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ACC Week: Life on the Margins

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Little things that shape the game of inches.
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This owes a lot to Phil Steele, obviously, but also to a very short exchange I had with a fellow blogger last week about Wake Forest, a team I refused to admit was actually good last season, conference championship and BCS bid notwithstanding. "Junk offense," I said, "literally no running game by the end of the year," and he said, "That’s the point. They won anyway. You have to be good..."

In the short term, that’s true – every good team has to win games it doesn’t play to its usual standard, to demonstrate some degree of fortitude or deception or, god forbid we acknowledge the concept, straight luck to compensate for its lack of consistent execution. Usually, though, those substitutes even out: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. This week you get the bounce, the block; next week your kick sails wide. Win by the turnover, lose by the turnover, etc. but fundamentally, the level of play on a down-by-down basis varies very little, and at the end of the year, you’ve won a couple you probably shoulda lost, lost a couple you definitely shoulda won, and you’re square.

This is how it works most of the time, for Boston College and Georgia Tech, for instance, two teams that roughly broke even last year in their respective sets of close and evenly-played games. Their overall karmic neutrality doesn’t really interest my purpose here, though, because for them the big picture of wins and losses is ultimately a fairly good shorthand of how well those teams actually played in the micro, in the sense of executing and physically holding their own down-to-down, and how well the same players are likely to play in the future.


Rational, irrational, eh...it’s a bounce.
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This series of posts, on the other hand, is about the teams whose final records obscure the reality of the details – the "Irrationally Good," let’s call them, or the "Irrationally Bad."

DISCLAIMER: A win is a win is a win (is a win is a win) and can never be erased or rationalized away, and teams that commit turnovers and special teams errors are dirty little urchins who should be sent to the lockerroom with no dessert to wash out their playbooks. Victory trumps logic, history and justice 100 percent of the time.

It is, however, July. And in July, when concepts like victory are purely hypothetical, the only tool at our disposal for predictive purposes (since deep emotional hatred and unverifiable perception are not tools) is logic, however informal, inchoerent or inconsistent. The logic of this series, then, holds that teams disproportionately propelled to victory or defeat by the game’s big, unpredictable aberrations – mainly turnovers and special teams blunders that flip the field, and sometimes the scoreboard, in an instant – are unlikely to experience such aberrations in the same ratio (for or against) again and therefore are very likely to revert to the mean of their every-down performance. The goal is to identify those teams on their "real" level of play, as opposed to what’s suggested by their most recent record.

A quick key:

Final: Final score. Duh.
Total Yards: Difference in yards gained and yards allowed
First Downs: Difference in first downs gained and first downs allowed
TO Margin: Uh, turnover margin
"Cheap" points: Difference in points scored as the result of a safety, special teams or defensive touchdown or a short field (25 yards and in) and points allowed by the same means.
First, the inspiration:
Wake Forest in 'Swing' Games (6-0, 11-3 Overall)
Final Total Yds. 1st Dwns. TO Margin "Cheap" Pts.
Duke W, 14-13 - 75 - 10 0 -
at UConn W, 24-13 - 115 - 11 + 2 + 14
at NC State W, 25-23 - 68 - 8 + 1 + 2
at N. Carolina W, 24-17 - 81 - 3 + 3 + 7
Boston Coll. W, 21-14 - 50 - 9 + 1 -
Geo. Tech W, 9-6 + 20 - 2 + 2 -

Wake has to be the first 11-game winner to be actually outgained on average over the entire season (323-307). Duke drove 60-plus yards on its first possession and missed a field goal, then drove 60-plus yards on its last possession and had the winning kick blocked. UConn dominated statistically, completely shut down Wake’s offense (the Deacs had 209 total yards) but gave up two "cheap" touchdowns, on an 86-yard interception return and a one-play, six-yard drive after a last gasp fourth down attempt. The margin in the N.C. State win was a Wolfpack fumble that somehow rolled 20 yards into the end zone for a safety, but it also required each of three 50-plus-yard field goals by Sam Swank and a failed two-point conversion to tie in the dying minutes. North Carolina allowed a blocked punt in the first quarter and was looking for the tying touchdown at the Wake 12 with seconds remaining before being – surprise! It was Joe Dailey – intercepted. I don’t care to remember anything about the dreary field goal-fest that was the ACC Championship.

