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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 101: Boston College

There is a disconnect from reality. This is clear when listening to athletic director Gene DeFilippo, who says things like, “I’m really excited about the future of Boston College football,” and “[Frank Spaziani] is the best coach that we’ve had in the 15 years that we’ve been here,” and “our future here is very, very bright.” Anyone who has witnessed the Eagles’ rapid decline can attest otherwise: Boston College’s future — with the program and athletic department as currently constituted — is strikingly bleak; Spaziani may be the only coach DeFilippo has seen in each of his 15 years with the university, and he may be the best defensive coordinator B.C. has had since Tom O’Brien remade the program, but no, to call him the “best coach” since 1997 ignores our own two eyes and those helpful items called facts, which state otherwise. The reality of this situation is that everything that was done has been undone, everything that was achieved has been forgotten, and Boston College football as it was is no longer Boston College football as it is. Excited about the future? Please.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Nickname
Eagles

Returning starters
tk (tk offense, tk defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 62

2011 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 90

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Sept. 8
    Maine
  • Sept. 15
    at Northwestern
  • Sept. 29
    Clemson
  • Oct. 6
    at Army
  • Oct. 13
    at Florida St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 27
    Maryland
  • Nov. 3
    at Wake Forest
  • Nov. 10
    Notre Dame
  • Nov. 17
    Virginia Tech
  • Nov. 24
    at N.C. State

Last year’s prediction

There’s Kuechly, who is terrific, as well as a handful of blossoming underclassmen dotting the defensive line and the secondary. So what’s the problem? My biggest worry is with the face of the program: I’m not sure if Spaziani is up to the challenge of leading B.C. back to the forefront of the Atlantic division. A second worry: this schedule. The Eagles must start at least 4-1 if they plan on keeping this bowl streak alive, as the slate from Clemson on is extremely difficult. I think B.C. can do just that, but I don’t think this is much better than a .500 team.

2011 recap

In a nutshell For a good portion of last fall, it seemed as if Massachusetts would be the only team Boston College would beat all season. The Eagles did unseat the Minutemen, 45-17, but the win was sandwiched on either side by three losses. The first three were undeniably embarrassing — Northwestern, U.C.F. by 27 points and Duke — and probably came at the wrong time: B.C. needed a shot of confidence, and opening with three straight losses cut the season right down in its tracks. That the Eagles closed with three wins in five games does absolutely nothing to alter the fact that last fall was an outrageous disgrace for a program riding a run of 12 consecutive bowl berths. Also disgraceful: this offense. The Eagles gained less than 300 yards of offense in half of their games; failed to score 20 points against 9 of their 11 F.B.S. opponents; threw for more than 200 yards only twice, and not once after Sept. 17; and turned the ball over two or more times in six games. And before following the national script that says that this defense was again strong, consider this: Boston College finished eighth in the A.C.C. in total defense, 11th in pass defense and sixth in run defense. Just a bad, bad team.

High point The final three weeks of the season. The Eagles beat N.C. State, 14-10, on Nov. 12. A week later, the Eagles hung fairly tight with Notre Dame but lost, 16-14 — the score looks a little better thanks to a late, meaningless B.C. touchdown. In the season finale, the Eagles topped Miami (Fla.), 24-17. The win was only B.C.’s fifth all-time against the Hurricanes, against 23 losses, and the second on the road. I think you can remember the first.

Low point Choose any loss. It doesn’t matter. While the year had yet to fully run off the rails, my vote — in a tie — goes to U.C.F. and Duke. The Knights, who trounced the Eagles by 27 points, won four games on the year. Duke is Duke, and B.C. shouldn’t lose to Duke.

Tidbit Boston College has failed to score more than 28 points in any game against F.B.S. competition over the last two seasons. Prior to 2010, B.C. had not gone a full season without scoring 29 or more points against at least one F.B.S. foe since 1966, when the team failed to score more than 26 points in each of its 10 games. You could say the streak dated back to only 1979 — only 1979 — seeing that the Eagles’ high-water mark that fall, a 29-point showing, came against Holy Cross. But at the time, the Crusaders were a Division I program; Holy Cross wouldn’t move down a level until 1982.

