With both spring practice and draft season getting underway, it’s a good time to check on some of the most interesting on-field college football offseason storylines so far in 2020. (The coronavirus has already started to impact college football, as programs like Ohio State, Michigan and TCU have already canceled their spring games.)
Jordan Love, top-10 pick?
It’s always jarring for a college football fan to follow the NFL draft evaluation process. That goes double when we’re talking about quarterbacks. You develop pretty detailed, favorable impressions of players like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, then watch a team draft Mitch Trubisky over both of them. You watch two years of insanely raw and volatile play from Josh Allen, then watch him get picked 10 spots ahead of surefire star safety Derwin James and 25 spots ahead of Heisman winner (and eventual league MVP) Lamar Jackson. You watch Daniel Jones alternate between clunkers and sporadically strong performances throughout a four-year career at Duke, then you watch him get drafted sixth overall.
(Jones finished 18th among qualified QBs in Total QBR in 2019, which is honestly pretty decent. Allen, however, finished 24th, Trubisky 28th. Jackson, Mahomes and Watson, far bigger stars in college with seemingly far higher ceilings, finished first, second and seventh.)
We can evidently count on NFL teams to overthink and overvalue at least one quarterback prospect every year, someone about whom the average informed college football fan would respond, “Uh, are you sure about that?”
It appeared at first we were devoid of such a prospect in 2020 — college fans aren’t going to push back on the idea of LSU’s Joe Burrow going first overall, and most would agree that Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert have, at worst, first-round potential.
February’s NFL combine, however, produced an Are You Sure About That? special after all. People watched former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love throw gorgeous spirals in shorts to uncovered receivers, and that was all it took. Now he’s a top-six prospect.
The Love evaluation in Sports Info Solutions’ 2020 SIS Football Rookie Handbook reads like everything you read about Allen two years ago: “Strengths: pure arm talent, ability outside the pocket, can throw from different arm slots. Weaknesses: decision-making, poise, working through progressions.” The physical potential is obvious. The ability to actually play the quarterback position at the highest level: less so.
To be fair to Love, he showed far more than Allen when it came to actual college production. But most of it came in the middle of the 2018 season, and he struggled just as much as Allen against power conference defenses. (In three games against P5s, he threw eight interceptions and produced just a 117.7 passer rating.) Still, his sophomore season in 2018 was, in terms of raw numbers, pretty comparable to Mahomes’ sophomore season at Texas Tech.
Everything went wrong for Love in 2019, however, and it’s worth exploring why
To some degree, Love’s numbers were guaranteed to regress in 2019. Love finished 44th in QBR in 2018, but he was utterly dominant against some of the Mountain West’s lesser defenses: against UNLV, New Mexico and San Jose State at home, he completed 73% of his passes for 14 touchdowns, no picks, and a 226.4 passer rating.
His passer rating in the other 10 games was a mortal 137.1, though, and that was with an otherworldly run game led by backs Darwin Thompson (now a Kansas City Chief) and Gerold Bright. He also had a senior-heavy line in front of him.
In 2019, Love lost Thompson, four starting linemen, and perhaps most importantly, his top four receiving targets. There was no way to avoid some level of regression, and that’s exactly what we saw.
While his completion rate fell only from 64% to 62%, his yards per completion fell from 13.4 to 11.7, his interception rate nearly tripled from 1.4% to 3.6%, and he plummeted to 88th in Total QBR. Eighty-eighth! And now he’s a top-10 pick?
Former Utah receiver Siaosi Mariner provided a nice stopgap in the receiving corps, but the rest of the unit struggled, which is perhaps evident when looking at Love’s 2018 and 2019 stats against man defense.
• Love vs. man coverage in 2018: 57% completion rate, 15.3 yards per completion, 2.5% INT rate, 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt
• Love vs. man coverage in 2019: 46% completion rate, 13.0 yards per completion, 3.2% INT rate, 5.6 adjusted yards per attempt
The best quarterback in the world can only do so much when he doesn’t have open receivers to throw to, and there’s no question the Utah State wideouts were not of the same standard. That should not be held against him. But what concerns me is what happened against zone defenses.
