Sports, Football

Five Burning Questions for the 2021 Eagles

As media members have sought to better explain the difficulty that new football coaching staffs face in reviving moribund teams and coaches hope to explain away their poor Year One results, a new term has cropped up to label especially hopeless teams under first-year coaches: Year Zero

On paper before last season, Boston College football head coach Jeff Hafley and his staff seemed like perfect candidates for the allowance that the Year Zero moniker provides. Overhauling the offensive identity? Check. Breaking in a new quarterback? Absolutely. Building depth on the heels of a staff who never recruited in the top 10 of the ACC? Certainly. Doing it in the middle of a pandemic with meager practice time and limited in-person interaction? Yes, yes, and yes. Steven Godfrey of “Banner Society” went so far as to list the Eagles as one of the “Year Negative–One schools” for 2020.

But 2020 did not look like a Year Negative One. It did not even look like a Year Zero. It looked like a bonafide Year One of an elite coach building a promising team to compete in the upper echelons of the ACC. 

Five years ago, college football–stat savant and then-SB Nation writer Bill Connelly analyzed how teams performed in relation to their preseason projections based on which year of a coach’s tenure they were in. Teams in Year One of a new coach underperformed their projections by an average of 7.2 places (Connelly uses his SP+ system to rank every FBS team) while second-year coaches overachieved by 12.2 places on average. 

The promise of that Year Two bump is encouraging for BC fans. If the Eagles outdo expectations like they did last year, then their considerably higher 2021 projections mixed with the boon of the Year Two bump should keep BC’s upward trajectory humming. 

On the other hand, expectations can be terrible, and you should never, ever set them. Bo Pelini went 9–4 in his first year at Nebraska in 2008 and proceeded to win either nine or 10 games every season for the next seven years. He was fired after the 2014 regular season in which the Huskers went 9–3. Look at Nebraska now. The school would probably erect a statue if a coach won nine games.

Still, because BC essentially matched the ceiling set by the previous regime in what was supposed to be a Year Zero, the expectations for Year Two and Year Three get a lot more confusing.

Let’s take a look at the five burning questions that will decide whether the Eagles take another step forward in 2021 or whether they act more like the Year Negative One program that they were supposed to be. 

Is the non-conference schedule really that bad?

There is no stronger argument for stricter college football scheduling practices than BC’s 2021 schedule. Although “gimme games” aren’t great entertainment, they are undoubtedly a good way to tune up for the season and spread much-needed exposure to the lower ranks of college football. But opening the season with Colgate and UMass? That bends the NCAA rule that teams can only count one FCS win toward bowl eligibility about as far as it can go.

The Minutemen have won just 11 games since becoming independent in 2016 and deciding that their future lies in traipsing around the country and handing out wins to whoever seems to want them. 

The third near-definite win on the Eagles’ out-of-conference slate is more understandable. Temple has repeatedly been one of the top Group of Five teams in the nation since Al Golden and former BC head coach Steve Addazio first brought them to prominence—though it’s in a rut at the moment after a 1–6 record last season. With both the Owls’ leading rusher and passer leaving Philly via the transfer portal, 2021 seems unlikely to hold much more promise. 

Can BC replicate its turnover margin success from a year ago?

Positive turnover margin is one of the factors most correlated with winning games. There are a handful of college football teams that have shown the ability to consistently dominate turnover margin year after year, which proves that, for the vast majority of programs, turnovers tend to regress to the mean. 

The only consistent way to skew the takeaway advantage is to rack up big leads and force opposing teams into desperate, long pass-happy game plans. 

Opposing teams’ fumbles had a knack for ending up in maroon and gold arms in 2020. Georgia Tech fumbled twice in its 48–27 blowout loss to the Eagles, and the ball went BC’s way both times. It was the same story against Notre Dame, who almost surely would have dealt the Eagles a steeper loss had three of their drives not been cut short by BC-recovered fumbles. Louisville may have eked out a win in Chestnut Hill had two of its three fumbles not resulted in turnovers, one of which came with the Cardinals in BC territory.

All in all, the Eagles recovered a shocking 12 fumbles last season, a mark that was good for second in the nation, and coughed up the ball just six times. Their overall turnover margin of +0.6 ranked among the top in FBS.

Hafley could be one of the select college football coaches who manages to stay in the turnover green year after year. His Ohio State defense finished 22nd in the nation in turnover margin in 2019. Still, in his second year at the helm, he doesn’t have the track record to suggest that the Eagles’ turnover luck has staying power. 

Can the offensive line turn experience into productivity this time around?