Tidbit (Atlantic division edition) The Eagles’ poor season pushed them behind Clemson for the best A.C.C. record among Atlantic division teams since 2005. B.C. went 30-18 mark in A.C.C. play from 2005-10; Clemson was 28-20. But after going 6-2 — the league doesn’t count the A.C.C. title game towards the overall conference record — while B.C. went 3-5, the Tigers were able to surpass the Eagles: Clemson is now 34-22 over the last seven years in the A.C.C. while B.C. is 33-23.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 LB Alex Albright (Dallas), DE Ron Brace (New England), OT Anthony Castonzo (Indianapolis), OT Gosder Cherilus (Detroit), LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (St. Louis), LB Rob Francois (Green Bay), DT Antonio Garay (San Diego), QB Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), LB Mark Herzlich (New York Giants), LB Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants), C Dan Koppen (New England), LB Mark Kuechly (Carolina), FB James McCluskey (Oakland), TE Ryan Purvis (New York Giants), NT B.J. Raji (Green Bay), QB Matt Ryan (Atlanta), DE Darrik Scafe (San Diego), OG Chris Snee (New York Giants), C Matt Tennant (New Orleans), OT Jeremy Trueblood (Tampa Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

F.B.S. head coaches with a -z in their last name
1. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona.
2. Gene Chizik, Auburn.
3. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa.
4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern.
5. Hugh Freeze, Mississippi.

Coaching

Frank Spaziani (Penn State ’69), 19-19 after three seasons at Boston College’s full-time head coach. He must be commended for the job he did in his first season. The Eagles didn’t miss a beat despite the late change in the coaching staff and several off-field distractions, and won at least eight games for the ninth straight season. But the last two seasons have been disastrous, particularly in terms of the issues with Spaziani’s in-game and staff decisions, and the bloom is off this rose. Is he dedicated to this university? Yes, and that does separate him from each of his two predecessors. Has he shown any ability to lead B.C. into the A.C.C. title conversation? No, and that completely separates him from each of his two predecessors. While Spaziani had no head coach experience prior to his being hired in early 2009, he bought more than 30 years’ experience as an assistant on the F.B.S. level. The most significant period of his career has taken place at Boston College. His tenure with the Eagles began with a stretch as the team’s running backs coach from 1997 to 1998, when he was part of Tom O’Brien’s original staff. After that two-year stint – seasons in which B.C. combined to go 8-14 – Spaziani was promoted to defensive coordinator. Boston College reached bowl play in each of the following 11 seasons, only twice winning fewer than eight games and twice reaching double-digit wins. In addition to his extensive resume with the Eagles, Spaziani spent a combined 17 years as an assistant under George Welsh, first at Navy (1975-81), then Virginia (1982-91). Spaziani had likely achieved enough with the Eagles to deserve the head coaching job in 2007, which instead went to Jeff Jagodzinski. Two years later, he became the safest choice for the job. His ties to DeFillipo have cemented Spaziani’s job security, but he has done nothing to deserve the amount of confidence the university has in his ability to turn this thing around.

Players to watch

Once again, B.C. will have a new offensive coordinator. This makes four in two years, including two that served in the position last fall: Kevin Rogers was hired to replace Gary Tranquill, but health issues – or some issues – forced him to step aside in September; he was replaced by tight ends coach Dave Brock, who left the program over the winter. The new coordinator, Doug Martin, has been around the block, at East Carolina, Kent State and New Mexico State, and is likely the best hire B.C. could make under the circumstances – not many coaches would enlist under a head coach with questionable job security.

But Martin wanted back in, and in B.C. found a partner more than willing to give him the opportunity. His offense will greatly resemble the system run in Chestnut Hill by Steve Logan, Martin’s coaching mentor and, from 2007-8, the Eagles’ coordinator. This system will tend towards the pass but remain committed to the running game, perhaps lending some balance and explosiveness to an offense lacking in either category – particularly the latter – over the last three years.

The first beneficiary of Martin’s arrival is junior quarterback Chase Rettig. Of all the skill players present over the last two seasons, Rettig’s development has been the most stunted by the musical chairs at coordinator. He seemed to be gaining a degree of comfort late in his freshman season, when he started the last seven games of the year, but exhibited little progress last fall. As a sophomore, Rettig completed less than 50 percent of his attempts five times, threw at least one interception in six straight A.C.C. games and cracked the 200-yard mark only twice, against Northwestern and Duke.