• Love vs. zone coverage in 2018: 56% completion rate, 12.8 yards per completion, 1.3% INT rate, 7.4 adjusted yards per attempt
• Love vs. zone coverage in 2019: 59% completion rate, 13.6 yards per completion, 4.7% INT rate, 6.9 adjusted yards per attempt
Against the zone, Love consistently forced the issue and got baited into mistakes, throwing 13 interceptions in 278 passes. Despite the fact Utah State receivers weren’t beating man coverage, opponents were more than content to drop into zone anyway because they weren’t afraid of the result — Love threw 64 fewer passes against man defense in 2019 and 161 more against zone. College defensive coordinators appeared to figure him out a bit, and if they did so, pro coordinators probably will too.
Getting drafted in the top 10 can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could be a signal of organizational commitment. Take Buffalo and Allen, for instance. The Bills spent most of the 2019 offseason figuring out how to fit the offense to his strengths and weaknesses, and, when paired with an awesome defense, it was enough to earn a playoff bid. Allen’s limitations remain obvious, but the Bills built a solid team around him nonetheless.
On the other hand, it can create expectations that get too high, too quickly. It could mean you are thrown into the deep end before you’re ready, a la Josh Rosen or, if you’re looking for a deep cut, Blaine Gabbert. Sometimes a guy could benefit significantly from a redshirt year of sorts, and when a team spends a top pick on him, he probably won’t get one.
Love has obvious potential, whether you’re watching him throw in a game or in shorts. But he also has some obvious bad habits that could become worse quickly if not well-managed, and while just about every pro coach thinks very highly of his own personal player development abilities, you can’t turn a guy into a top-10 prospect simply by drafting him in the top 10 and hoping that he becomes Patrick Mahomes.
Georgia: The most interesting spring team
I can’t say I pay close attention to spring football. I’ve fallen for the “he was the breakout star of the spring!” thing too many times, so I take a more broad approach, just monitoring injuries and following select position battles.
There are exceptions, however, and I have found myself following Georgia far more closely, and asking more questions about the Bulldogs, than virtually any other football team this spring.
The upside is obvious: Georgia enters 2020 with the deepest, most proven defense in the country, and head coach Kirby Smart has now out-recruited former mentor Nick Saban’s Alabama twice in three years. There are blue-chippers everywhere you look, and UGA is projected fourth in SP+.
With just a slightly different approach to efficiency and returning talent, however, ESPN’s FPI ranks the Dawgs just 10th, only one spot ahead of division rival Florida. And it’s not hard to see why a drop-off could be in the works: a disappointing offense has to replace nearly every known entity: quarterback Jake Fromm, running backs D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien, receiver Lawrence Cager, All-American lineman Andrew Thomas, etc., not to mention offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who’s now Arkansas’ head coach.
The unknowns replacing these guys, however, are both intriguing and pretty, well, known. And I have no idea how they’ll fit together. Granted, we won’t learn as much as we want to this spring, but consider me fascinated all the same.
• Wake Forest quarterback transfer Jamie Newman is a favorite of the Pro Football Focus folks — they ranked him third in the country among returning QBs this fall. He’s more INT-prone than Fromm (he had a 4.1% INT rate against man coverage in 2018-19 and a 2.0% rate against zone, compared to 1.7% and 1.0%, respectively, for Fromm), but he still completed 61% of his passes last year, and not even including sacks, he carried the ball nearly once every five snaps. He’s like a point guard with a high usage rate — he’s going to have the ball in his hands even more than the normal QB, and he will almost completely define the personality of this offense.
• New offensive coordinator Todd Monken has been around the block. The Knox College alum spent the 2010s first as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, then as Southern Miss’ head coach/exorcist, then as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. He’s likely to add some much-needed sophistication to the passing game, but when was the last time he had such a run-hungry QB? J.W. Walsh at Oklahoma State in 2012? How does he adapt to Newman’s skill set, and how does Newman adapt to Monken?
• New offensive line coach Matt Luke is dealing with turnover up front, but he has an absolute bounty of potential with which to work. By my count, there will be something around 11-12 former blue-chippers on the line, including freshmen, this fall. But about eight of them will be sophomores or younger. Can he coax reliability out of high-upside youngsters?
