The One NFL Team You Don’t Want to See in January

Philip J. Pavely/USA Today

I’m going to start this article by posing a very simple question: who has the best point differential in the AFC?

Surely it has to be either the Patriots or the Steelers, the two owners of the conference’s best record at 12-3. Maybe it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who currently sit at 9-6 but have three shutouts to their name. Or it could be the Kansas City Chiefs, who struggled in the middle of the season but have responded with three straight victories, each by ten or more points.

If you guessed any one of those teams, you are a very reasonable person. You’re also wrong.

The best point differential in the AFC belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are currently 10-5 and locked into the third seed in the playoffs.

You may not take point differential all that seriously, as teams often score or give up points in garbage time that are completely meaningless to the outcome of the game. That being said, the Jaguars are second in the league in this category, and the winner of the Super Bowl in three of the last four seasons has also finished in the top two in the NFL in scoring margin. Following this logic, though, would mean that Jacksonville would go to the Super Bowl and play the Los Angeles Rams, in a scenario that may precede the apocalypse. But the Jaguars currently find themselves at the top of the conference in scoring margin right now and, perhaps more significantly, they own one of the league’s best defenses, which is particularly important when facing off against offenses like the Patriots and Steelers.

There are, as with any team without serious playoff experience, questions about how legitimate of a contender the Jaguars are. With Jacksonville, their concerns are exacerbated because their quarterback just so happens to be Blake Bortles, who, before this season, averaged 17 interceptions per year for each of his first three NFL seasons. Even when he does play well, he is perceived as not being good enough to lead his team to a championship or, worse, “trash”. While he does make some shockingly bad decisions and throws mind-numbing interceptions from time to time, he is having the best season of his career, as he has put up career highs in completion percentage, QBR, and passer rating, while also posting a career low for interceptions.

This is not to say that Bortles is necessarily a good NFL quarterback; after all, he is coming off a performance in which he threw three interceptions against the league’s 26th-best defense. However, NFL history has shown us that you can win a Super Bowl with less than stellar quarterback play, or quarterback play that starts the season slowly and comes alive at the right time. Here are just a few recent examples of teams winning the Super Bowl in spite of the man they had under center:

  • The 1970 Colts (Johnny Unitas/Earl Morrall)
  • The 1990 Giants (Jeff Hostetler)
  • The 2000 Ravens (Trent Dilfer)
  • The 2002 Buccaneers (Brad Johnson)
  • The 2015 Broncos (Peyton Manning, in his final season)

This shows that while having a great quarterback certainly helps your cause in trying to win a championship, it is hardly necessary for you to do so. What you do need, though, is a great defense. Luckily, the Jaguars have it.

Jacksonville currently owns the league’s third-best defense as measured by total yards allowed. The only teams who have fared better are the 12-3 Vikings and the Denver Broncos, who have started three different players at quarterback this season. The Jaguars also own the league’s best pass defense, and that is important considering the talent of quarterbacks the team could potentially face in the playoffs (Marcus Mariota, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, etc.). The weakness in Jacksonville’s defense is its ability to stop the run, as it ranks just 21st in the league in that category. But that run defense is not quite as much of a hindrance to their success because the team has defensive end Calais Campbell, who is second in the NFL in sacks with 14.5. Some have argued for Campbell as the league’s MVP, and that is a fairly ridiculous stretch, but the Jaguars’ front four is good enough to get to the quarterback on a regular basis.

Jacksonville’s secondary is also paramount to their success, as it has pulled down 21 interceptions to this point in the year, which is good for second in football. A.J. Bouye (who was signed in free agency from the Texans after last season), Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and Jalen Ramsey each have at least four picks, and Bouye is second in the league with six. If you’re throwing against this secondary, you should really have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into.

Even though I’ve told you all this about how great the Jaguars are, you are still wary of their ability to beat the Patriots and/or the Steelers, the two best teams in the AFC. The good news is that they already have played one of those teams, and the results were promising.

In week five, Jacksonville traveled to Pittsburgh to face off against the Steelers. In that game, they forced Ben Roethlisberger into throwing five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The game was what you would expect and hope for on paper from the Jags: Bortles threw for under 100 yards, running back Leonard Fournette rushed for nearly 200, and the Jaguars forced five turnovers and only had one giveaway. While Bortles would need to play better than that if the Jaguars want to beat Pittsburgh a second time, the early-October contest shows that the Jaguars can win a difficult game on the road if necessary.