Rettig needs to improve. In Martin, he has a coach capable of taking him to the next level. The ability is there, one would think, even if Rettig’s hot streaks have been buried under cold spell after cold spell. Based on the information on hand – what we’ve seen from Rettig and his former coaches – the question isn’t so much about the quarterback but the coaching; seeing that Martin is an upgrade over the triumvirate of Tranquill, Rogers and Brock, it stands to reason that Rettig will have the finest season of his career in 2012. One reason to pull back on the expectations: this is Rettig’s third system is as many years – four if we count high school – so there will be a learning curve.

B.C. knows which three receivers it’ll target in the passing game. By extension, the rest of the A.C.C. is also aware that when Rettig does drop back to pass, it’s highly probable that any attempted pass is going in the direction of senior Colin Larmond (34 receptions for 568 yards) or juniors Bobby Swigert (44 for 462) and Alex Amidon (20 for 220). The point: B.C. could afford to spread the ball around. The Eagles will in this offense, but outside of the top three, there is not much in the way of proven reliability. It’s time for at least one of several unproductive receivers to step into a larger role; doing so would help this passing game reach its full potential.

Johnathan Coleman, a junior with picture-perfect size – a bit of a rarity on this receiver corps – will be given every opportunity to break into the rotation. Likewise with redshirt freshman Brian Miller, who could also be used in a hybrid receiver-tight end role. Sophomore Spiffy Evans, who made some impact in the return game last fall, could also take on an increased role. Unfortunately, until B.C. adds depth it’s hard to see Martin’s offense running at full capacity – in the passing game, at least. The top three are fine targets, as is senior tight end Chris Pantale (21 catches for 236 yards), but they’re not striking fear into A.C.C. defensive backs. B.C. won’t move the ball via the big play – for the most part – so the offense needs to go six or seven deep at receiver and tight end. Coleman, Miller and others need to step up their games.

This year’s line, like last year’s group, is not the star-studded line of the program’s recent past. In addition, B.C. will undergo a transition on two fronts: with a new line coach, Jim Bollman, and in this new system, which will slightly tweak the Eagles’ blocking scheme. The good news is that after a tough start to last season, this line began rounding into form during A.C.C. play. In addition, the Eagles return four of last fall’s five starters and six linemen with adequate experience altogether. The line will be better. Will it be good enough?

Another question: Emmett Cleary or John Wetzel at left tackle? New summer, same question. The duo battled for the blind side spot a year ago, with Wetzel earning the starting role and Cleary starting at right tackle. The pair may shift spots as seniors, if the spring was any indication – Cleary was on the left, Wetzel on the right. The lone full-time starter who must be replaced is center Mark Spinney, though B.C. also lost swing guard Nathan Richman, who started two games as a senior. B.C. could either start sophomore Andy Gallik at center – he made three starts there last fall – or move right guard Ian White inside, though the latter option would leave the Eagles very thin at right guard. Sophomore Bobby Vardaro is back at left guard, so keeping White at guard and Gallik in the lineup likely gives B.C. its best starting five.

A few notes on this defense. Even with Luke Kuechly hitting everything that moved, last year’s group finished in the bottom half of the A.C.C. in run defense, pass defense, yards allowed per play, forced turnovers, tackles for loss, sacks – finishing last in the F.B.S. – third down defense and red zone defense. Last year’s defense landed a pass thanks to its reputation, the play of one sublime linebacker and the overall incompetence B.C. flashed on the offensive side of the ball. Last year’s defense was not good, whether you base that statement on objective comparison to the rest of the A.C.C. or against the program’s recent past of stinginess.

How does B.C. retool without Kuechly? Put another way, how does B.C. replace the greatest defensive player in school history? You don’t, and B.C. can’t. All the Eagles and defensive coordinator Bill McGovern can do is pass the baton to the next in line and hope that the defense, as a team, can replace Kuechly’s lost production. No one defender will fill his shoes; as a team, however, B.C. can lose a player of his caliber and still make a slight improvement on defense. Can the Eagles move back into the upper echelon of the A.C.C., let alone the top slice of the F.B.S.? No, I wouldn’t think so. But the defense could improve to the point where it makes things slightly more difficult for the opposition, which was rarely the case a year ago.

Kuechly’s replacement will be sophomore Sean Duggan (39 tackles), a three-game starter on the weak side as a rookie. He made those starts in place of junior Kevin Pierre-Louis (74 tackles), the team’s leading returning tackler. Pierre-Louis is one defender who must do more in 2012: beyond the tackles, Kuechly was also a major disrupter on third down and in coverage. Pierre-Louis, who has all-A.C.C. potential, and strong side linebacker Steele Devitto (72 tackles, 3.5 for loss), a returning starter, will flank Duggan. B.C. knows what Pierre-Louis and Devitto will bring to the table. McGovern and Spaziani also know what Duggan will bring to the table: 100 tackles, some nice athleticism, room for growth.

