USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
For three weeks in November, Boston College senior Andre Williams was college football's best back since Barry Sanders. This is not an exaggeration – though Williams' production as a senior was admittedly hard to believe, matched only by your own video-game success stories and Sanders himself, of course.
There's Sanders, way back in 1988, rolling off a three-game span for the ages: 312 yards on Kansas, 293 yards on Iowa State, 332 yards on Texas Tech, a Football Bowl Subdivision three-game record 937 yards altogether.
Then there's Williams, who rode this surge to a finalist spot in the Heisman Trophy voting: 295 yards against New Mexico State on Nov. 9, 339 yards against North Carolina State on Nov. 16 and 263 yards against Maryland on Nov. 23 – 897 yards altogether, and Manhattan here we come.
Alone, Williams' three-game output would have ranked the senior 69th nationally in rushing; all told, his 2,177 yards – making him the 16th 2,000-yard back in FBS history – came in first with a bullet. On an individual level, no one player may have been as vital to his team's push to the postseason.
But that's not entirely correct. Yeah, it's hard to imagine B.C. crawling to six wins without Williams; he did churn out 2,000 yards, after all. But these Eagles – Steve Addazio's dudes – are more about the scheme than the player, more about the identity than the individual and more about getting there, period, than about how they get there.
And so you've found the difference between Addazio and his immediate predecessor, who oversaw the Eagles' sad, tumbling fall to also-ran status in the Atlantic Coast Conference: Addazio's Boston College will always be about more than the sum of its parts.
Yet issues do remain, and let's place them firmly on the doorstep of the previous regime. B.C. is in a period of overhaul as a result of the lack of depth inherited by Addazio and his staff. The team is still reliant on major-conference transfers to bridge the gap, as evidenced by this year's starting quarterback. The Eagles are missing the middle class, in essence, with top-heavy upperclassmen joined by two recruiting classes – but little in the center, those third-year sophomores and juniors who provide a boost to every rotation.
So the Eagles might take a step back in 2014, mirroring Addazio's turn at Temple – he won nine games in his first year as Al Golden's replacement but slipped to four wins in 2012. If B.C. does slide, however, it would seem more like a one-year dip, not the beginning of a sour trend.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
This year's team will win four games, doubling last year's mark, but I'm struggling to find more than one in ACC play. What's the Eagles' safest bet? I'd say Wake Forest, though that comes early, before this group likely finds its groove under the new staff. Perhaps late-season games at Maryland and Syracuse hand BC a league victory. Anything other than 2-10 would mark a degree of progress. Actually, anything other than the previous regime would mark progress – so B.C. has already moved forward.
In a nutshell: The result was fantastic: Addazio won seven games and led the Eagles back into the postseason after inheriting a program beaten down and defeated by woeful mismanagement. That B.C. added a Heisman finalist to its list of accomplishments essentially made Addazio's debut a banner season. Well, that's not entirely true. The Eagles still rode the rollercoaster: B.C. won two in a row to start, lost two in a row, won one, lost two in a row, won four in a row – propelled by Williams – and lost its last two, including a 42-19 laugher at the hands of Arizona in bowl play. The Eagles were nonetheless fairly competitive throughout, giving both Florida State and Clemson a game and losing to Syracuse on a last-second touchdown, for example. It's hard to nitpick with Addazio's results as a first-year coach.
High point: Williams' push for the Heisman. You wouldn't think he could do it again … and then he would.
Low point: The bowl loss to Arizona. It didn't take the shine off Addazio's debut, but it wasn't the best way to enter the offseason. The moral of the story: Don't make Ka'Deem Carey upset.
Tidbit: Let's judge Addazio's impact in three crucial categories: sacks, turnovers and turnover margin. The Eagles ranked last in the FBS in 2012 with 6.0 sacks; that number leaped to 35.0 last fall, tied for 19th nationally. B.C. committed 17 turnovers, down seven from 2012 despite the added game, and was plus-three in turnover margin, tied for 42nd in the FBS. The Eagles' 2012 version finished tied for 91st with a minus-five turnover ratio.