Just a side note on that game: many recall that afterwards, the media was taken on a roller coaster ride because Roethlisberger openly speculated that he was in decline and said, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” This off-hand comment, likely intended as a joke, sparked fear and panic in Pittsburgh, as Roethlisberger, to that point in the year, had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Since then, however, the Steelers’ signal-caller has thrown 22 TDs and just seven picks while also completing nearly 66% of his passes. Everyone in Pittsburgh and around America has stopped wondering whether or not he still has it. He clearly does, and the chances of him throwing five interceptions against the same team twice in one season would appear to be low.

The road to the Super Bowl out of the AFC currently appears to revolve around the Patriots and the Steelers. But the Jacksonville Jaguars are perhaps better prepared to navigate that road than anyone, and they have put every team in the AFC, and the NFL, on notice.

The Steelers found out the hard way that the Jaguars are capable of beating anyone in the league on any given day. We’ll see if any other teams have to learn that lesson the hard way before the NFL playoffs are complete.

Why Are There So Many College Football Bowl Games?

Photo Credit: Otto Kissinger/Associated Press

The above picture contains two teams you probably wouldn’t be able to identify unless I told you who they were, a blue field, and several completely empty sections of bleachers. If the photo does not perfectly encapsulate what college football’s bowl season is all about, I don’t know what does.

If you aren’t quite familiar with how bowl season works, here is a brief explanation. All teams in Division I with records 6-6 or better are invited to play in a bowl game and there are 41 of those (42 if you count the national championship game). Occasionally, 5-7 teams are invited (like last year, when three such teams went to bowl season and won and this year, when North Texas and Mississippi State were selected). The really significant bowl games are the ones that comprise college football’s four-team playoff, but those don’t take place until New Year’s Eve. The winners of those two games move on to the National Championship Game on January 9th. Four other games combine with the playoff games to comprise the New Year’s Six, games played around the calendar change that are widely regarded as the marquee games of the bowl slate.

So, to recap: there are 82 teams that have played or will play in a bowl game this December or January. There are 42 bowls in total, but only three really count, and only four more comprise the best teams in the sport. So why are there so many of them?

Well, the simple answer to that question is money, as it is with most other things. Television networks, mainly ESPN, are willing to pay large sums of money to the NCAA for the rights to broadcast these games; the network(s) make up this money through advertising revenue and, in the Worldwide Leader’s case, revenue from cable subscriptions. The NCAA and its institutions profit handsomely from the broadcasting of the games as well as the bowls’ sponsorships (such as the Dollar General Bowl, which is on ESPN as I write this article). The players get paid in experience and exposure. The amateurism model is terrible. I digress.

Moving right past that, the bowl games are pretty much made for television. An illustration of that fact comes in the form of this tweet by ESPN’s Darren Rovell:

That game was played earlier this afternoon between Eastern Michigan and Old Dominion in a matchup you would be more likely to equate with a Round of 68 play-in game in college basketball. Those in the Bahamas for the game came out by the dozens to witness it. So while the network and the NCAA profit off the game, the empty seats don’t exactly look attractive to the viewing audience.

Also, the quality of play in these games is not that of elite college football. While some games are fun (Idaho defeated Colorado State last night by a score of 61-50 in the Idaho Potato Bowl) and others are competitive and enjoyable, most of these games are not played at the highest of levels.

And yet, interestingly enough, people seem to be consistently tuning in to watch these contests. According to SportsMediaWatch, all five bowl games carried by ESPN/ABC last Saturday drew over a million viewers. The two highest rated games were the Celebration Bowl, which pits the SWAC champion against the MEAC champion in a battle of HBCU schools, and the Las Vegas Bowl, a San Diego State victory over Houston. Both of these games took place on ABC and were televised consecutively in the afternoon, but the numbers still tell an interesting story: people seem to be enjoying the expansive spread of bowl games.

And while the games may not be played at the competitive level of, say, a playoff game, it is still major college football. After all, Americans have demonstrated time and again that they have little to no time for substandard football; the XFL and Arena Football League learned this lesson the hard way. However, people will watch if the product is even decent; if you build it, they will come.

NFL ratings dipped earlier in the season but they have now rebounded; my guess as to the reason for this half-season dip is that some Americans were more engrossed with this year’s Presidential Election, but it’s really anyone’s guess. However, the NFL product was simply not very good to start this season, and because of this, people tuned out and looked for other options.

