Football, Column

In Down Year for ACC, Eagles Fail to Capitalize and Falter Late

On paper, everything Boston College football needed to make a serious conference championship push was there. The Eagles had 13 All-ACC selections and a stable of NFL Draft talent with an impressive array of depth at several positions. There was Zach Allen, one of the country’s best edge rushers, and Wyatt Ray holding down the defensive line. There was A.J. Dillon, one of the best running backs in the country and a potential Heisman winner. Chris Lindstrom was a calming force on the offensive line, while the secondary featured the ballhawking trio of Lukas Denis, Will Harris, and Hamp Cheevers.

Pair that assortment of talent with the fact that the rest of the ACC—outside of Clemson—wasn’t positioned to have great seasons, and BC suddenly seemed poised to have an outside shot at playing for the conference title. Instead, head coach Steve Addazio and the Eagles have now found themselves with an invitation to the Servpro First Responders Bowl and will play the day after Christmas—far from the prestigious New Year’s Six that BC had a conceivable path to.

Over the last decade-plus of ACC football, teams have taken turns having strong seasons, but one constant has been true—at least two of Clemson, Florida State, and Virginia Tech will find itself in the AP Poll for much of the season. With two of those teams in BC’s division, it’s often hard for the Eagles to make much noise in the Atlantic Division unless they’re awfully good. It’s no coincidence, then, that BC’s only two appearances in the conference championship—or a high finish in the division, for that matter—came when Clemson and FSU were enjoying uncharacteristically off seasons.

This season, then, set up well for the Eagles to enjoy their best conference season in quite some time as the Hokies and Seminoles entered the season with plenty of question marks. FSU, under new head coach Willie Taggart, was grappling with quarterback injuries and the departure of Jimbo Fisher the year prior. VTech, meanwhile, was dealing with the loss of most of the impact players on defense and its most reliable receivers. Pair those question marks with the unlikelihood of Miami replicating its surprisingly successful 2017 campaign, and it seemed that the Eagles suddenly had the potential to be the second-best team in the conference.

While that wouldn’t matter for a shot at the conference championship game—the Tigers were on a path to go unbeaten in the regular season the minute the ball was kicked off in their opener against Furman—BC still could merit a good AP ranking and maybe even a shot at a prestigious bowl, such as an at-large bid to a New Year’s Six or the Camping World Bowl.

Instead, with the traditional powers suffering off years, BC squandered a prime opportunity to make some noise in a conference that had dipped to fourth in Colley’s rankings—an independent rating system that was used in the BCS era—behind the likes of the SEC, Pac 12, Big 12, and Big Ten. The Eagles beat the Hokies and Hurricanes, two teams that had historically caused them trouble, but blew chances against North Carolina State and Florida State before limping to a blowout loss against Syracuse.

Head coach Steve Addazio was left looking for answers after his team dropped their final three games of the season.

Two years ago, the ACC was Colley’s highest-ranked conference, posting a combined 51-17 record and an impressive 10-4 mark against the SEC, then the second-best rated conference. That was with Clemson, FSU, and VTech all ranked within the Top 25 at the end of the season. BC, fittingly, was just 2-6 in conference play and finished sixth in the Atlantic. This year, with FSU and VTech combining to win 10 games in mediocre seasons, the Eagles had a schedule lined up where, quite possibly, they could go 7-1 in conference play.

Seem like too big of a jump for a team that ultimately finished an even 4-4 against ACC teams? At the start of the season, the Eagles were returning all of their key skill position players and the bulk of their defense (with talented backups stepping into the roles vacated). An improvement on last year was expected, especially after the second half surge last season. BC was scheduled to play Wake Forest, N.C. State, VTech, and FSU away from home, and Louisville, Miami, Clemson, and Syracuse at Alumni Stadium.

In two of those games—against the Demon Deacons and Cardinals—the Eagles entered as comfortable favorites. Wake Forest beat up on the Eagles last season, but that was with star quarterback John Wofford running all over them, and he’d since been lost to graduation. Louisville, under Bobby Petrino, was reeling entering the year after losing the glue of its program in Lamar Jackson—so it was practically circled as an automatic win.

Outside of Clemson, the other five games could all be argued as toss-ups. Beating the Hokies in Blacksburg is no easy task, but after watching VTech lose to Old Dominion, it was clear that the Eagles would have their best shot in years. The Wolfpack boasted a future NFL quarterback in Ryan Finley, but BC had come within a field goal of them last season, and that was with Anthony Brown hurt—and before N.C. State lost a bulk of its defense to the draft. Syracuse entered this year’s regular season finale having lost to BC by four touchdowns last year, the Hurricanes were a team many expected to regress, and nobody knew what to anticipate from Taggart in Tallahassee, but the Seminoles weren’t high on most people’s early projections.

Where did that leave BC? With a chance to finish with its best record in conference play in years and a shot at a second-place finish in the Atlantic that would merit a much more prolific bowl than seasons past (I’m talking about you, Pinstripe Bowl). So, how did Addazio and the Eagles take advantage of this chance? They replicated last year’s results, going an identical 7-5 and 4-4 in the conference, finishing fourth in the ACC Atlantic. The season wasn’t completely lost until the last stretch where, as two and five-point favorites respectively, they lost to FSU and Syracuse and dipped to fourth.

The 42-21 loss to Eric Dungey’s Orange was particularly painful, as BC ended the season on a three-game skid.

It was, quite simply, a profound disappointment and a testament to Addazio’s inability to make the right in-game decisions. His poor clock management and indecisiveness cost them a win in Tallahassee, his special teams unit couldn’t execute in the early going, and, once Anthony Brown went down against Clemson, Addazio didn’t give his backup a chance to succeed with an ineffective shift in offensive direction. He had a chance, especially after last year’s surge, to leave his mark on the conference and give the fanbase a reason to trust him. Instead, a softer schedule of opponents and the opportunity to enjoy at the very least a second-place finish in the Atlantic division passed both him and the Eagles by, resulting in a subpar bowl game and a profound lack of support among the BC student body and fans alike.

The Eagles were even positioned to have a chance to win the conference outright. It’s not a jump to say that, seeing as they a program record in All-ACC selections and have rarely had that many potential future professionals. It’s likely that five or more members of BC’s roster this year will end up on an NFL roster—whether that is through the draft or as an undrafted free agent. Five players haven’t been drafted from the Eagles since 1985, a year that saw Doug Flutie depart for the NFL. What did Addazio and his coaching staff do with that wealth of talent, unseen on campus for years? They limped to a seven-win season and will now play in an unheralded bowl game, a small consolation prize for what will surely be looked back on as a missed opportunity.

Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff and Mary Schwalm / AP Photo
Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor

December 3, 2018