• Also, who the heck is catching passes? We know sophomore-to-be George Pickens is a star in the making — at least if he can keep his temper in check — but can Monken’s system unlock the still-mostly-theoretical potential of former blue-chipper Demetris Robertson? Can sophomore Dominick Blaylock thrive in the slot as it appears he might? Blaylock is still recovering from a torn ACL, so we won’t get any answers on him until fall camp. But how Monken deploys Robertson (and junior Matt Landers, and any number of youngsters) has my attention.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned new special-teams coach and former all-world Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran. While Dabo Swinney’s Clemson has beaten Alabama for the national title twice in four years, between recruiting and pilfering no one has done more to damage Saban’s infrastructure than Smart. We’ll see if he can eventually get past the Tide on the actual football field. The Dawgs head to Tuscaloosa in Week 3.
Proposed rules changes
There are big changes on the horizon in college sports. The NCAA is considering a proposal to allow one-time transfer waivers, giving football players (and those in other sports who don’t already have the waiver — basketball, baseball, and hockey) the option to change schools once without sitting out a year. That could introduce a massive change in the way coaches deploy their scholarship allotment. We could legitimately see schools signing fewer freshmen each winter in anticipation of filling at least a couple of needs with transfers in the spring.
That’s a pretty sizable change, and that says nothing of the really big change hovering in the distance: allowing student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness. Knowing how the NCAA operates, that change could happen anytime between this fall and about 2066.
While we wait for the big stuff, though, there appears there will at least be a few tweaks this fall. Let’s walk through them.
• Replay time limits. I’ve been yelling/whining for a one-minute time limit on replay reviews for years. I mean, if you can’t conclude anything after seeing each angle of the play a couple of times, that’s kind of the definition of “inconclusive,” right? Well apparently the rules committee will be asked to approve a two-minute limit, which … close enough.
• No more walk of shame. It adds insult to injury, so to speak, when a player ejected for targeting — especially for a clearly inadvertent offense — has to then get walked back to the locker room where he must stay the rest of the game. There’s a very punitive “go to your room and STAY there” aspect to the process. But the committee will also review a proposal to allow these players to remain on the sideline. (If you’re ejected for fighting, you still have to go to your room.)
• NUMBER ZERO! It’s also being proposed that only two players on the same team can wear the same number. (You can already have only one player with the number on the field at any one time, for obvious confusion-related reasons.) But the far more fun part of this proposal is that it appears there will be another single-digit number available: 0. I join everyone on College Football Twitter, begging that only 300-pounders be allowed to don the zero. I will start a petition if I need to.
• The Lynn Bowden Rule. Remember before last year’s Belk Bowl, when Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. got into a scuffle with seemingly half the Virginia Tech team in warm-ups — he even threw a punch! — but didn’t get ejected from the game because it was more than an hour before the contest, and officials didn’t have jurisdiction over the contest yet? That jurisdiction will now begin 90 minutes out.
* Independent UConn. OK, this is nothing new — we’ve known for a while UConn would be leaving the AAC and going independent in football (while joining the Big East in other sports) this year. I just wanted to be able to point out one last time that, if the AAC had been without the Huskies in 2019, it would have had a better average SP+ rating than the ACC. That probably won’t be the case in 2020, so we should observe and celebrate while we can. #Power6
Finally, Frank Gore vs. Peter Warrick
In case you missed it, my 2020 division-by-division preview series began a couple of weeks ago. Thus far, I’ve previewed the MAC East and MAC West.
As part of the preview process, I update the roster files I maintain for each team and add each team’s new signees. And I occasionally make some fun discoveries.
While there were plenty of amazing players on both the Florida State and Miami rosters at the turn of the century, we were deprived of a Peter Warrick vs. Frank Gore matchup — Warrick finished his career with a brilliant performance in 1999’s BCS title game, and Gore made his debut as the world’s greatest third-string running back on Miami’s 2001 title team. (Seriously, he averaged 9.1 yards per carry and scored five times in 63 touches that year.)
In 2020, we might see some wrongs righted. When Southern Miss hosts FAU on Oct. 10, the game could feature FAU freshman cornerback Peter Warrick Jr. attempting to tackle Southern Miss freshman running back Frank Gore Jr. (They might also redshirt and not face each other until future seasons, but allow me to dream.)