Another thing that seemed to kill the NFL, though, was over-saturation. With games on Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and even Saturday, many seemed to be suffering from football burnout. That is the issue that college football may have with so many bowl games in such a limited amount of time; however, this is happening over the span of three weeks and not seventeen, unlike the NFL. It hasn’t seemed to hurt the sport yet, but it will be something to follow over the next few years.

And finally, we need to keep this in context: NFL ratings are so much higher than those of college football. The two bowls I referenced earlier pulled in a combined 6.455 million viewers. On September 26th, the same night as the first Presidential Debate, a Falcons-Saints matchup on Monday Night Football drew the lowest rating in the 46-year history of the series. The game failed ESPN so badly that it only pulled in…. roughly eight million viewers.

College football simply does not have this type of ratings power; their way of making up for this is by showcasing their product as often as humanly possible. If that is what works for the sport, then the volume of bowl games is good for the game. However, I do believe that the significance of making a bowl game is significantly watered down when you consider the amount of bowl games and the fact that so many bad teams have made it to bowl season that just this past April, the NCAA placed a three-year moratorium on the creation of even more bowl games. Yes, more bowl games.

Also, the relevance of these games has to be called into question when stars like LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey choose to sit out their teams’ contests for fear of injury and hurting their NFLdraft stock. If these games were more meaningful, the chances of McCaffrey and Fournette playing in them would exponentially increase (LSU is playing Louisville in the Citrus Bowl while Stanford plays North Carolina in the Sun Bowl).

This is the central point of the debate: college football, and specifically the NCAA and the broadcasters of the games, will make a ton of money off of college football this month. So while it may seem like over-saturation, the extended bowl season is likely a good thing for the sport. Lower-level programs get necessary exposure, coaches get attention, and recruits get to see more teams in action. The players don’t benefit, but that’s a debate for another time.

There may be a lot of bowl games in the next couple of weeks, but no one said you have to watch them. If you do, know what you’re getting into. If you don’t, know that there will still be plenty of opportunities to get in on the fun this holiday season.

Early Heisman Trophy Predictions for the 2015 College Football Season

We are closing in on 100 days left until the beginning of the college football season on September 5.  If you don’t believe me on that, you can simply find out how far we are away from week one here:

Until then, here is a (somewhat) early breakdown of the top candidates for the sport’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy:

5. Deshaun Watson (QB, Clemson)

Watson returns for his sophomore season after impressing with his running and throwing in somewhat limited action last season.  He missed three games in October last year with a broken bone in his hand, but he came back and played the last eight games of the season.  Also, he led the Tigers to a 35-17 defeat of in-state foe South Carolina, all the while playing with a torn ACL (!).  With returning talent at most of Clemson’s offensive skill positions, Watson has the potential to light up Death Valley in 2015.

4. Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Ohio State)

The hard-running power back for the Buckeyes comes back off of last year’s campaign in which he produced over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.  Four out of the five projected starters on the Buckeyes’ offensive line are upperclassmen, and all five linemen started on last year’s championship squad.  Also, the Bucks lost the best wide receiver off of last year’s team, Devin Smith. Crop top or not, look for Elliott to be in New York this December.

3. Dak Prescott (QB, Mississippi State)

With the returns of top wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson and star running back Josh Robinson, look for Prescott to expand on last year’s breakout season in which he threw for nearly 3,500 yards and ran for almost another thousand. Whether the defenses in the SEC West stand up to him or not remains to be seen, but I anticipate that Prescott will do even better than last year in unleashing a full Dak Attack on the college football world.

2. Trevone Boykin (QB, TCU)

Okay, so you probably know what is coming by this point, but let’s talk about Boykin first.  He threw for 3,901 yards and ran for another 700 in last year’s Playoff-worthy campaign that ended in a 42-3 drubbing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl.  With the return of top wide receivers Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee, and Deante’ Gray, as well as all (all!) of TCU’s line returning together, Boykin will rip it up in 2015.  Just not as much as the #1 player on the list, however…

1. Leonard Fournette (RB, LSU)

Fournette comes back to Baton Rouge after rushing for 1,000 yards last year and averaging 5.5 yards per carry in doing so.  The question mark here is that LSU has five all-new starters at offensive line and while they have looked solid in spring practice, it remains to be seen whether they can perform in the SEC. However, with the Baton Rouge Bears’ quarterback disaster situation being what it is, Fournette will get a lot of carries this year.  And I think he’ll win the Heisman Trophy.