern Conference.  That might be worth an ACC job.

(Who am I kidding.  That would be worth an NBA job.)

—  If you want to make the NCAAs from The Citadel, you will have to win the Southern Conference tournament.  The Southern Conference is a one-bid league; there hasn’t been an at-large bid out of the SoCon since 1950.

Winning the SoCon tourney while at The Citadel will be a tall order, however.  The school’s postseason tournament history?  Ugly.

Now, you remember your father’s struggles in the ACC tournament, so you can appreciate a tourney hex — maybe not one quite on the scale of The Citadel’s foibles at the SoCon tourney, but you probably understand the frustration.  Of course, you also were on the team the year Lefty finally won the ACC tourney, so you know it’s possible to climb the mountain. Admittedly, you aren’t going to have the services of anyone as talented as Len Bias while at The Citadel.

—  Speaking of the left-hander, feel free to invite your father to show up at McAlister Field House whenever he wants.  We’re used to celebrities with connections to the program showing up at basketball games now, since Pat Conroy jumped on the bandwagon the last two seasons.  All I ask is that whenever there is an article in The New York Times about the team’s success, or if Wright Thompson writes a long, thoughtful piece on ESPN.com about the basketball program, that maybe the stories might actually mention a current player.  Just once?

It’s like the program got overshadowed by an ancillary figure.  5700 combined words, no mention of any player.  Sigh.

(By the way, there has to be a great photo op involving General (the bulldog, not Rosa) and Lefty Driesell.  Russ Pace, be ready.)

—  Learn as much as you can about The Citadel, but don’t sweat it if you don’t understand everything about the school. I’m a graduate, and I do not understand everything about the place, and never will.  If you really understand everything about The Citadel, you are certifiably insane.

One thing I will say is that you can’t quite lean on your time in the Navy, or at NAPS. There are some similarities but also some major differences.

You’re going to have to get a crash course in a new culture from somebody who was recently in your situation (Leckonby), and you should seriously consider having at least one guy on your staff with connections to the school. It’s kind of like having an interpreter.

—  You have a reputation as a solid talent evaluator.  I’m glad to hear that is the case, because I think that skill is critical to having success at The Citadel, much more so than just being a “getter” of players.  You’re going to have to look for under-the-radar types.

I’ll give you an example, Chuck.  Remember when Maryland was recruiting Jai Lucas? Of course you do, you were front and center on that recruitment.  Maryland didn’t get him, though, which must have been very disappointing, especially with his father (the great John Lucas) having played for your father at Maryland.

Jai Lucas wound up going to Florida, and then later transferred to Texas.  He was a big-time recruit.  Big-time recruits don’t go to The Citadel.

When you were watching his high school games, though, did you happen to notice the other guard for Bellaire?  Skinny kid, but a solid player.  Wasn’t getting offers from any of the high-majors, or any of the mid-majors for that matter.  I’m guessing you noticed him, at least enough to recognize him…even if you saw him now, in his cadet uniform.

His name was and is Cameron Wells, and he’s currently on pace to be the all-time leading scorer at The Citadel.  I would argue that he has had a much better college career than Jai Lucas, and that’s even taking the level of competition into consideration.  That’s the type of player you are seeking.  Wells wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but it’s not inconceivable he could eventually become the first alum from The Citadel to play in the NBA.

—  Besides finding “hidden” talent, Chuck, there is something else you need to keep in mind, something very important, and something quite a few coaches at The Citadel have found out the hard way.  When you recruit, you have to recruit cadets and make them players.  You can’t recruit players and make them cadets.

You have to bring in guys who are willing to embrace the challenge that is The Citadel. That’s what you’re selling, basically — a unique challenge, one that will stay with you all your life, along with a scholarship and the opportunity to play D-1 basketball.

It isn’t easy. No matter how good a salesman you are, The Citadel is never going to become the UCLA of the East.

The key to long-term success for any coach of any sport at The Citadel is to keep attrition low.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  You have to develop players over a four-year period.  It doesn’t do you any good to recruit some on-court stud if he’s only around for a year or two because he can’t handle the military system.

Also, remember to work with the system, not against it.  Don’t enable your players at the expense of the military side of things, as it will do you no good and will turn the corps of cadets (and a significant number of alumni) against you.  You need to have the corps on your side.

That line you had at the presser about players “taking that experience [of The Citadel’s military system] to the court” — that was solid, Chuck.  You at least talked a good game there.

—  Speaking of the corps of cadets, you need to confer with Leckonby and General Rosa and some of the cadet leadership to figure out how to make McAlister Field House a decided homecourt advantage again.  It wasn’t last season, and that’s a concern, because in the SoCon, you need to defend your homecourt.