Tidbit (240 yards edition): There were 21 240-yard rushing performances in the FBS in 2013. Of those 21, four belonged to Williams. Only two other players produced more than one 240-yard game: Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch and Colorado State's Kapri Bibbs had two.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Coaches with –dd in last name
1. Bobby Dodd (1945-66)
2. Roy Kidd (1964-2002)
3. Dick Biddle (1996-present)
4. Carroll Widdoes (1944-57)
5. Herman Riddick (1946-64)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Tyler Murphy's greatest asset is his elusiveness, that ability to either add a true running threat from the quarterback position or extend plays outside of the pocket – and within the framework of coordinator Ryan Day's offense, the latter is of significant importance. Murphy won the Eagles' starting job at the end of the spring, easily outpacing the competition, and stands to give B.C. a different look from the position: Murphy is not quite to Chase Rettig's level as a downfield passer – his arm strength is lacking – but he does have that mobility, and it'll be interesting to see how Day and Addazio blend that into the existing scheme. Three positives to consider: one, Murphy did start six games in the SEC last fall, which can't be discounted; two, he and Addazio have a very strong relationship, which likewise can't be overstated; and three, Day and B.C. will team Murphy with a rock-solid running game. The negatives are his lack of prototypical experience – just those six starts – and the questionable arm strength. But Murphy's a fine fit in an offense that doesn't roll through the quarterback.
How do you replace the most productive back in college football? With a team-wide approach, not a single back: B.C. will lead with sophomore Myles Willis (346 yards), last year's backup, but will also call on sophomore Tyler Rouse (125), junior Dave Dudek – who could end up at receiver – and three incoming freshmen, including four-star recruit Jonathan Hilliman. No one back is going to match Williams; as a team, however, the Eagles should come close. Note that the style and mentality won't change even if personnel will: Addazio and Day will run until the Eagles win or their legs fall off. Whichever comes first. I like Willis to have a 1,000-yard season.
The line loses two bookend starters but remains as experienced a group as you'll find in the ACC, thanks to a projected five-senior lineup. One is a newcomer: Ian Silberman came over from Florida – that Addazio pipeline – and quickly grabbed hold of the starting job at right tackle, replacing Ian White. Along the interior, B.C. returns left guard Bobby Vardaro, center Andy Galik and right guard Harris Williams. That leaves only left tackle, and I imagine senior Seth Betancourt – three career starts – will get first crack as Matt Patchan's replacement – and if not, B.C. can turn to junior Dave Bowen, sophomore Jim Cashman or shift Silberman to the blind side. That B.C. returns its interior is a clear positive for this running game.
Defense: It's time for a rebuild. The departed: Kaleb Ramsey, Jaryd Rudolph, Kasim Edebali and Dominic Appiah up front, with Ramsey and Edebali of particular importance, and Steele Divitto and Kevin Pierre-Louis, two multiple-year contributors at linebacker. As such, one can only wonder how B.C. plans on retooling its aggressive and productive pass rush. One thing to like about the returning cast is how several are multiple, such as end-tackle hybrids Brian Mihalik (27 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and Mehdi Abdesmad – the latter on pace for a breakthrough 2013 season before being lost for the year in September. The Eagles can build around this pair, perhaps using one on the outside, one in the middle, and add into the mix tackles Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel and ends Kevin Kavalec and Nick Lifka. You also have to think one or two incoming freshmen will play from the start, beginning with four-star end Harold Landry. Is this a good group? It could be, but it's unproven in the pass rush. That could change should Abdesmad pick up where he left off.
It could simply be a matter of promoting linebackers one step up the ladder to solve the gaps left on the second level. The one sure thing is junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles), the team's leading returning tackler and a lock for the weak side. Senior Sean Duggan seems like a logical answer for Divitto in the middle, though Mike Strizak has the size to move inside if need be – so does Daniels, but let's not go down that rabbit hole. I would bet that senior Josh Keys' strong offseason has him in place to supplant Pierre-Louis on the strong side, but can he come close to replicating his predecessor's ability to ravage plays in the backfield? And if the line doesn't deliver in the pass rush, how much of the pressure will be placed on the second level during clear passing downs? Again, the front seven has a plan; it's simply a matter of whether or not this personnel can deliver the goods.
