I wish I had a great feeling about this year and could try to sell you guys on a 10 win season and an ACC championship. We might actually win the Coastal, but thats just a reflection of the fact that the Coastal appears to be a bunch of mediocre teams (yes... again). Even if we manage to pull that off, FSU will likely be waiting in the ACC Championship and that... well.... might not be as competitive as the 2012 version. To put it mildly.
I fear that 7 wins would be a really good year for this group. Just too many question marks and not enough areas of obvious strength.
But, let’s start with the optimistic stuff. And by that I mean Justin Thomas. The kid has talent. Of course, Vad Lee has talent. Talent doesn’t guarantee anything. But I have been saying pretty much since year one of the Paul Johnson era that this offense really is tailored for speed at QB. And to date, we’ve never really had it.
Nesbitt showed that power can be useful. Vad, at least in 2012, showed that being good, but not great, in all attributes as a runner could work as well. Tevin probably had underrated quickness and power, but still wasn’t terribly fast. Honestly I don’t know which of those three wins a race, or has the quickest first step. Probably Vad on both but its close.
Put Justin Thomas in the race and it isn’t close. He’ll be the fastest player on the field some weeks, and close to it pretty much every week. With the personnel we had in 2011 and 2012, teams generally preferred the QB to keep. This year, QB could easily be the runner the opponent fears the most. Laskey is consistent if not spectacular, and we have some talent at the A-back spot, but Thomas is the guy who can score on any play.
The changes Paul Johnson made to the old triple option are all speed based. The system we run is designed to hit as quickly as possible. We certainly aren’t trying to recruit 330 pound O-Linemen and just over power people. A guy like Thomas just makes it that much faster.
Of course, if he can’t make the reads and do the ball handling moves properly, the offense will be slow anyway and nothing will work. As we saw last year, the offense is still primarily mental even for a QB with great physical ability. But, if Thomas gets the execution figured out, he could be really, really good. Of course, it should be noted that we struggled with the triple option as a team last year, and Coach Johnson has made it pretty clear he feels that was because we were trying to do too much on offense. Read: the diamond, and the other Vad adjustments. So now we are going back to the basics and drilling the base plays. For what its worth, preseason indications are that we have gotten a lot better at that stuff.
The second, and arguably last... thing to be excited about is the second year in Roof’s scheme. I really liked what I saw last year from the defense. Overall, I would rate the unit about the same as 2012, but we had to replace almost the entire defensive line last year. Combine that with changing to a new scheme, and just staying the same (mediocre) was a pretty good result. Year 2 of the scheme should mean everybody executes better and faster.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of concerns for this year. Starting with both lines. The D-Line only returns one starter from a unit that was mediocre anyway (outside of Attaochu and sometimes Gotsis - thankfully Gotsis is the lone returning starter). The O-Line returns a decent number of starters (three out of five), but didn’t perform up to expectations last year. If you had to pick two areas to be question marks on a football team, the offensive and defensive lines are two of the worst. The only other “unit” that might be worse to have as a question mark is QB, and guess what - we do. I know I just got through singing Thomas’ praises, but for all his potential, he is still a question mark. He could be great. More likely, at least this year, he’ll show some growing pains. Hopefully the physical talent proves great enough to make plays even when the inevitable poor decisions happen.
Elsewhere, the A-backs and WRs need to develop playmakers. Godhigh will be missed. There are several A-backs who have flashed clear potential - I’m looking at you Snoddy, Andrews, Perkins and Zenon - actually thats just about the whole group. But they need to play more consistently. The WR’s may be a little better off. Smelter is probably our best skill position playmaker and I have a sneaking suspicion Waller may be about to break out - at least after his suspension finishes. The linebackers and secondary should be solid.
Upon final analysis, this team just feels like a team without enough weapons. On paper there is no reason to suspect the defense would be any better than mediocre. You figure a Paul Johnson offense is going to be at least pretty good. But good enough to carry this defense to 9 or 10 wins? If the O-Line plays like we thought it would last year, and Thomas learns quickly, maybe...
We haven’t had a season where we overachieved in several years. Lately we’ve been finding ways to lose winnable games and turn seemingly could-have-been really good years into bland ones. Maybe we are due. I’m just intrigued enough about Justin Thomas to be genuinely excited. But the bottom line remains that 7 wins probably means this team was pretty well coached.
Here is how I see the season unfolding, game by game.
Wofford - They have given Clemson and South Carolina reasonably tough games in the recent past, losing by only 10-17 points in both. But those Wofford teams were FCS national contenders. I don’t think this team is quite as good, and thus this should be the type of easy FCS win we have every year.
Tulane - Intriguing road matchup. They were an undersized but quick and tough defense a year ago. That type of defense has given us problems in the past. However, they only return 5 starters from this defense. Tulane’s talent has improved recently but still, this should be a comfortable win. However, a loss here would be less of an upset than 2010 Kansas or 2012 MTSU. So... this game is losable.