BC’s offensive line heads into the upcoming season with loads of talent and experience, and the unit has received plaudits as one of the top offensive lines in the country. 

As exciting as it is on paper that the Eagles face this situation in 2021, the 2020 team returned nearly as much production up front, and the results were dismal. BC averaged a meager 3.1 yards per rush on the season, good for 117th in the country. 

The pass blocking was only slightly better. While quarterback Phil Jurkovec often did his line few favors with his indecision in the pocket, the big men bore plenty of blame as well, as BC quarterbacks were sacked an average of 2.5 times per game in 2020, and Jurkovec was frequently sent scrambling for his life early in the play. 

The 2021 Eagles will be shuffling the line to one similar to the 2019 unit that helped the Eagles’ run game gnash opponents to the tune of 5.1 yards per carry. AJ Dillon bore the brunt of those carries, and nobody of his caliber is walking through the door for this team, but David Bailey was even more productive, and he proved last year that he is not a gamebreaker by any means. If the line can return to its 2019 form, even BC’s mediocre stable of backs can be very productive. 

Can the ACC regain some self-respect as a conference?

After Clemson knocked off Alabama 35–31 to claim the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship, Dabo Swinney spent ample time in his postgame press conference touting the merits of the entire ACC. 

“This is the best conference in college football,” Swinney said. “It’s the deepest, it’s the most competitive.” 

It was hard to argue with him then. An incredible 11 ACC teams won seven or more games that season, and the conference was headlined by the sparkling play of stars such as Lamar Jackson, Dalvin Cook, and Deshaun Watson. Historic programs such as Virginia Tech and Miami looked revitalized in their first year under new coaches. The ACC was on top.

Fast forward five years, and the ACC has established itself as one of the worst of the Power Five conferences. With Florida State entering year four of a prolonged rebuild, Virginia Tech sputtering, and Miami oscillating between tantalizing and infuriating, the ACC’s upper class has evaporated into a party of one. Connelly’s SP+ rating system has marked the ACC by far the worst of the Power Five conferences for the past three seasons. 

Practically every introductory science class uses the example of the Yellowstone deer population after the eradication of wolves from the park. The idea is simple. The presence of wolves in the park kept the deer population in check and ensured a balanced ecosystem. After the last wolf was killed in 1926, the deer population exploded and the overgrazing caused by the spike decimated other species. 

For the last couple years, BC and the rest of the ACC’s middle class has existed in a blissful, wolf-less world. Even prior cellar dwellers like Virginia and Syracuse have snuck out of the bushes and frolicked in the pastures.

But the wolves will come back eventually. Mike Norvell has FSU back in the top 10 of the recruiting rankings. North Carolina is turning into a juggernaut under Mack Brown, and Miami finally looks to be on the right track with Manny Diaz. Regardless of the trajectory that Hafley may have the Eagles on, the resources and recruiting bases of these schools simply put them on a higher plane.

This season may not turn out to be the year when BC fans have to add another team to the “sure loss” category of the schedule. Hopefully, BC can get another year of program building and a bevy of 50–50 games under its belt before another one of the ACC death stars is finally constructed. 

Can transfers buoy a depleted defense?

While it has become almost par for the course for newly hired coaches to smooth the early years of their tenure with a heap of transfers, Hafley has been outspoken in his belief that his staff will focus on high school–recruited athletes. Still, even Hafley made the call this year to dip into the transfer portal in an attempt to restock a defense beset by departures and injuries.

Jaiden Woodbey found himself at the heart of three of the weakest Florida State teams in decades during his time in Tallahassee, but his play was one of the few bright spots. As a freshman, Woodbey ranked as one of the top linebackers in the ACC in the run, missing just four percent of his attempted tackles, and Florida State finished as a top-20 rushing defense. 

Although Woodbey is listed at safety for the Eagles, he seems likely to spend time in the hybrid safety-linebacker role that he so adeptly filled at Florida State. With a BC rush defense that already struggled against the run in 2020 and then lost most of its key contributors, Woodbey’s ability to play close to the line could be critical. The fact that Woodbey was not one of the safeties selected to make the transition to linebacker is a testament to his versatility and ability against the pass as well.

The Eagles’ other transfer reinforcements will also play key roles in deciding the concerning fate of the 2020 BC rush defense. Isaiah Graham-Mobley earned the starting nod at middle linebacker for the Colgate game and brings a wealth of experience from his time at Temple. Fellow ex-Temple teammate Khris Banks will rotate in at the heart of the defensive line and attempt to help alleviate the gaping holes left by the departure of Luc Bequette and loss of Chibueze Onwuka to injury. 

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor 

September 1, 2021