It would be great if B.C. could return last year's line and replace last year's secondary … too bad. Here's the crux of the problem: This same cast, by and large, was given a strong front seven a season ago yet still allowed big play after big play; a year later, with a new group up front, you have no choice but to view the secondary as a weak link. At least there's experience. At safety, B.C. brings back seniors Sean Sylvia (68 tackles) and Dominique Williams (65 tackles), junior Justin Simmons and sophomore Matt Milano, a group that barely treaded water after Spencer Rositano's season-ending injury last October. Another quartet returns at cornerback: Manuel Asprilla (68 tackles), an aggressive back who fits the scheme; junior Bryce Jones, a 13-game starter last fall; and senior C.J. Jones and sophomore John Johnson, the projected reserves. At least three freshmen are pegged for the secondary, but I wouldn't count on any producing as rookies. I look at the secondary and see the potential for bad things.
Special teams: Kicker Nate Freese made every field goal of the last 16 games of his career. So he'll be missed, obviously, and doubly so for the fact he also handled the Eagles' punts and kickoffs. Junior Alex Howell will likely step in at punter, potentially grabbing kickoffs as well, but I imagine incoming freshman Mike Knoll will be given every opportunity to replace Freese at kicker. In the return game, B.C. relies on Willis and senior receiver Spiffy Evans.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: It would be nice if Addazio and Day could locate a receiver capable of stretching the field. Alas, no such option exists on the Eagles' roster. Instead, look for B.C. to continue pounding away up front until defenses creep forward – and this will happen – before deking defensive backs with the play-action pass. This is good and fine, but it only works one way: B.C. can open passing lanes with the run, but it can't open running lanes with the pass. What would help matters is an eligible Shakim Phillips, the former UConn transfer who must complete his degree before joining the Eagles. If he's in the fold, B.C. could conceivably trot out a dependable but limited rotation of Phillips, Evans, senior Bobby Swigert and juniors Dudek, Dan Crimmins and Harrison Jackson. To me, a healthy Swigert – he missed all of last season following a knee injury – could mean the difference; he's still a question mark, however. B.C. will likely need to cobble together some production from a handful of incoming freshmen while leaning on an entirely unknown cast of contributors at tight end.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Pittsburgh: For B.C., any charge back into the postseason demands a strong start to the regular season. Consider the meat of the ACC schedule, beginning on Oct. 18: Clemson, at Wake Forest, at Virginia Tech, Louisville, at Florida State, Syracuse. Notching two wins in six tries would be an achievement. As such, the Eagles must go at least 4-2 in the first half, with the key tilts coming against Pittsburgh, Colorado State and North Carolina State – giving USC the win on Sept. 13, even if that game comes in the friendly confines.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's not going to be easy for B.C. to make another run into the postseason, but it won't be for a lack of effort. Effort: Addazio's dudes have it. The Eagles also have a rock-solid identity born from this addiction to power football, not to mention the toughness inherent to such a mentality, and as such will make things difficult on even the most talented of opposition – as evidence by Florida State's tussle with the Eagles a season ago. B.C. is impossible to outwork and difficult to outmuscle, and if so never as a result of poor effort. There's something to admire about such a team. As was the case in 2013, it's entirely possible that Addazio rallies a group of underdogs and nets six or seven wins during the regular season. I don't think it happens, but it's possible.
There's too much to replace. Murphy brings another dimension to the running game but does not have the proven ability to stretch the field through the air. Even if he could, I question the Eagles' options at receiver; there's no game-changing talent out wide, though B.C. does have a collection of targets who can move the sticks – if little more. On defense, the changing makeup of the front seven highlights the concerns in the secondary. Even if the Eagles can stop the run – and we don't really know that yet – can the front provide enough push to take pressure off the defensive backfield? This specific team has a number of question marks that will remain unanswered until late August.
So I think it's a five-win season, maybe four if the offense sputters and the defense lags. But it feels different, no? Let's not allow last season to cloud a major factor: B.C. was left in bad shape. It'll take Addazio time to totally rehab the roster, in my opinion, and the fan base must be prepared for a slight step back in 2014 as he performs a top-to-bottom overhaul. The Eagles may reach the postseason – but probably won't. And that should only be painful in the short term.
Dream season: Boston College again exceeds expectations with an eight-win regular season.
Nightmare season: The Eagles do slide to 3-9, but it's not the end of the world.
Who's No. 80? One of this school's 10 residential facilities shares its name with an offensive skill player who went in the top 15 picks of the 1996 NFL draft.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014