Georgia Southern - This game is less losable. I know they beat Florida. But that team was a dumpster fire by that point. And Ga. Southern only returns 9 starters anyway. Plus they have a new coach and will be putting in a new offense. I don’t expect them to be a bad team or a total pushover, but at home this should be a comfortable win.
Virginia Tech - Pretty much the same Hokie team we all know and love. Will be a great defense, and probably tailor made to stop what we do (see my post from last fall discussing Foster’s “GT defense”). Offensively, not much there to scare you. They were really bad last year and I don’t see much reason to think they’ll be any better. I wonder if what happened to Bobby Bowden his last few years isn’t happening to Beamer. Virginia Tech has still been good, but just not quite the same level the last couple years, although you wouldn’t know it from how we’ve played against them. But gone are the 10 win seasons. They’ve only won 15 the past two years combined. Still Blacksburg is always tough. Probably a loss although should be close, and we certainly have a chance at the upset.
Miami - Back at home, but against another team that has had our number recently. Miami returns 7 starters to a defense that really wasn’t that good. But the only real question mark on offense is at QB. The O-line was good and returns 3 starters. Everyone knows about Duke Johnson. The WR’s are excellent. But the QB is a freshman. Hopefully he’ll be inconsistent enough to make the offense one dimensional, and we can score 30+ again as we’ve done the past couple of years. That might be enough to get the win. Probably a toss up or maybe we are a slight underdog.
Duke - I know this isn’t fair to Duke, but really, they weren’t that good last year. A lot of smoke and mirrors. I expect no better than 4-4 in conference from them, and maybe worse. At home this should be a win. Cutcliffe deserves a lot of credit for making them relevant. They certainly aren’t the pushover they used to be, but we should be 10+ point favorites here.
UNC - Stop me if you’ve heard this before. UNC is supposed to be good this year. No really. Has there ever been a program with more advantages, that cheated this much, and had less to show for it. Trivia question - what have we done more since 1998, beat UNC or lose to UGA? Believe it or not, the answer is beat UNC. We’ve only lost to UNC twice. We’ve beaten UGA 4 times in that span. (Remarkably in 2008 somehow both happened, we lost to UNC and beat UGA). Truly shocking. You would think the law of averages should catch up to us at some point, because we haven’t been THAT much better than the Heels over that span. Not enough to justify a 14-2 record. Maybe this is the year. I’m still not sold on Fedora. Feels a lot like Tommy Bowden to me. Had 1 great year at a lower level school (Bowden unbeaten at Tulane, Fedora unbeaten at Southern Miss), came in with a lot of fanfare and hype, but ended up not being all that good. At any rate, the game is on the road and they are supposed to have talent. Surely they can’t take all that talent and be mediocre... right? Stop laughing. I guess this one is 50/50.
Pitt - Interesting road game, and probably a tough challenge. They only return five starters on defense, and thankfully one of them is not Aaron Donald. Did we even try to block that guy last year? Didn’t look like it. We should be able to move the ball, but supposedly they will have a good offense. Solid offensive line and one of the best WR’s in the country. Question marks at QB and running back though. Somehow that adds up to a good offense and makes them a “Coastal contender”. We are probably slight underdogs here, given that its on the road. But basically a toss up.
UVA - Last year we had a -4 turnover margin in the first half and still, somehow, led the game at half time. Supposedly they have recruited well and have better talent. I’ll believe Mike London can turn whatever talent they have into a good team when I see it. At home this should be a comfortable win.
NC State - I actually think Doeren may be a good coach. They were awful last year, but year two of a major rebuild is often a big step in the right direction. We will be catching a very young team late in the year when they might be finding their rhythm. Right now, even on the road, you have to figure we should be favored, but a lot can change in 8 or 9 games.
Clemson - I actually think Clemson’s offense will be pretty good still. Even without Watkins and Boyd. They could be very good. But the ACC has a wheel of destiny, and Atlanta has been Clemson’s Bermuda Triangle (unbeaten, highly ranked and favored Clemson teams came down I-85 and caught a smack in 2007 and 2011). So I won’t rule out an upset, but Clemson should be a clear favorite.
UGA - I’d love to try to conjure up some good reason we could pull an upset here. If everything I said above about how we might be better than I think ends up being true, then maybe. Even so we’d probably need Gurley to be injured and miss that game. I think next year we might have a shot, with a new QB for them, Gurley should be gone, who knows what their defense will be like in two years. This year odds are not in our favor.
So we ought to start 3-0 and then beat Duke, UVA and NC State. UNC and Pitt are probably toss ups. Miami maybe too, at home. VT is a probable loss on the road. Clemson and UGA are worse odds. I see 8-4 if we win all the ones we should and get an upset or two.