The big problem is that league games are usually played on Thursdays and Saturdays.  On Saturday, the corps is generally on leave, and a leave that is both much-anticipated and much-needed.  On Thursday nights, you have a combination of things working against you, but I think you can work with the corps on that night.

See if you can arrange it so that a minimum of one-fourth (or at least one-fifth) of the corps is in attendance on Thursday nights, at least for SoCon games.  Saturday is a tough nut to crack; at the very least, make sure cadets stuck on campus are at the games.  Try to get cadets some rewards for supporting the team.

You have to understand, Chuck, that by and large cadets at The Citadel are not sports fans.  At Maryland, you could count on a large student body with a healthy number of hoops nuts.  You had a built-in student fan base.  That isn’t the case at The Citadel, with just over 2000 members of the corps of cadets, only a very small percentage of whom grew up following college basketball on any level.

—  That’s why, Chuck, you also need to reach out to the community.  In terms of selling the program to outsiders, you’re going to have to be a little bit more like your father, I think.  You’re competing with a lot of entertainment options, and Charleston is not really a sports town. However, it’s something you have to do.  The Citadel has one of the oldest fan bases in the league, if not the country.  You need to find some fresh blood.

— This is sort of an aside, Chuck, but I wanted to warn you in advance about Southern Conference officiating.  It can be, uh, inconsistent.  This is particularly true on Saturdays, when all the high-profile officials are working major-conference games.

Weekday games usually aren’t so bad, because there is sometimes a quality ref or two available for SoCon games. Saturdays, though, are often just short of an officiating debacle (actually, last season’s Davidson-Wofford game in Spartanburg was a debacle).

It’s just another reason why you need to have a good, boisterous crowd at McAlister for Saturday night games.

— Also, if you don’t mind, I would like for you to fix the uniforms.  The next time we break out new duds, please be sure that the lettering on them reads “The Citadel” and not “Citadel”.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, but still.  Get the name of the school right.  I bet General Grimsley would shake your hand if you made a point of correcting that, and it’s always good to be on the right side of the Grimmer.

—  Your predecessor, Ed Conroy, made a point of scheduling quality non-conference opposition, with occasional home games against the likes of Michigan State and Southern California.  I really liked this approach, and hope that you keep doing it.  You probably are going to have to play two or three “guarantee” games at a minimum every year, anyway.

With that in mind, Chuck, see if you can schedule games against Big 10 and/or SEC opponents.  Every Big 10 home game is televised on the Big Ten Network (BTN), and many of the SEC games are on one of the various ESPN platforms.  Even a game on ESPN3.com is worth it for The Citadel.

Last season the Bulldogs were on television a grand total of three times, once on ESPNU and twice on SportSouth.  To raise the profile of the program, and for recruiting purposes, I think it’s important to get on TV as much as possible. Besides, if we’re going to play elite teams to pay the bills, we might as well get something else out of it other than cash.

—  You are going to be in an unusual situation at The Citadel for a new coach, in that you will be inheriting a team that has the potential to be good next season.  I already mentioned Cameron Wells, but you have several other excellent players with whom to work.

At the press conference you mentioned that next season’s team could be “very special”.  I was interested in the way you described the number of returning starters. Instead of saying that “all five starters will be back,” you noted that (I’m paraphrasing slightly) “at the end of the season all five starters were coming back.”

There have been some rumblings that at least a couple of players are considering leaving the school, including two regulars in the rotation, so your first recruiting job is going to be trying to keep them from bolting.  It appears you are well aware of this, which is good.  I hope they stay, as if everyone comes back next season really could be special.

Despite the expectations for next year, you won’t really be under any pressure to win immediately, and can think long-term.  Ed Conroy left for a better job after four seasons.  The three coaches before him had a combined winning percentage of 41.2%, but despite that coached for 11 (Les Robinson), 7 (Randy Nesbit), and 14 (Pat Dennis) seasons at The Citadel.

The job isn’t a career-killer like it’s occasionally been made out to be.  Four of the last eight coaches, in fact, left to coach other Division I schools; one of them, Norm Sloan, would later win the national title.  Sloan and Robinson would actually coach two other D-1 schools after leaving The Citadel (counting Sloan’s two stops at Florida just once).

Congrats again for getting your first shot as a D-1 head coach, Coach Driesell.  Your opportunity comes at a place that is unusual and not for the faint of heart, but very special nonetheless.  Cherish the experience.

We’ll be rooting for you.

Sincerely,

SS

Urban Meyer’s easy decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

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

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

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

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

Some fast facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m just ready for kickoff.