But… B.C. knows that there’s no Kuechly rising up through the ranks. This isn’t surprising. Nonetheless, replacing Kuechly won’t be as easy as replacing Montel Harris, which I’ll touch on below. It goes beyond numbers: it’s about losing your rock, your flag-bearing middle linebacker, your star and your leader, and even if Duggan has an all-conference sophomore season, there’s no ignoring the fact that B.C. will be without a linebacker – a player, perhaps – unparalleled in the program’s history.

Let’s step out of that negativity and focus on one major positive: Kaleb Ramsey is back at defensive tackle. Probably. Ramsey landed a hardship waiver from the N.C.A.A. that will allow him to play in 2012, but he was still limited during the spring following last September’s foot injury. If he’s healthy – and committed to giving 100 percent, or somewhere close to 100 percent – Ramsey can be an all-conference pick. If he’s healthy, B.C. can team Ramsey with senior Dillon Quinn (21 tackles) and promising sophomore Dominic Appiah (36 tackles, 6.5 for loss) to make up a strong interior of the line.

Ramsey’s play will be key. Strong interior play won’t only help keep the Eagles’ linebackers clean – a huge bonus with Duggan stepping into the lineup – but some added push along the middle of the line will help overall end play, which is a question mark heading into the summer. In addition to Kuechly, B.C. also lost end Max Holloway, the team’s most productive down lineman, a year early; unlike Kuechly, Holloway went undrafted. With junior Kasim Edebali (27 tackles) back on one side, the Eagles can turn to one of two sophomores, Brian Mihalik and Mehdi Abdesmad, in Holloway’s old spot. Mihalik and Abdesmad are more promising, but both could have used another year of seasoning.

It got ugly in the secondary last fall. B.C. held only five teams under 220 yards passing and none under 179 yards – and only Maryland, Massachusetts and Miami (Fla.) encountered much in the way of resistance. It’s almost hard to believe, but it’s true: Even with Kuechly gone, the secondary is this defense’s biggest concern. What B.C. needs is a slew of sophomores to play beyond their years, as the Eagles are poised to enter September with only one non-sophomore on the two-deep.

Cornerback is a major concern: there’s potential here, but nothing close to a sure thing. The group’s best is Al Louis-Jean (15 tackles), who flashed potential as a freshman but remains far from a finished product. Likewise with C.J. Jones and Manny Asprilla, two more sophomores thrust into substantial roles ahead of schedule a season ago. Without Donnie Fletcher steadily holding down the opposite side, one of the latter pair – or James McCaffrey, or Ameer Richardson, or Zach Wolfe – must take a huge step forward. The news isn’t much better at safety, though B.C. does return some starting experience in Jim Noel (30 tackles) – the lone senior in the mix – and Sean Sylvia. One surprising addition into the competition at free safety is sophomore Josh Keyes, a converted linebacker.

This isn’t your older brother’s defense. This isn’t your older brother’s defense even if you two are only separated by two years, or if he’s your twin, and you took two years off to backpack through Europe and find yourself before enrolling as a freshman. Vintage B.C. defenses – those that occurred under Spaziani’s watch, by and large – resembled brick walls: not overly flexible, not overly dynamic, but steadfast and true. This defense is a plastic bag: it may stop something, but usually by accident.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Spaziani’s decision to dismiss Montel Harris doesn’t greatly impact the Eagles’ bottom line, even if Harris was the most prolific rusher in program history. The offense might be better off turning the ball over to three or four younger backs less impacted by injuries, as was Harris – he missed all but two games of last season after suffering a knee injury against Wake Forest, and reaggravated that same knee in February, keeping him out of spring ball. For B.C., Harris’ dismissal is less tangible than that: It’s more about the symbol of losing one of best players in program history. His departure marked another dark day for the program; the dark days have been rapidly accumulating over the last three years.

