The aptly named football analytics website FootballOutsiders.com ranks Division I college football teams by two efficiency ratings: “S&P+” and “FEI.” The former measures down-to-down efficiency and the latter decudes a team’s quality by the measuring the results of every team’s offensive and defensive series. The Clemson University Tigers grade out as the best team in the nation by each method, and in the site’s combined ranking (“F/+”), Clemson is still at the top. The distance between the Tigers and the University of Michigan, the third best team per this metric, is the same as the margin between Michigan and No. 15 Ohio State University.
Boston College, checking in at No. 58 in F/+, will be up a creek on Saturday. BC head coach Steve Addazio gets that.
“We have a tough one at Clemson, as you all know,” Addazio said Monday. “Without a doubt I’d say they’re the most talented team we’ve played this year.”
In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker titled “How David beats Goliath.” His premise was that Davids need to utilize high variance strategies and shift the contest at hand toward a favorable style for them to have a chance at slaying their Goliaths.
Chris Brown, Xs and Os guru of Grantland and smartfootball.com, listed four possible football applications of this premise: passing, reducing the length of the game and the total number of plays, high variance defense, and trick plays—both on offense and special teams.
The Eagles, 16-point underdogs for Saturday’s matchup against the Tigers, do not check the first box. Addazio said Monday that he will choose between Jeff Smith and Troy Flutie as a permanent starter going forward, but in all likelihood, neither will ignite BC’s struggling aerial attack.
The old football cliche that having two quarterbacks means you don’t have one may well be accurate. BC’s current situation cannot confirm that cliche’s validity because BC’s passing offense is not relatable to anything in modern football history.
That passing game could aid BC in shortening Saturday’s game, though. Addazio’s Eagles need no excuse to grind the clock down by using every page in the “run” chapter of the offensive playbook. But Goliath may swat away this tactic, too.
Per Football Outsiders, Clemson’s S&P+ rushing defense is, to date, the best in college football, potentially leading a lot of “three runs and out” possessions for BC. Instead of draining the clock, that would give the ball back to Clemson quarterback and Heisman trophy candidate DeShaun Watson.
BC’s defense is underestimated by no one, but it can definitely play like an underdog. Ranked third by S&P+, Don Brown’s unit excels at stopping the run and forcing offenses into third and long situations, where Brown’s front seven can confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. Such a sequence could lead to high variance outcomes like sacks and turnovers, of which BC could use many on Saturday.
That style has always been Brown and BC’s modus operandi, but the Eagles’ improved secondary this season has allowed Brown to deploy more man coverage, freeing up more defenders to stop the run and get after the quarterback.
“That’s our plan to win,” Addazio said. “We don’t make any bones about it. It starts with playing great defense [with] some younger players who we had to suffer with in the back end [last year] are now much more veteran players. They’ve played a bunch. And so it’s the strength of our team.”
If BC can generate a defensive touchdown or two, or at least generate deep field position for the offense a couple of times, the Eagles could have a shot, especially if those big plays come early in the game. That’s a lot of ifs, but throwing Brown’s kitchen sink at Clemson is the best way for BC to play like the “David” that it is.
Applying Brown’s final “David” strategy regarding special teams to Saturday’s matchup would mean abandoning much of what Addazio holds dear: conservative clock management at the end of halves and punting on fourth and short. There will be no good rationale for punting after BC crosses midfield at Memorial Stadium unless the offense is short of the sticks by double-digit yards, nor will there be for not attempting to push the ball into Tigers territory if BC gets the ball toward the end of the first half.
There’s a reason we know about David slaying Goliath: it wasn’t supposed to happen. If David came at Goliath 10 times, there’s no chance he would win every battle. There was only one battle, though. On Saturday in South Carolina, BC needs to catch Clemson off guard a few times and then hang on for 60 minutes. It probably won’t be enough, but the Eagles have to give themselves a chance to let off their slingshot.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor