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Tuesday Thoughts 11/8: Closing the Gap

In which we talk trees, Vermont, and luck

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Another day, another head-scratching loss.

Game Recap in Three Sentences

Typical of our recent matchups with Miami, this game featured several odd occurrences including a fumble return TD and a returned 2-point conversion.

Jahmyr Gibbs had another standout game with 67 rushing yards, 72 receiving yards, 98 return yards, and 2 total TDs.

The Miami passing game was on fire; QB Tyler Van Dyke threw for 389 yards and 3 TDs - 210 yards and 1 TD of which went to WR Charleston Rambo.

#404 Swag Champion of the Game

Jordan Mason. Gibbs gets a lot of the spotlight as the starter but we really can’t forget how good Mason has been historically and he reminded us of that with a 71 yard touchdown.

ATLeast We Ain’t Them of the Week

Stanford was absolutely throttled by Utah this weekend. The Utes amassed 441 total rushing yards on 9.6 yards per carry. At halftime the Cardinal had gained a grand total of 28 yards.

Above The Line of the Week

  • Jahmyr Gibbs, bless his soul. We might be winless without him.
  • Vermont breweries
  • We got a sack I guess?

Stat of the Week

If you take out Mason’s 71 yard touchdown then as a team we rushed for just 64 yards on 31 carries, or 2.1 yards per carry. That is abysmally bad. Obviously Mason’s run counts and that’s great, but we are still not good in the consistency department.

5 Star (7 Star, 5 Star) Developmental Program Haiku of the Week

Painful to watch games
People thought we’d make a bowl
Sad and depressing

Closing the Gap

I really don’t want to talk about the Miami game, but let me get a few things out of my system before we get into this week’s actual topic:

  • Giving up 563 total yards of offense is inexcusable and I’m actually going to be mad if someone isn’t fired at the end of this season.
  • Did we forget about all that work we did to cut down on penalties?
  • If we ever let a WR get over 200 yards again I’m going to blow a gasket.

Alright now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on.

There’s one thing Collins has been harping on in his recent press conferences that has been bugging me: “we are closing the gap”. Now, I don’t disagree with the assertion that we are generally improving; I think that’s true. What I do disagree with though is the notion that we are closing the gap between us and the rest of the conference. But Chris, aren’t those the same things? No, I don’t believe they are. Here’s how I think about it: “Improvement” means getting better at specific facets of the game (e.g. 231 passing yards/game this year is an improvement over 134 passing yards/game in 2019 - our strategy has been relatively consistent and we are generally finding more success in the air). “Closing the gap” means making large-scale advances as a program and increasing our ability to generally compete (e.g. going 1-5 against Duke from 2014-2019 but winning our last two in a row). Improvements are at a micro-scale, closing the gap is at a macro scale.

Yes we’ve been improving, but those improvements aren’t necessarily having a huge impact when it comes to winning games. They show up in the stat sheet but that’s about it. You can watch us play for a few minutes and think “wow, they look like they could be pretty good” and then check back in a couple hours and we’re down 21 to Syracuse. We’ve basically done a “I forced a bot to watch 10,000 hours of college football and then build a program” - it kinda has all the right components and looks okay sometimes but there’s something decidedly wrong and unnatural about it.

There’s been a lot of talk about how “unlucky” we’ve been this season with regards to things like injuries and penalty calls. That’s bull[styx]. I’m a firm believer in “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” in the long-term. Maybe you can be unlucky in one game but if you’re complaining about it after 3 straight losses in a losing season then luck isn’t the problem. To illustrate this, let’s talk about Post-Game Win Expectancy. You can find more details about this metric online but the gist is this: given the major statistics from a given game, how often could a team expect to win that game? In a lot of ways it can act as a proxy for luck. If a team wins a close game with just a 15% PGWE then it indicates they probably played poorly and were lucky to escape with a win. Here are our PGWEs so far this season (courtesy of Bill Connelly of ESPN):

NIU: 63.4% (expected margin: 2.9)

Kennesaw: 100% (expected margin: 35.0)

Clemson: 21.7% (expected margin: -6.6)

UNC: 87.8% (expected margin: 9.9)

Pittsburgh: 0.8% (expected margin: -20.5)

Duke: 67.6% (expected margin: 3.9)

Virginia: 18.7% (expected margin: -7.5)

Virginia Tech: 13.7% (expected margin: -9.3)

Miami: 1.0% (expected margin: -19.4)

Looking at this, we should expect to be 4-5 right now with wins against NIU, Kennesaw, UNC, and Duke. Whatever. What I want to point out here is how low these numbers are for Clemson, Virginia, VT, and Miami - our four “unlucky” close conference losses that supposedly indicated we’re “closing the gap”. Based on this though, that gap is as wide as ever. These numbers tell me that a second chance at any of those games would likely bring us to the same results. Not only do these numbers refute the “we’re unlucky” argument, they support the opposite: we’ve actually been kinda lucky. Getting two onside kicks against UVA in garbage time. Miami fumbling 3 times. A 2-point runback against Miami. These kinds of things are not reliable and consistent.

Here’s the kicker too: this is a down year in the ACC. Not only are we far from winning conference games, we’re far from winning conference games against competition below its normal standard. That sucks.

Looking at just the score lines could lead you to say “wow! They just missed a couple breaks in these close conference games!” but right under the surface is the more depressing truth: we’re a bad football team. Yeah, we’ve technically improved in 2021 but when you peel back the top layer you get the same losing football. So spare me the “we’re closing the gap” and “we’re so close” stuff. Here’s where I’m at: short of something miraculous happening like winning two of our final three games, I’m fully ready to call this season a failure. We used to be excited about the UNC win (they were ranked!) but now it’s clear that they’re also actually bad and were vastly overrated at the time. Are we gonna beat our chests about victories over Kennesaw and Duke? Are we gonna claim the moral victory of maybe almost beating Virginia? The cold truth is that we’ve done absolutely nothing impressive this season and that is alarming given how far into the Collins era we are. Put up or shut up.

Look Ahead

Up next is Boston College (11/13, 3:30pm). The Eagles have been all over the place; they started 4-0, then went 0-4 before righting the ship against VT last week. Star QB Jurkovec is back from injury though, so BC is now playing at full strength. They haven’t really looked great in any games they’ve played but they’re definitely still a big threat (remember last season’s 21 point loss?). This is one of those games that at the beginning of the year I would’ve said we have a great chance of winning. As the season has progressed I’ve gone back and forth on it; they’re definitely not good... but neither are we. Still, I think this game is hugely important for morale and fan engagement; this is likely our last chance to get a win this season. At an absolute bare minimum I think we have to play a good game in all three phases. We certainly can win, but I’ve said that so many times this season that it doesn’t really matter anymore.