No one back is going to step in replicate Harris’ production. But the three top backs can certainly combine for 1,700 yards, especially if the group includes a healthy junior Andre Williams (517 yards, 4 touchdowns). Considered to be Harris’ heir apparent as a freshman, Williams was one of several players limited by injuries during fall camp. If healthy, Williams will team with junior Rolandan Finch (705 yards) and sophomore Tahj Kimble (156 yards) to form the top threesome at the position. Finch can play, as well as carry the load: he had at least 18 carries in five A.C.C. games, including 39 carries for 243 yards in the win over Maryland. Despite Finch’s solid finish to last fall, I’d be surprised if B.C. does hand the running game over to one back – even if this has been the program’s preference over the last few years.

Game(s) to watch

The Eagles must beat Miami (Fla.) and Maryland at home. Conference wins won’t come easy for B.C., so the fact that both of these fellow rebuilding teams travel to Chestnut Hill make them must-win games if the Eagles plan of returning to bowl play. In terms of games that could derail the season, think the Hurricanes, Northwestern and Army. A 2-3 mark after the first Saturday of October could quickly turn into 2-5, which would could then thrust this team into a tailspin.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s been a steep slide down for Boston College: once an A.C.C. contender, then a pretender, now an afterthought. And make no mistake: B.C. is no more an A.C.C. title contender than is Duke, and like the Blue Devils, will need to turn over an entirely new leaf to reverse the losing and negative culture that has pervaded the program over the last two or three seasons. Everything has fallen apart. The offense lacks any punch. The defense has turned porous. The program lacks any sense of urgency. Consistency, once the bedrock of this program, for better or worse, has left the building. For more than a decade, you’d scramble for reasons why B.C. wouldn’t win at least eight games – you’d rack your brain thinking of reasons why the Eagles couldn’t maintain their pace. Today, you can’t think of one good reason why this team will do anything more than take another step back after last season’s step back, which followed a step back in 2010, which followed a step back in 2009. B.C. has another new offensive coordinator, even if I think Martin is the best one Spaziani has hired yet; lacks play-making skill players; has some issues along the offensive line, which is new; can’t get to the quarterback; has severe concerns in the secondary; and lost the finest defensive player in school history. There are serious issues here, but they pale in comparison to the issues plaguing the program as a whole. B.C. went stale a year ago; now the current leadership is well past its expiration date. It’s decision time for B.C., which can no longer plug along and pretend it’s not raining. It’s time for the university to make some changes.

Dream season Martin is the answer for this offense. The Eagles score 30 or more points seven times, each resulting in victory, and the defense improves to the point where B.C. can win two games where the offense fails to show up. B.C. wins nine games for the first time since 2008.

Nightmare season The loss to Miami doesn’t hurt as bad as the loss to Maine; the latter signals that B.C. has hit rock bottom, if the program isn’t there already. The Eagles rebound to beat Army and Maryland, but that’s it.

In case you were wondering

Where do Boston College fans congregate? There are two big recruiting sites, Eagle Insider and Eagle Action. You should also check out BC Interruption and Eagle in Atlanta, the two best Boston College blogs. And you can add Around the Res and Eagle Outsider to the mix.

Boston College’s all-name nominee WR Spiffy Evans.

Word Count

Through 24 teams 80,583.

Up Next

Who is No. 100? The mayor of the city housing tomorrow’s university has served seven terms in the position, not to mention 22 years in the state’s national guard.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Troy is next.

  2. Steve says:

    Two ACC schools in triple digits. Priceless, and why do these guys still have AQ status?

  3. 31southst says:

    Paul – thank you. If only the rest of the media had as much of a grasp as the disaster that is BC in its current state. My senior year was the 2007 season and to think how far we’ve fallen (we were #2 at one point that year) so fast is borderline unbelievable.

  4. Doug says:

    I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll say it again- there is not a single writer in the country who has a better perspective on the BC program (and how far it has fallen) than you Paul. I know for a fact that our AD would rather bury his head in the sand, but keep telling the truth and hopefully one of these days it breaks through. Excellent analysis.

  5. Justin says:

    Great article. Well written and well researched. You need to visit the best Boston College fan site which is eagleoutsider.com

    Paul: Adding to the list now. Thanks.

  6. Robert R. Hannan says:

    Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum have sucessfully dismantled years of hard labor by others to bring Boston College Athletics national respectability. The BC Football Program particularly, in its present state, is an absolute disgrace. My first clue the whhels were coming off: When Matt Ryan graduated and there was no quarterback on the shelf to relplace him.

  7. Jay says:

    Paul,

    This was a great piece. The sinkhole image was a real stinger, but not as much listing “LB Mark Kuechly (Carolina)” in the players in the pros section.

    C’mon!

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