I watched Wake Forest last year, I’m looking at its performance in black and white, and I still refuse to believe that team was any good, and even more adamantly refuse to believe it has any hope of beginning to think about threatening a repeat. The collaboration of circumstance, turnovers and clutch kicking in that championship run is not sustainable. In fact, Wake is a textbook first-to-worst candidate regardless of personnel changes (which also happens to work against them, minus four of their best defensive starters) because the Deacs’ every-down play was still among the worst in the league, as it’s always been.

Though it still probably was not quite as bad as...

Maryland in 'Swing' Games (6-0, 9-4 Overall)
Final Total Yds. 1st Dwns. TO Margin "Cheap" Pts.
Fla. Int'l. W, 14-10 - 35 + 8 0 -
at Virginia W, 28-26 - 73 - 2 + 1 + 7
NC State W, 26-20 - 19 - 6 + 2 0 (Push)
Fla. State W, 27-24 - 235 - 9 + 1 + 7
at Clemson W, 13-12 - 93 + 2 - 1 -
Miami W, 14-13 - 62 - 12 + 2 -

There’s struggling with Florida International, and there’s beating Florida International with an interception inside your own ten with a few seconds to play, but the two other visits from the Sunshine State really stand out here: Florida State outgained Maryland by 235 yards, more than doubled up the Terps in total offense, held them to 37 yards the entire second half, and somehow, incredibly, with but a single turnover – on its first possession of the game at that – wound up losing on a missed field goal that would have tied with a few seconds left; and Miami forced UMD into seven three-and-outs on its last eight possessions, but gave up the two early bombs I linked to Wednesday to Darrius Heyward-Bey, two plays that accounted for nearly two-thirds of Maryland’s entire offensive production, and couldn’t overcome those lapses. Virginia blew a 20-7 lead in part by allowing a fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown and still could have tied on a late two-point conversion (the pass failed, obviously); the Terps finished 88th in total offense, 84th in total defense, and just a couple slots outside the final polls.

I also suggested yesterday Maryland might be better off in the transition from Sam Hollenbach to a more athletic quarterback, be it Jordan Steffy or Josh Portis, because Ralph Friegen’s offense thrived with the option threat his first three years here (30-plus points, all three seasons, down to 21 with Hollenbach and Joel Statham the last three years) and with Joe Hamilton at Georgia Tech. Last year’s ineffectual group did nothing well most of the time except avoid the big mistake and make good on its scant opportunities, but it can only prey on others’ misfortunes for so long before it has to start moving the ball again itself. If that doesn’t happen immediately, it’s back to the five-win purgatory of 2004-05, where by all rights it should have been last year.

Now, instead of dragging teams down, who’s passing them on the escalator up:

N.C. State in 'Swing' Games (2-5; 3-9 Overall)
Final Total Yds. 1st Dwns. TO Margin 'Cheap' Pts.
Akron L, 17-20 - 81 - 3 - 3 - 7
Boston Coll. W, 17-15 - 1 - 3 0 -
Florida State W, 24-20 - 5 + 3 + 1 -
Wake Forest L, 23-25 + 68 + 8 - 1 - 2
at Maryland L, 20-26 + 19 + 6 - 2 0 (Push)
at Virginia L, 7-14 + 34 - 4 - 1 -
at N. Carolina L, 9-23 + 81 + 4 - 3 - 7

Florida State and Boston College would probably rather argue the Pack were closer to going 1-11 than 8-4, and the loss to Akron – goalline controversy aside – wasn’t exactly an "unearned" loss according to the every-down play. But there’s a very good argument N.C. State was good enough to win three or four more games, be a very minor bowl team and possibly (not likely, but possibly) save Chuck Amato’s job. Very clearly, turnovers were the not-so-silent killer: the difference in the Wake Forest game, again, turned out to be the second quarter fumble- safety, Swank’s field goals and the blown two-point conversion; the final score at North Carolina was inflated by a late fumble return. Even with its yardage advantage, Akron doesn’t pull that upset without the benefit of those three turnovers.

The best salve for giveaways is a veteran quarterback, which adequately describes Daniel Evans after nine starts, though barely, if you want to quibble about it. I’m not sure how much coaches can actually correct problems like fumbling, which hurt N.C. State in obvious ways, but Boston College – which could have joined Maryland and Wake on this list as a team riding in on a "win bubble," if I really wanted it to – was plus-15 in turnovers last year, the only team in the league with a better number than Wake Forest, and was consistently on the plus side under Tom O’Brien, as was N.C. State under Amato when it was winning from 2000-04, the Rivers Years. If the new coach can get the Pack to take care of the ball, or if it just gets the bounces, however you want to look at it, the personnel is plenty competitive already.