From injuries to youth to bad luck and bad play, there were plenty of reasons Georgia Tech, Boston College, Wake Forest, Virginia and Syracuse missed the postseason in 2015. But odds are at least one of them will rebound this season. So, which of last year’s losing teams has the best shot to make a bowl in 2016? ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale debate.
Adelson says it’s Georgia Tech: When fellow ACC reporter Matt Fortuna was working on a post projecting the best-case/worst-case scenario for Georgia Tech last summer, I convinced him there was absolutely no way the Jackets would finish with a losing record. This program had become a shoo-in for a bowl game.
Make that near shoo-in. Oops.
But here I am, looking at the Jackets after a stunning 3-9 season ready to declare once again this team will make a bowl. Given the long track record of success (18 straight bowls before 2015), I am willing to chalk last season up to an aberration that won’t be repeated.
First, Justin Thomas is back at quarterback. And while it’s true he was the Jackets’ quarterback last season, he is going to have a better year in 2016. Why? Because I refuse to entertain the notion that the offensive line will be any worse than it was a year ago. And a year ago, it was the worst under Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech.
Second, the A-backs and B-backs will be better. Receivers, too. The Jackets already had a difficult task replacing their core group of skill players headed into 2015. It was made even tougher when one player after another went down with injuries. For example, B-back was handled by a graduate transfer, converted defensive back and true freshmen. Not ideal. And certainly not anywhere near what they had with Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days.
Third, the schedule eases up. The Jackets trade out Notre Dame for Vanderbilt in nonconference play. And they trade out Florida State for Boston College (although the Jackets DID beat the Seminoles a year ago). The open date is in the middle of the schedule. Last year, it was after nine straight games.
There are definite questions that needed to be answered. Chief among them is the secondary, where every starter is gone. There also needs to be much more production out of the defensive front, as the Jackets only had 14 sacks a year ago.
And on offense, much of my projection is predicated on the Jackets being a whole lot better on the offensive line. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be another long year.
Hale says it’s Virginia: Optimism at Virginia had been in short supply the last few years, as most fans understood when the schedule came out that the Cavaliers would face an uphill battle for bowl eligibility. Since 2013, Virginia has the sixth-worst record in the Power 5, and that downward spiral has been made all that much tougher because of two crucial facts.
The first is that UVA has played — at least according to win percentage — the fifth-hardest non-conference schedule of any Power 5 program during that span, with games against Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA, Boise State and BYU. The second is that Hoos have lost 13 games — more than any other Power 5 team — by 10 points or less in the past three seasons.
So here’s the good news: Both of those trends could change in 2016.
The schedule gets much easier this year, with winnable games against Richmond, Connecticut and Central Michigan (to go with a return trip to Oregon). UVA will also get some of its toughest ACC games at home, including Pitt, North Carolina, Louisville and Miami. And in this age of 40-plus bowl games, gaining eligibility is really just about having a manageable schedule (See: NC State, 8-0 in nonconference games, 0-18 vs. winning Power 5 schools).
But more exciting for Virginia fans is the arrival of Bronco Mendenhall — a coach with a long history of success, who is more than capable of turning some of those close losses into wins.
Virginia has some weapons for Mendenhall to work with on offense, where the Hoos return starting QB Matt Johns for what should be a more wide-open approach in 2016. Virginia’s defensive talent is high, with Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown, but the unit should be far more disciplined this season under Mendenhall.
A real turnaround at Virginia is probably still a few years away, but bowl eligibility isn’t a big leap forward for this program, and the addition of a couple more winnable games and a coaching staff ready to take the program in a new direction should be more than enough to make that happen.